Trends That Matter

Trends That Matter for Large Employers in 2021

September 10, 2020

While the COVID-19 pandemic has not caused employers to significantly alter their health care cost estimates for the coming year, it has unquestionably intensified their interest in embracing virtual care. Those are just a couple of the major findings from the Business Group on Health’s 2021 Large Employers’ Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey, AIS Health reported.

Notably, 80% of respondents said they believe virtual health will play a significant role in how care is delivered in the future, up considerably from 64% last year. Further, when asked about actions they were taking to ease the burdens of COVID-19 for employees, the largest share of respondents — 76% — said they “made changes to allow for better access to virtual care solutions.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has not caused employers to significantly alter their health care cost estimates for the coming year, it has unquestionably intensified their interest in embracing virtual care. Those are just a couple of the major findings from the Business Group on Health’s 2021 Large Employers’ Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey, AIS Health reported.

Notably, 80% of respondents said they believe virtual health will play a significant role in how care is delivered in the future, up considerably from 64% last year. Further, when asked about actions they were taking to ease the burdens of COVID-19 for employees, the largest share of respondents — 76% — said they “made changes to allow for better access to virtual care solutions.”

During an Aug. 18 press briefing, Business Group on Health President and CEO Ellen Kelsay attributed such findings to not only telehealth’s ability to offer more convenience and greater access for consumers, but also to the sheer necessity of pivoting to a different care modality amid widespread stay-at-home orders.

Regarding the controversial issue of telehealth reimbursement, which payers generally want to be lower than in-person visits but providers want to be equal, Kelsay said her organization supports payment flexibility over parity. In some cases, that “might mean less reimbursement for telehealth, and in other instances maybe increased reimbursement for telehealth if it’s a better modality for delivery, depending on the situation,” she added.

Kelsay also emphasized that there are still more questions than answers about how the pandemic will affect health care costs for companies and their workers. For 2021, the Business Group on Health is projecting the total cost of health benefits will rise by 5.3% — slightly higher than the 5% trend it predicted in the past few years.

Trends That Matter for Prostate Cancer Treatments

August 27, 2020

Although poly ADP-ribose polymerase (PARP) inhibitors are not new to the market, two of them recently gained approval for use in prostate cancer for the first time. The therapies will bring a new option for the treatment of certain subpopulations of patients, AIS Health reported.

On May 19, the FDA expanded the label of AstraZeneca and Merck & Co., Inc.’s Lynparza (olaparib) to include the treatment of people with deleterious or suspected deleterious germline or somatic homologous recombination repair gene-mutated metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer who have progressed following treatment with Xtandi (enzalutamide) or Zytiga/Yonsa (abiraterone acetate).

Although poly ADP-ribose polymerase (PARP) inhibitors are not new to the market, two of them recently gained approval for use in prostate cancer for the first time. The therapies will bring a new option for the treatment of certain subpopulations of patients, AIS Health reported.

On May 19, the FDA expanded the label of AstraZeneca and Merck & Co., Inc.’s Lynparza (olaparib) to include the treatment of people with deleterious or suspected deleterious germline or somatic homologous recombination repair gene-mutated metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer who have progressed following treatment with Xtandi (enzalutamide) or Zytiga/Yonsa (abiraterone acetate).

On May 15, the FDA gave accelerated approval to Clovis Oncology, Inc.’s Rubraca (rucaparib) for the treatment of adults with a deleterious BRCA mutation (germline and/or somatic)-associated metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer who have been treated with androgen receptor-directed therapy and a taxane-based chemotherapy.

Two other PARP inhibitors — GSK’s Tesaro, Inc.’s Zejula (niraparib) and Pfizer Inc.’s Talzenna (talazoparib) — are on the market, and both are in clinical trials for prostate cancer.

The graphic below show how prostate cancer medications are covered among commercial health plans, health exchange programs, Medicare and Medicaid programs under the pharmacy benefit.

Trends That Matter for Major Insurers’ Performance Amid COVID-19

August 13, 2020

With COVID-19 cases and deaths surging in some U.S. states, it has become clear that the nation won’t be back to normal anytime soon. Still, the country’s largest health insurer is betting that health care utilization, and the costs associated with it, will return to something close to typical levels in the second half of the year, AIS Health reported.

With COVID-19 cases and deaths surging in some U.S. states, it has become clear that the nation won’t be back to normal anytime soon. Still, the country’s largest health insurer is betting that health care utilization, and the costs associated with it, will return to something close to typical levels in the second half of the year, AIS Health reported.

At its lowest point in April, inpatient care volume — including care for COVID-19 patients — was about three quarters less than normal, UnitedHealth Group Chief Financial Officer John Rex said during a July 15 conference call to discuss the company’s second-quarter earnings. At that same low point, utilization of outpatient and physician services fell to roughly 60% of normal levels. But in June, UnitedHealth saw inpatient volume recover to nearly 95% of baseline, and as June turned to July, outpatient and physician services were “tracking above 90%,” Rex said. “These national trends have continued thus far in July, even as certain states are seeing short-term deferral of services where there are elevated levels of infection and hospitalization,” he added.

Indeed, the company predicts that overall, “utilization’s going to come back during the second half of the year,” UnitedHealthcare CEO Dirk McMahon said.

In a note to investors, Citi analyst Ralph Giacobbe observed that the executives’ comments about health care utilization returning to normal were “surprising to us.”

“Ultimately we believe healthcare cost trends will remain muted, and as we look out over the next 12+ months we see those trends driving upside, and lower headline risk post-election driving multiples higher,” Giacobbe added.

