Perspectives

Perspectives on MA Supplemental Benefits

January 23, 2020

Despite Medicare Advantage insurers’ enthusiasm for increased flexibility in allowable supplemental benefits and a slew of recent plan press releases touting goodies such as pest control and “Papa Pals” for the 2020 plan year, uptake of more “resource intensive” benefits geared toward seriously ill seniors remains relatively modest, according to a new report from the Duke Margolis Center for Health Policy.

Despite Medicare Advantage insurers’ enthusiasm for increased flexibility in allowable supplemental benefits and a slew of recent plan press releases touting goodies such as pest control and “Papa Pals” for the 2020 plan year, uptake of more “resource intensive” benefits geared toward seriously ill seniors remains relatively modest, according to a new report from the Duke Margolis Center for Health Policy.

The December report, “Improving Serious Illness Care in Medicare Advantage: New Regulatory Flexibility for Supplemental Benefits,” showed that a total of 507 standard MA plans in 2019 offered one of five types of benefits addressing serious illness, accounting for roughly 11% of the approximately 4,500 standard MA plans in 2019, AIS Health reported. By contrast, 377 in 2020 offered at least one of the five benefits highlighted in the report, while no plans in 2019 offered more than one of these benefits. But that drop was mainly driven by one major carrier abandoning its caregiver support benefit for 2020. Meanwhile, about 175 plans offered at least two of these types of these benefits, according to Robert Saunders, research director and one of the report’s authors.

Despite the decrease in caregiver support, which had the greatest initial uptake of the five benefit categories in 2019, researchers saw meaningful increases for 2020 in benefits such as adult day care and palliative care that “more directly address the needs of members with serious illness.”

The study also linked the PBP data to MA enrollment figures by plan and by county to assess the geographic impacts of the policy changes. For 2020, many parts of the country do not have any plans offering new supplemental benefits, and those aimed at serious care were likely to be offered in urban counties, said the report.

Barring any major disruption, 2021 will likely be the year of growth for new flexible benefits, as it takes plans a couple years to price, test and stand up ones that will have a lasting impact, adds Saunders.

Perspectives on UnitedHealth/Diplomat Deal

January 9, 2020

Diplomat Pharmacy, Inc., which has been in a tailspin amid mounting financial losses, agreed to a deal with UnitedHealth Group on Dec. 9 that will see the larger firm’s OptumRx division purchase the midsized specialty pharmacy provider/PBM, AIS Health reported.

Diplomat Pharmacy, Inc., which has been in a tailspin amid mounting financial losses, agreed to a deal with UnitedHealth Group on Dec. 9 that will see the larger firm’s OptumRx division purchase the midsized specialty pharmacy provider/PBM, AIS Health reported.

Diplomat’s difficulties began to come into focus earlier this year, when the firm disclosed customer losses in its PBM business and “increased competitive pressure in the specialty market.” In August, Diplomat said it was “reviewing strategic alternatives” to maximize shareholder value. Then on Dec. 9, UnitedHealth disclosed that it agreed to pay $4 per share for Diplomat’s outstanding stock and assume its debt. Equities analysts noted that Diplomat’s stock was trading at $5.81 as of market close on the Friday before the transaction was unveiled.

Adam Fein, Ph.D., CEO of Pembroke Consulting, Inc.’s Drug Channels Institute, says that “the specialty pharmacy market is reaching maturity, as PBMs and insurers dominate specialty drug dispensing channels.” Diplomat, he says, “was unable to navigate the industry’s evolution.”

“Diplomat’s sale at a bargain basement price signals that the shakeout is underway,” Fein adds. “Fewer new specialty pharmacies are starting up, the bigger companies are getting acquired, and market share is concentrating further with the biggest players.”

Ashraf Shehata, KPMG’s national sector leader for health care and life sciences, says that the purchase of Diplomat comes as the rivalry is intensifying between UnitedHealth and its two big consolidated rivals, CVS Health Corp. and Cigna Corp.

