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Resolution to Become an Educated Consumer of Healthcare

On January 14, 2021

By: Bryan M. Dunton

Many people use the beginning of a new year as a reason to better themselves physically and emotionally, often setting goals for themselves in the process. After the pandemic of 2020 altering everyone’s plans, there’s sure to be a renewed dedication to personal goals this year. When deciding what types of personal goals to accomplish, it is important to ask yourself why these specific things are so important to you. Why do you want this change? How will it help you emotionally or physically? What’s stopping you from achieving it and how can you move beyond those obstacles?

Year after year, one of the most prominent goals is to be healthier. Two Years Ago, for example, 28% of people resolved to lose weight, 54% wanted to eat healthier, and 59% wanted to exercise more. Certainly, these are great goals to set for yourself, especially in the wake of 2020, when many people were locked down in their homes for extended periods of time and many of our favorite activities were closed. Some employers have taken a very proactive approach in encouraging their employees to be active despite the conditions created by the pandemic. Over the summer and early fall of 2020, Phia Group employees participated in a three-month long virtual race from our Canton, MA headquarters to Progressive Field (CEO Adam Russo is a huge Cleveland sports fan) as a way to get teammates moving and have some cross-department fun while many worked remotely.

Employers can make a positive difference in the health and wellness of their employees by providing the tools to become educated consumers of healthcare. Here at the Phia Group, we encourage employees to be healthy and provide them with the information and tools to do so. This includes both mental wellness as well as physical health through services such as direct primary care. We believe in educating employees about being proactive in self-care and how it factors into cost-containment for their own health expenses and that of the health plan itself. Phia often holds informational meetings for employees to discuss existing and new services being offered to maximize our opportunities for quality care at an affordable price. We have found that providing that targeted education and promoting the atmosphere of being consumers of healthcare, has led to significant cost savings for the plan.

While resolving to lose weight, eat healthier, and exercise more are important goals in the effort to having a healthy new year, we should also resolve to be educated about out health and healthcare and in so doing become consumers in the healthcare industry.

As always, we are happy to discuss these and the multiple other programs we use to contain costs with any employer who seeks to introduce similar methods to their health plans.

With an eye towards the new year, there is a strong desire for most of us that it will be different than how 2020 turned out. We hope that you take time to set some achievable goals for your own personal health and self-care this year. Here’s to 2021!

The U&C Gap Keeps Rearing Its Ugly Head

On December 8, 2020

By: Jon Jablon, Esq.

There’s no question that most health plans can’t remain viable without a stop-loss policy in place. The plan and stop-loss carrier share a common goal, which of course is cost-containment. Since the two types of coverage provided are so different, however, the brand of cost-containment that each uses is often vastly different – and when two companies are trying to contain costs on the same claims, things can get ugly if they say different things.

Many stop-loss carriers have antiquated notions of what should constitute U&C. Common definitions include the old “usual charge in the area” language or some variation thereof, but many carriers have taken their policies into the modern age and use multiples of Medicare for their allowable amounts. In theory, this makes sense; just like a plan needs to determine what amounts are reasonable for it to pay for claims, so does a stop-loss carrier. However, plans should consider that their carrier’s idea of what is reasonable may not align with their own.

Admittedly, this is not the first time we have brought up this topic of so-called “gaps” in U&C language between a plan and a stop-loss carrier. That’s because this issue continues to be relevant, and what’s worse, payors are often surprised by stop-loss denials when they didn’t think they had any reason to worry.

The best example is when the plan is subject to a PPO contract, which most still are. The plan is contractually bound to pay the network rate, and cannot limit its payment based on a percent of Medicare or other factors; instead, it must pay providers the established contractual network rate. The stop-loss policy, however, doesn’t reference the PPO rate, instead saying that it will pay the lesser of (a) 200% of Medicare or (b) the usual charge in the area. Again – no mention of the PPO rate.