Below shows the key financial data for leading health plans in the second quarter of 2020 and 2019.

Trends That Matter for Medicaid MCOs

July 30, 2020

Two recent reports found that Medicaid managed care plans now enroll most Medicaid members, help keep costs and premiums low in the markets where they participate, and are competitive with commercial plans at the low end of the individual market in areas including network quality and benefit design, AIS Health reported.

One white paper was prepared by consultancy The Menges Group for America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), and the other was authored by researchers at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and Urban Institute.

Two recent reports found that Medicaid managed care plans now enroll most Medicaid members, help keep costs and premiums low in the markets where they participate, and are competitive with commercial plans at the low end of the individual market in areas including network quality and benefit design, AIS Health reported.

One white paper was prepared by consultancy The Menges Group for America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), and the other was authored by researchers at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and Urban Institute.

The Menges Group-AHIP white paper, which had a national scope, found that Medicaid MCO enrollment increased by 121% between fiscal years 2010 and 2018, from 26 million to over 56 million members, and that as of 2018, more than 75% of all Medicaid enrollees are members of an MCO, up from 50% in 2010. The report also found that, since 2017, capitated payments to MCOs have exceeded fee-for-service expenditures.

The RWJF-Urban Institute paper, which relied on case study surveys in Arkansas, California, Florida, New York, Ohio, and Washington state, concluded that MCOs offer coverage that is at least as good as commercial plans in the low end of the Affordable Care Act individual market.

“Many [stakeholders] feel there are no longer major distinctions between Medicaid and commercial insurers in the marketplaces. Most interviewees have positive perceptions of Medicaid insurers, crediting their ability to increase choice and affordability in the individual health insurance market,” wrote the paper’s authors.

Trends That Matter for Racial Disparities in MA Plans

July 16, 2020

As protests erupt across the U.S. calling for racial justice and police reforms, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to bring to light many of the racial disparities in health care, putting pressure on policymakers and the industry to take a hard look at health and access inequities, AIS Health reported.

As protests erupt across the U.S. calling for racial justice and police reforms, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to bring to light many of the racial disparities in health care, putting pressure on policymakers and the industry to take a hard look at health and access inequities, AIS Health reported.

Meanwhile, CMS’s Office of Minority Research in April released a stratified report highlighting the racial and ethnic differences in health care experiences and care of Medicare Advantage (MA) enrollees. The data showed that black members enrolled in MA plans in 2018 received worse clinical care than white enrollees on 20 out of 44 measures, similar care for 20 and better care for four. And all minority populations reported experiences with care that were either worse than or similar to the experiences reported by white enrollees, including the experience measure for getting appointments and care quickly.

Not getting the proper care when it’s needed is a reflection of the provider network, says John Gorman, chairman and CEO of Nightingale Partners LLC. “And then when you look at the clinical measures where there’s huge racial disparities, all of those tie back to a lack of culturally competent physicians serving these populations in a manner that speaks to the way that they need to access health care,” he observes.

Trends That Matter for DMD Therapies

July 2, 2020

Since 2016, the FDA has approved a handful of therapies to treat Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). But some uncertainty exists over their effectiveness, in addition to concerns about their costs.

When DMD is suspected, a blood test that measures creatine kinase (CK) levels is performed. “CK is an enzyme found in abnormally high levels when muscle is damaged,” Mesfin Tegenu, R.Ph., president of PerformRx, LLC., tells AIS Health. “The detection of an elevated CK level leads to molecular genetic testing to confirm a definitive diagnosis of DMD.”

Since 2016, the FDA has approved a handful of therapies to treat Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). But some uncertainty exists over their effectiveness, in addition to concerns about their costs.

When DMD is suspected, a blood test that measures creatine kinase (CK) levels is performed. “CK is an enzyme found in abnormally high levels when muscle is damaged,” Mesfin Tegenu, R.Ph., president of PerformRx, LLC., tells AIS Health. “The detection of an elevated CK level leads to molecular genetic testing to confirm a definitive diagnosis of DMD.”

In February 2017, the FDA approved then-manufacturer Marathon Pharmaceuticals LLC’s Emflaza (deflazacort). The company said it would be priced at $89,000, which sparked outrage since people have been buying a generic version from overseas since the 1990s for about $1,000 per year. After the backlash, Marathon ultimately sold the drug to PTC Therapeutics Inc., which launched it later that year with a $35,000 annual price tag. Since then, PTC has raised the price to more than Marathon’s original one.

In September 2016, the FDA gave accelerated approval to Sarepta Therapeutics, Inc.’s Exondys 51 (eteplirsen). The dystrophin gene has 79 exons, and about 80% of people with DMD have genotypes that are amenable to exon skipping. Exondys 51 targets those with a mutation of the DMD gene that is amenable to exon 51 skipping.

Sarepta also has a second exon-skipping therapy, Vyondys 53 (golodirsen), which treats DMD in people with a mutation amenable to exon 53 skipping. The FDA gave the drug accelerated approval in December, almost four months after the agency rejected the drug through a complete response letter.

Both drugs are weight-based with similar prices: about $300,000 per year but up to $1 million annually.

“It’s unclear how much a health plan may spend on someone with DMD; however, a recent study from the Muscular Dystrophy Association found that the annual cost for DMD for U.S. society as a whole is around $362-$488 million dollars,” says Tegenu. “The price of the newer DMD therapies (Exondys 51 and Vyondys 53) are both estimated to cost approximately $750,000 per year for the treatment of one patient.”