Now that those companies have completed major transactions to assemble their assets — with CVS buying health insurer Aetna and Cigna acquiring the PBM Express Scripts — “we’re kind of seeing what I call the second phase right now of the competition really heating up between the big players,” he says.

Growth continues to be the “name of the game” for those three companies, Shehata says, but it’s difficult to come by in an industry that’s already so consolidated. Because of that, “now you might see some growth on the edges” in the same vein as the UnitedHealth/Diplomat deal, he adds.

Perspectives on Dual Eligible SNPs

December 26, 2019

Through strategic acquisitions, product launches and geographic expansions, Medicare Advantage insurers across the U.S. are offering new Special Needs Plans (SNPs) aimed at improving the lives of members who are dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, AIS Health reported.

Through strategic acquisitions, product launches and geographic expansions, Medicare Advantage insurers across the U.S. are offering new Special Needs Plans (SNPs) aimed at improving the lives of members who are dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, AIS Health reported.

According to an analysis of the 2020 “landscape” files posted by CMS in September, Chicago health care consultancy Clear View Solutions, LLC, estimates that there are 171 net new SNP IDs, up from 60 net new plans in 2019. And 97 of those net new plans are dual eligible SNPs, compared with 47 D-SNPs that were introduced for 2019.

“I do think there is some ‘pent up energy’ from plans, and now that there is clarity with permanency and the requirements for integration, plans are ready to move forward,” Cheryl Phillips, M.D., CEO of the SNP Alliance, says in an email to AIS Health.

Phillips says plans may also be “working to better position themselves” for managed long-term services and supports, as states sharpen their focus on rebalancing their long-term care populations and shift more of the responsibility to managed care organizations.

A review of the new D-SNP offerings for 2020 indicates that larger players such as Anthem, Inc., Centene Corp., Humana Inc., Molina Healthcare, Inc. and UnitedHealthcare are leading the charge, but numerous plans have been introduced on a local level.

For instance, UCare, the largest provider of SNPs in Minnesota, said it is expanding its UCare Connect + Medicare plans to mirror the 62-county UCare Connect service area. And Priority Health is preparing to launch its first D-SNP, which will serve all 68 counties of Michigan’s lower peninsula.

Perspectives on Preferred Cost-Sharing Pharmacy Networks

December 12, 2019

In the Medicare Part D market in 2020, preferred cost-sharing pharmacy networks continue to be king. But because independent pharmacies often find themselves shut out of such arrangements, recently introduced legislation is seeking to change that dynamic.

In the Medicare Part D market in 2020, preferred cost-sharing pharmacy networks continue to be king. But because independent pharmacies often find themselves shut out of such arrangements, recently introduced legislation is seeking to change that dynamic.

“The Part D plans have fully adopted preferred networks over the last few years,” Adam Fein, Ph.D., president of Pembroke Consulting, Inc., and CEO of Drug Channels Institute, tells AIS Health. “The [retail] chains obviously have some different strategies but are looking for the foot traffic” that comes from offering lower cost sharing as part of a preferred network.

Meanwhile, many independent pharmacies and the pharmacy services administrative organizations (PSAOs) that represent them in negotiations with health plans are moving away from preferred Part D networks.

Fein says they “have concluded that the incremental traffic they’re going to get is not worth the profit they’re going to sacrifice.”

Ultimately, “I think the open question is, will this create access problems to preferred networks, and does CMS care?” he says.

The National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) isn’t counting on regulatory intervention. The organization is supporting a bill — introduced last month by U.S. Reps. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) — which would allow any pharmacy located in an underserved area to participate in a Part D preferred network as long as that pharmacy accepts the terms and conditions.

“We’re not asking for different terms and conditions, [or] higher reimbursement; we’re just asking to be able to see what the terms and conditions are to be in the preferred network and then make our best decision if we want to participate or not,” says Ronna Hauser, the president of policy and government affairs operations at NCPA.

The Pharmaceutical Care Management Association opposes the bill.

“The proposed any willing pharmacy provisions threaten the effectiveness of selective contracting with pharmacies as a tool for lowering costs,” says as statement from the PBM trade group.