As is generally the case, and as is the impetus for the reference-based pricing boom, PPO discounts or DRG rates are far higher than what is considered reasonable by most payors, and are almost always higher than 200% of Medicare. The fact remains, however, that a plan subject to an applicable PPO agreement may be bound to pay those network rates, however unreasonable they may be considered. The carrier is not subject to the PPO agreement, however, and is free to disregard its terms – hence capping its own allowable based on Medicare or other factors.

So, what happens? The plan pays the network rate – billed charges less a meager percentage, usually – and the carrier adjudicates the claim without regard to the terms of the network contract, and allows its claim at 200% of Medicare. That leaves a hefty gap between what the carrier will reimburse and what the plan has paid – and in some instances the carrier’s opinion of the plan’s allowable amount may not even rise to the level of the specific deductible, rendering the claim denied in full since it hasn’t met the attachment point.

If this has never happened to you, good – but The Phia Group is in a prime position to have seen these issues pop up over and over again. In fact, one group even sued The Phia Group because the group’s stop-loss carrier denied a claim for this exact reason! It could be funny if it weren’t so sad.

Moral of the story? As we so often implore… read your contracts. Make sure you understand what your carrier is going to pay, and not pay, and how that aligns with the allowances in the SPD. It might surprise you what you find.

Feel free to contact us at PGCReferral@phiagroup.com if you’d like some assistance.

IP Law vs. Drug Prices

On May 20, 2019

By: Nick Bonds, Esq.

Pharmaceutical companies and rapidly rising drug prices have been eating up a lot of the oxygen in the conversation around hospital & healthcare costs. From pharmaceutical executives and PBMs testifying before Congress to President Trump’s May 9 remarks from the Roosevelt Room calling for Democrats and Republicans to unite in a legislative effort to end surprise medical bills.

But Congress and the White House are not alone in their endeavors to tamp down prescription drug costs, HHS Secretary Alex Azar and the CMS recently promulgated a new rule requiring pharmaceutical manufacturers to include the list prices of their drugs in their television ads. This push for transparency is the latest tactic in a multi-pronged strategy deployed by the Trump Administration to lower drug prices in the United States, including moves to change the system of rebates paid to PBMs and to restructure Medicare Part B.  Outraged drug manufacturers cried foul, arguing that patients almost never pay their list prices and disclosing them in their commercials would lead to customer confusion.

Perhaps one of the most interesting components of this CMS rule is its enforcement mechanism. Instead of the CMS itself going after drug manufacturers who fail to comply, the rule allows other manufacturers to pursue damages and injunctions against them for claims of false or misleading advertising under Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act. Also known as the Trademark Act of 1946, this federal law relies on a “likelihood of confusion” standard for adjudicating trademark disputes. The Lanham Act and its remedies have been refined over the last 70 years to combat the very customer confusion pharmaceutical companies insist this new CMS rule will cause.

Whether you agree with drug manufacturers or the CMS, it’s worth noting that this is not the only situation where the government has turned to intellectual property law as a versatile tool to lower drug costs. A bi-partisan group of Senators, including Republicans Chuck Grassley and John Cornyn along with Democratic Presidential Candidate Amy Klobuchar, are working together on a package of legislation targeting drug pricing issues which they hope to have ready by summer. Cornyn’s bill takes a machete to the “patent thickets” crafted by drug manufacturers to artificially extend the monopolies on high-value “blockbuster” drugs granted them by their patents. These patent thickets make it all but impossible for cheaper generic drugs to reach the market, keeping the price of name brand drugs higher for longer. Legislators are coming to see these patent thickets as an abuse of our patent system, a system intended to spur and reward innovation.

It may be too early to say how effective intellectual property law will be in lawmakers’ fight against high drug prices, but it certainly looks like a trend to keep our eyes on. At the very least, it shows that Democrats and Republicans are willing to get creative, using every weapon in their arsenal in their fights with Big Pharma. And they’re willing to reach across the aisle to do it. If you think your own healthcare may be overcharging you for prescriptions, contact us for a claim negotiation, today! 

HHS Proposes Drug Transparency Rules for TV Advertisements

On October 17, 2018

By: Patrick Ouellette, Esq.

