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Congress, Administration Serious About Tackling Health Care Costs

As more people struggle with their medical bills, Congress has been introducing a raft of new legislation aimed at cutting costs and making pricing more transparent.

The multi-pronged, bipartisan effort targets the lack of transparency in pricing particularly for pharmaceuticals, as well as surprise medical bills that have left many Americans reeling, and there are also other efforts aimed at reducing the cost burden on payers: the general public and employers.

And since consumers are affected regardless of their political affiliation, congresspersons are reaching across the aisle to push through legislation to address this crushing problem.

There are several draft proposals, but word is a number of bills are expected to be introduced soon.

Surprise medical bills

One of the top priorities seems to be surprise medical bills, which are in the administration’s crosshairs. President Trump in January 2019 hosted a roundtable to air the problems people face when hit with what are often financially devastating surprise bills after they venture out of their network for medical services for both emergency and scheduled medical visits.

After the roundtable, he directed a bipartisan group of lawmakers to create legislation that would provide relief. The House Energy and Commerce Committee in May responded by introducing draft legislation that aims to ban surprise medical bills.

Also, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) have said they hope to introduce legislation to end the practice of surprise bills. With the White House and both sides of the aisle talking the talk, observers say that there are a number of ways legislation could tackle these surprise bills. That could include:

  • Setting caps on how much hospitals and service providers can charge, or
  • Requiring hospitals and service providers to turn to the insurance company (and not the patient) when they are seeking additional reimbursement.
  • Requiring the insurer to share more of the cost burden for the out-of-network services.

At this point legislation is still being formulated, but chances are good that we could see a bipartisan push to fix this problem. The biggest issue will be how to calculate what are “reasonable” costs for out-of-network services.

Pharmaceutical costs, transparency

The Trump administration has also made it a priority to reduce the costs of medications and tackle pricing transparency in the system.

While both Republicans and Democrats have decried the skyrocketing costs of prescription medications, the inflation for which is outpacing all other forms of medical care, so far there has been only one piece of legislation introduced tackling transparency.

Unfortunately, it’s part of a larger bill that aims to preserve the Affordable Care Act and reverse some recent policy decisions by the Trump administration, so the chances of that measure going anywhere in the Senate are slim to none.

The good news is that members from both parties have been talking about cooperating on legislation, and political observers say the chances are good some type of measure will be introduced this summer.

Other costs

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in February introduced legislation that would require insurers to tell people what they would have to pay out of pocket for any in-network treatment or prescription drug.

On top of that, the Senate Health Committee will soon introduce a number of bills aimed at reducing frictional costs in the system.

In addition, the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees are both in the process of formulating measures aimed at reducing health care costs, as well as prescription drug prices.


DOL Employers Expect 6% Hike in Health Costs for 2019

The IRS has released the inflation-adjusted amounts for 2019 used to determine whether employer-sponsored coverage is “affordable” for purposes of the Affordable Care Act’s employer shared responsibility provisions.

For plan years beginning in 2019, the affordability percentage has increased to 9.86% (from 9.56% in 2018) of an employee’s household income or wages stated on their W-2 form. The higher rate is indicative of the anticipated small group plan inflation that continues hitting premiums.

If you are an applicable large employer under the ACA (with 50 or more full-time staff), you should examine the affordability percentages for your lower-waged employees so you don’t run afoul of the law. Fortunately, as the percentage has increased, you’ll have more flexibility when setting your employees’ contribution rates.

A recent study by PricewaterhouseCooper’s Health Research Institute found that employers and insurers are expecting a 6% increase in health care costs in 2019. While that rate is just slightly above the average 5.6% increases since the ACA took effect, many employers have increasingly been passing the inflationary costs on to their covered employees.

The report by PwC noted three trends that are having the largest effect on health care costs.

Abundance of treatment options – With covered individuals demanding more convenience in their treatment options, employers and health plans have responded by giving them more ways to obtain care, like retail clinics, urgent care clinics and electronic physician consultations. While the long-term goal is to reduce health care spending on services, currently the increased offerings have resulted in higher utilization.

Mergers by providers – Hospitals and other health care providers have been consolidating for the better part of a decade, and that trend is expected to continue in light of several recently announced mega-deals. Prices tend to rise when two health systems merge and the consolidated entity gains market share and negotiating power.

Physician consolidation and employment – Hospitals, health systems and medical groups are hiring more and more doctors out of private practice. And when that happens, costs tend to go up since these organizations tend to charge higher prices than independent practitioners.

In 2016, 42% of physicians were employed by hospitals, compared to just 25% in 2012, according to the PwC report. Hospitals and medical groups tend to charge between 14% and 30% more than physicians in private practice.

Restraining factors

At the same time, there are some factors that are dampening overall cost increases:

  • Expectations that next year’s flu will be milder than this year’s main virus.
  • More employers are offering care advocates who help covered individuals navigate the insurance system to find the best quality care at the best price. According to the survey, 72% of employers offered health-advocacy services to their employees in 2018.
  • More employers are using “high-performance networks,” also known as “narrow networks.” In essence, a plan will use a narrow network of doctors who care for the bulk of covered individuals. Not contracting with as many doctors means lower overall outlays for medical services.

While the doctors in these networks are not always the least expensive providers, they typically are ones who have proven over time to yield the best results.

The takeaway

We are here to help you get the most value for your and your employees’ health care spend. Talk to us about any of the tools mentioned above to see if we have a program that might work for your organization.


Infographic: How Healthcare is Robbing Companies Blind

In this infographic, we illustrate how skyrocketing healthcare and health insurance costs are stealing profits from companies and undermining wage increases.  Working with a Next Generation benefits advisor can help you reject the status quo, making your benefits plan a valuable business tool.


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