Perspectives on Racial Bias in Optum Risk-Prediction Algorithm

November 28, 2019

To improve care for patients with the most complex health needs, many providers and payers turn to risk-prediction tools that use an algorithm to determine which patients need more intense care management. But a recent study, published in the journal Science, found that one such widely used algorithm exhibits significant racial bias by assigning black patients the same level of risk as white patients even when they are far sicker, AIS Health reported.

To improve care for patients with the most complex health needs, many providers and payers turn to risk-prediction tools that use an algorithm to determine which patients need more intense care management. But a recent study, published in the journal Science, found that one such widely used algorithm exhibits significant racial bias by assigning black patients the same level of risk as white patients even when they are far sicker, AIS Health reported.

This study garnered significant media attention, and at least one state’s regulators launched an investigation into UnitedHealth Group, whose Optum subsidiary sells Impact Pro, the data analytics program that researchers studied.

Brian Powers, M.D., one of the study’s authors and a researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says that “the algorithm did a great job of what it was specifically designed to do, which was predict future health care costs.” The problem is that the organizations deploying the tool often “use health care costs as a proxy for health care need,” he says, and black patients tend to cost the health system less because of a “lack of access to care due to structural inequalities, and a variety of other issues that have been well documented.” So while there is a correlation between high-risk patients and high health care spending, just looking at expenditures doesn’t paint a truly accurate picture of patients’ health care needs.

Rich Caruana, a Microsoft Corp. senior researcher who studies machine learning in health care, says he was “not at all surprised” to learn that researchers uncovered hidden bias in a predictive algorithm.

“Most of what machine learning is doing is right, but in addition to these things it’s doing really right, roughly 5% of what it’s learning are these sort of silly, wrong things,” he continues. “These are known as treatment effects — we’re seeing patients’ risk as more or less based on the treatment that they receive.”

Perspectives on How Drug Pricing Legislation Impacts Innovation

November 14, 2019

Many innovative new therapies are coming onto the market, but they also are launching with increasingly higher price tags, even as lawmakers and regulators launch a flurry of activity aimed at bringing down drug prices. Some industry experts caution that a few of the bills, if passed, could endanger the research and development efforts around these novel drugs, while others question that hypothesis, AIS Health reported.

Many innovative new therapies are coming onto the market, but they also are launching with increasingly higher price tags, even as lawmakers and regulators launch a flurry of activity aimed at bringing down drug prices. Some industry experts caution that a few of the bills, if passed, could endanger the research and development efforts around these novel drugs, while others question that hypothesis, AIS Health reported.

One of the proposals is the International Pricing Index, an effort by HHS to bring payments for Medicare Part B closer to what 16 other “developed economies” pay for these drugs. The Senate’s Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act of 2019 proposes multiple changes to Medicare Part B and Part D, as well as Medicaid. And the House’s Lower Drug Costs Now Act proposes, among other things, requiring HHS to negotiate the prices of up to 250 drugs in Medicare without competitors. Companies not coming to an agreement would be subject to financial penalties.

Drugmakers have vociferously pushed back on many of the proposals, with one of the arguments against them being that the efforts would have a chilling effect on pharma R&D.

“Empirical evidence” exists to support the idea that “lower spending on pharmaceuticals will lead to lower R&D spending and lower yield of innovative drugs,” says Elan Rubinstein, Pharm.D., principal at EB Rubinstein Associates. But “there isn’t enough evidence either way” to say whether “there aren’t policies besides spending that can impact innovation.”

“Additional patent protections and favorable tax treatment of R&D expenditures for drugs designated to treat ‘orphan’ indications appear have resulted in a large push among manufacturers and investors to bring those products to market,” he notes.

According to Lisa Kennedy, Ph.D., chief economist and managing principal at Innopiphany LLC, “the biopharmaceutical industry is responsible for approximately 70% of all innovation within health care. Price fixing of pharmaceuticals has been shown in several studies to have a knock-on effect on innovation.”

She also asserts that oncology, one of the most productive and exciting areas of innovation in the biopharmaceutical industry, could be hit particularly hard.