In a move geared toward making drug prices more visible to consumers, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently released a proposed regulation that would force drug companies to include prices in their television advertisements of prescription drugs and biological products. HHS focused the proposal on drugs in which payment is available through or under Medicare or Medicaid to include the Wholesale Acquisition Cost (WAC, or “list price”) of that drug or biological product.

There are some drug price components of WAC to note, as WAC is generally the manufacturer’s price for drugs before the supplier of the product offers any rebates, discounts, allowances or other price concessions. True pricing involves a number of other variables to determine what the final drug costs are to patients beyond the WAC, such as what their insurance covers or whether their deductible has been met. These proposed regulations are also limited only to drugs covered under Medicare or Medicaid. However, it will be instructive in the long-term to see whether the inclusion of pricing in advertisements will actually lower final drug payments for patients. Similar to CMS requiring (starting in 2019) hospitals to make public a list of their standard charges via the Internet in a machine-readable format, there are no assurances that patients armed with new information will reduce final costs.

If these regulations prove to be successful, it will be interesting to see whether HHS would extend them to drugs payable by private insurers. In particular, HHS regulations could affect pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) rebates in the self-funded health plan space:

Because the list price of a drug does not reflect manufacturer rebates paid to a PBM, insurer, health plan, or government program, obscuring these discounts can shift costs to consumers in commercial health plans and Medicare beneficiaries. Many incentives in the current system reward higher list prices, all participants in the chain of distribution, e.g., manufacturers, wholesalers, pharmacy benefit managers, and even private insurers, gain as the list price of any given drug increases. These financial gains come at the expense of increased costs to patients and public payors, such as Medicare and Medicaid, which ultimately fall on the backs of American taxpayers.

Furthermore, consumers who have not met their deductible or are subject to coinsurance, pay based on the pharmacy list price, which is not reduced by the substantial drug manufacturer rebates paid to PBMs and health plans. As a result, the growth in list prices, and the widening gap between list and net prices, markedly increases consumer out-of-pocket spending, particularly for high-cost drugs not subject to negotiation.

Though the proposed regulations only affect companies in which their drugs covered by public payers, Medicare and Medicaid, all payers across healthcare should keep track of this initiative. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) has already argued that such rules would violate the First Amendment and not affect patient costs.

Communication Breakdown – More Lessons Learned from My Wife’s Battle Against Lymphoma

On October 1, 2018

By: Ron Peck, Esq.

For those who did not tune into the “Empowering Plans” podcast, wherein I revealed why I’ve been absent from other recent Phia Group podcasts and webinars, please do check it out.  In that recording, I describe my wife’s diagnosis (the specific type of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma she’s fighting), and early lessons learned through her diagnosis.  Key among them is the need for second (and even third opinions) to ensure the right diagnosis is ultimately achieved.  I implore plan sponsors to pay for – and advocate for – second (and third) opinions.  The funds expended on these opinions more than pay for themselves when we avoid unnecessary (and possibly dangerous) treatments for the wrong conditions.

The next lesson learned has been about and orbits around communication.  Communication is comprised of more than just what we say, but how we say it.  To effectively communicate, it’s necessary to put ourselves in the shoes of the ones with whom we’re communicating.  Empathy is the greatest Rosetta Stone.  With that in mind, my wife experienced a failure in communication not because the communicator was unclear, but rather, their focus, medium, and other elements missed the mark.

For instance, there were specific instructions she needed to follow to secure certain medications in accordance with rules set forth by the PBM.  Nothing was withheld, and the coverage is great – but only if the rules are obeyed.  The issue, however, was that the rules were communicated via US Mail (a/k/a “snail mail”).  I love my mail carrier as much as the next red blooded American, but – if we’re being empathetic – we need to accept that a cancer patient is likely falling behind on their mail, and are unlikely to rush to open a letter that doesn’t look like a bill.  To ensure the patient knows about the particulars of the program, we should notify them when the first dose is filled by notifying the pharmacist (so the message can be conveyed at the point of sale), and electronically (via phone call, text, e-mail, etc.). This is one silly little example of things we may not spot from the payer perspective, but as a patient, suddenly it’s clear.

Likewise, case management.  Again, the benefit plan attempts – in its estimation – to go above and beyond in its servicing of the patient, assigning a case manager to the patient’s case.  This person, the patient believes, is supposed to offer advice, act as a second set of eyes on proposed care, and generally look out for the patient’s best interest.  In our mind, that would include financial interests too, right?  Yet, when a conflict arose between the provider and plan representative, the case manager was quick to report to my wife – the patient – that the conflict was raging, claims would likely be denied, and she – the cancer patient – should encourage her oncologist (the person, the patient believes, that stands between her and certain death) to work with the plan.

Now, from the case manager’s perspective, they foresee the patient enduring financial hardship if the matter isn’t resolved, and they are trying to act preemptively to avoid it.  This is not a bad thing!  Yet, from the patient’s perspective, they are being dragged into matters of money – irrelevant and unimportant – compared to their own battle to survive.

Again, we need to step into the shoes of the patient and ask: “How would I feel if I received a call, threatening to deny my claims and saddle me with debt, unless I turn on my doctor and become their adversary on the plan’s behalf?”  We know this isn’t the purpose of the case manager’s efforts, but this is how the patient (and if we’re honest – even we) may interpret it during such a time of stress and grief.

Moreover, if the patient is enraged by this turn of events, they may take this “heads up” from the case manager to be a directive from the plan administrator – and suddenly the case manager is looking like a final, fiduciary decision maker.  I worry here, because we do not want this independent third party case manager to suddenly be a fiduciary, or impact the actual fiduciary, by “making decisions” on the plan’s behalf – without the plan’s authorization.

As my wife continues to battle cancer, my eyes continue to be opened as it relates to the patient perspective, and how they may interpret things we in the benefits industry often say without concern.  I look forward to continuing to share my observations with you.

In God We Trust; All Others Pay CASH…I wish…

On September 25, 2017
I love calling a provider before medical services are rendered to settle on financial terms, and I love it when they have a reasonable cash price ready for me – but it’s all too rare to get a reasonable price easily.  Usually, I need to wade through concepts and terminology like “regular rates,” “commercial contracts,” and “networks,” and excuses like “I’ll see what I can do,” “our clients don’t process claims that way,” and plenty more. It never ends.

I want to pay a cash lump-sum for a service you’ve provided hundreds (or thousands) of times, and you really can’t tell me the price?

However, with the steady emergence of more consumers being responsible for paying for their medical care (in the form of higher OOP) and perhaps continued provider frustration, more providers are now offering cash discounts (thanks to transparency pioneers like Surgery Center of Oklahoma). Consider these other examples:

[This clinic] does not accept any third-party payment and makes no apologies for this. In order to keep costs down for the uninsured and the increasing number of patients who have high copays and deductibles, we choose to not assume the massive overhead involved in billing third-party payers. This has the added benefit of eliminating bureaucratic hassles and intrusions into the doctor-patient relationship, ensuring confidentiality of patient information and keeping our typical charges usually between the costs of an oil change and a brake job.1

* * *    

[This health system] offers cash pricing for selected services. Cash-pricing packages must be paid in advance of receiving services. Insurance will not be billed and claim forms will not be provided. If you would like information on cash packages, please call …2  

* * *

Does [this hospital] offer a discount if I self-pay for services? [This hospital] offers a 75 percent discount on eligible services to patients who pay out of pocket for medical services — whether it’s because you don’t have insurance, your insurance doesn’t cover the services, or you’d prefer not to bill through your insurance provider.3

Swedish Health Services may have seen the writing on the wall when they decided to lower their charges for certain outpatient services (bear in mind these are ordinary charges, not cash rates). On their old billing platform, an MRI of the brain was billed at $6,143; the new billing is $1,810 (70% less).

In many ways, cash rates are a type of network unto themselves. Providers are basically saying, “If you can pay cash at the time of service, these are the rates, and they are good. If you want us to bill an insurer, have the claim repriced, pended, denied, re-coded, covered, denied, covered, we will bill you our much maligned chargemaster rates, and the claim will be paid with our equally maligned network rates.”   

We are truly only at the beginning of this trend, and it is difficult to assess how many providers are now offering cash rates and how many are publicizing that fact; offering cash rates can be viewed as a form of direct-to-consumer contracting.

The American Academy of Private Physicians estimates there are about 6,000 physicians in the US who contract directly with their patients without an intermediary. That is roughly 1% of physicians, but this number has reportedly been growing at a rate of 25% per year for the last four years 4, and despite the fact that this is decimal dust compared to the market at large, the trend is likely to continue.

All things considered, we need more providers to step up and post their cash prices for consumers to consider.  The providers who pioneer in this area will be rewarded with business from a large market that is getting increasingly desperate for honesty and transparency.

1 Sean Parnell, “The Self-Pay Patient”, January 2014, pg. 28
2 https://www.uclahealth.org/pages/patients/patient-services/cash-pricing.aspx
3 https://www.elcaminohospital.org/patients-visitors-guide/billing/faq
4 Sara Rosenbaum, “Additional Requirement for Charitable Hospitals: Final Rules on Community Health Needs Assessments and Financial Assistance”, http://healthaffairs.org/blog/2015/01/23/additional-requirements-for-charitable-hospitals-final-rules-on-community-health-needs-assessments-and-financial-assistance/ (January 23, 2015)

Reverse Medical Tourism

On July 31, 2017
By: Jen McCormick, Esq.

On the way home to Boston from a recent international family vacation, I had the pleasure of sitting next to a young gentleman.  He was very friendly and didn’t seem to mind a wiggly toddler so we started to chat.   He told me that he would be in Boston for a month with his father (who was also on the flight), because his father needed medical treatment.  He explained that the services his father needed were not available on the island, and his father’s health insurance would cover a small part of these services via ‘reverse medical tourism.’  The gentleman implied that the family would be covering the balance.  It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that US hospitals are likely enthusiastic to offer services to affluent international patients (maybe because they might pay the hospital at a higher rate than an insurance company).  

During the flight, the gentleman also wanted to know if he could ask me a few questions about where to go in Boston.  Of course I was ready and excited to tell him all the places to visit and see in Boston, but he instead pulled out a list of medical supplies that needed to be purchased (some for the trip and some to bring home).  The gentleman explained that he had been instructed to purchase these basic supplies to avoid having insurance pay for them and/or due to some of these items being difficult to locate (or too expensive) on the island.  

On a daily basis we work to ensure employers are aware of how they can stretch their budgets while still providing comprehensive benefits to their loyal employees.  One popular way is via international medical tourism.  My chat with this gentleman on my short flight home was a reminder that medical tourism works in a variety of ways - US patients are seeking services abroad to obtain services and care at more affordable rates, while at the same time the international patients are seeking services in the US because they can afford to self pay.

It’s Time for a Wake-Up Call!

On June 26, 2017
By: Jen McCormick, Esq.

Healthcare has received so much attention over the past 10 years. Everyone has something to say about its current form, how comprehensive it should be, or who should be have a role in providing the coverage.   The most contentious piece of the conversation, however, is cost.  Healthcare can be expensive – particularly if you don’t pay attention.  Guess what – it’s time to pay attention… This mean you employers!

As an employer, do you take steps to encourage employees to make smart choices when it comes to healthcare? Are they encouraged to select generics? Are they told to read and understand the benefits available to them? Are they aware of the incentives the employer may offer for making an informed choice? These incentives don’t have to be limited to the plan document either!  Consider having a staff meeting to review all the great benefits the plan offers, maybe poll the staff and see if the employees want to offer a certain benefit (i.e. acupuncture), or even have a quiz which asks questions about the benefits and rewards the highest scoring employee.  

Whatever the method – it’s time to do something different and get employees engaged at the outset (prior to receiving healthcare benefits)!

Full Billed Charges: A Question of Geography

On June 21, 2017
By: Jon Jablon, Esq.

It is increasingly common within the self-funded industry for medical providers to demand full billed charges for non-contracted claims. As we know, no one is actually required to pay full billed charges – but when push comes to shove, that tends to be the prevailing demand.

What about when the plan document limits payment at a percentage of Medicare? Say, 150%? The fiduciary has a duty to strictly abide by the terms of the plan document when making payments – and the definition of a non-contracted claim is that there is no contract to provide services at an agreed-upon price. Interestingly, though, and perhaps rendering it a misnomer, a non-contracted claim is still subject to two distinct contracts – an assignment of benefits, and the all-important plan document.

The plan document, of course, defines the Plan’s payment mechanisms and explains beneficiaries’ rights. When the plan document says that the Plan will pay $X, and the Plan does pay $X, the Plan has followed the terms of the plan document to a T. Or to an X, anyway. Let’s boil that down as simply as possible: X = X. What could be simpler than that?

Next, the assignment of benefits is an agreement between the patient and the provider. The patient says “I will transfer you all health plan benefits due to me ($X), and I promise that if $X does not compensate you fully, I will pay whatever balance you think makes sense.” In return, the medical provider promises to provide valuable medical services. We at The Phia Group have discussed the concept of assignments of benefits ad nauseum, and for good reason; this is the mechanism by which medical providers become beneficiaries of Plan benefits, and are due $X from the Plan.

Question: does an assignment of benefits give providers the right to receive full billed charges from the Plan, even though the Plan limits its benefits to an amount less than billed charges? There are a lot of moving parts in the self-funded industry, and this is yet another; the answer you may not have expected is maybe: it depends on the Plan’s geography.

Is the Plan domiciled in Fantasyland, home of laughable arguments, unexplainable oddities, and absurd logic? Then yes – billed charges will be due on every non-contracted claim, regardless of plan document language.

Or, is the Plan domiciled in Realityville, where general legal and market principles do exist, words have actual meaning, and hospitals and attorneys can be expected to be at least reasonably informed? If that’s where the Plan is, then no – of course an assignment of benefits doesn’t guarantee payment of full billed charges.

What are you, nuts?

The Rules of the Game are Still Changing

On June 1, 2017
By: Kelly Dempsey, Esq.

It’s clear the rules of the Health Care Reform game we’ve been playing for the last seven years are going to be changing.  If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard about the ongoing debates on Capitol Hill, you’ll be unaware of the fact that an ACA replacement bill is in the works.  There have been numerous articles recently on the impact the new bill would have on the amount of individuals in the United States that would lose coverage.  With the mainstream media focused on the full ACA replacement, you may have missed that another Executive Order associated with the ACA was issued.  

Before we get to what the Executive Order says, what is an Executive Order?  The power to issue Executive Orders is granted under Article II of the Constitution.  An Executive Order is directive from the President to certain identified federal agencies that the President oversees on how to direct their resources – in other words, the President is telling the agencies how to operate with the parameters of the applicable rules already in place.  These orders are published in the Federal Register, the same as the interim and final rules associated with the ACA.      

So what’s this new Executive Order you may have missed?  On May 4, 2017, the President issued an Executive Order related to the ACA’s contraceptive coverage mandate.  The Executive Order directs the agencies involved in issued ACA regulations (the Department of Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Internal Revenue Service) to re-examine and consider amending the ACA’s preventive service regulations “to address conscience-based objections” to the contraceptive coverage mandate.  HHS issued a statement in response welcoming the opportunity to re-examine the preventive services mandate to help safeguard deeply held religious beliefs.    

We’ve already seen multiple challenges, specifically to the contraceptive coverage portion of the preventive services mandate, heard in front of the various courts, including the Supreme Court of the United States.  As a result of these cases accommodations were made to “pardon” certain entities from complying with the contraceptive coverage piece of the preventive services mandates.  With this new Executive Order, it appears the rules of this game may change again, but it’s still unclear what will be changing.  As always, stay tuned…