California

Medicare Surprise: Drug Plan Prices Touted During Open Enrollment Can Rise Within a Month

Something strange happened between the time Linda Griffith signed up for a new Medicare prescription drug plan during last fall’s enrollment period and when she tried to fill her first prescription in January.

She picked a Humana drug plan for its low prices, with help from her longtime insurance agent and Medicare’s Plan Finder, an online pricing tool for comparing a dizzying array of options. But instead of the $70.09 she expected to pay for her dextroamphetamine, used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, her pharmacist told her she owed $275.90.

“I didn’t pick it up because I thought something was wrong,” said Griffith, 73, a retired construction company accountant who lives in the Northern California town of Weaverville.

“To me, when you purchase a plan, you have an implied contract,” she said. “I say I will pay the premium on time for this plan. And they’re going to make sure I get the drug for a certain amount.”

But it often doesn’t work that way. As early as three weeks after Medicare’s drug plan enrollment period ends on Dec. 7, insurance plans can change what they charge members for drugs — and they can do it repeatedly. Griffith’s prescription out-of-pocket cost has varied each month, and through March, she has already paid $433 more than she expected to.

A recent analysis by AARP, which is lobbying Congress to pass legislation to control drug prices, compared drugmakers’ list prices between the end of December 2021 — shortly after the Dec. 7 sign-up deadline — and the end of January 2022, just a month after new Medicare drug plans began. Researchers found that the list prices for the 75 brand-name drugs most frequently prescribed to Medicare beneficiaries had risen as much as 8%.

Medicare officials acknowledge that manufacturers’ prices and the out-of-pocket costs charged by an insurer can fluctuate. “Your plan may raise the copayment or coinsurance you pay for a particular drug when the manufacturer raises their price, or when a plan starts to offer a generic form of a drug,” the Medicare website warns.

But no matter how high the prices go, most plan members can’t switch to cheaper plans after Jan. 1, said Fred Riccardi, president of the Medicare Rights Center, which helps seniors access Medicare benefits.

Drug manufacturers usually change the list price for drugs in January and occasionally again in July, “but they can increase prices more often,” said Stacie Dusetzina, an associate professor of health policy at Vanderbilt University and a member of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission. That’s true for any health insurance policy, not just Medicare drug plans.

Like a car’s sticker price, a drug’s list price is the starting point for negotiating discounts — in this case, between insurers or their pharmacy benefit managers and drug manufacturers. If the list price goes up, the amount the plan member pays may go up, too, she said.

The discounts that insurers or their pharmacy benefit managers receive “don’t typically translate into lower prices at the pharmacy counter,” she said. “Instead, these savings are used to reduce premiums or slow premium growth for all beneficiaries.”

Medicare’s prescription drug benefit, which began in 2006, was supposed to take the surprise out of filling a prescription. But even when seniors have insurance coverage for drugs, advocates said, many still can’t afford them.

“We hear consistently from people who just have absolute sticker shock when they see not only the full cost of the drug, but their cost sharing,” said Riccardi.

The potential for surprises is growing. More insurers have eliminated copayments — a set dollar amount for a prescription — and instead charge members a percentage of the drug price, or coinsurance, Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, the top official at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said in a recent interview with KHN. The drug benefit is designed to give insurers the “flexibility” to make such changes. “And that is one of the reasons why we’re asking Congress to give us authority to negotiate drug prices,” she said.

CMS also is looking at ways to make drugs more affordable without waiting for Congress to act. “We are always trying to consider where it makes sense to be able to allow people to change plans,” said Dr. Meena Seshamani, CMS deputy administrator and director of the Center for Medicare, who joined Brooks-LaSure during the interview.

On April 22, CMS unveiled a proposal to streamline access to the Medicare Savings Program, which helps 10 million low-income enrollees pay Medicare premiums and reduce cost sharing. Enrollees also receive drug coverage with reduced premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

The subsidies make a difference. Low-income beneficiaries who have separate drug coverage plans and receive subsidies are nearly twice as likely to take their medications as those without financial assistance, according to a study Dusetzina co-authored for Health Affairs in April.

When CMS approves plans to be sold to beneficiaries, the only part of drug pricing it approves is the cost-sharing amount — or tier — applied to each drug. Some plans have as many as six drug tiers.

In addition to the drug tier, what patients pay can also depend on the pharmacy, their deductible, their copayment or coinsurance — and whether they opt to abandon their insurance and pay cash.

After Linda Griffith left the pharmacy without her medication, she spent a week making phone calls to her drug plan, pharmacy, Social Security, and Medicare but still couldn’t find out why the cost was so high. “I finally just had to give in and pay it because I need the meds — I can’t function without them,” she said.

But she didn’t give up. She appealed to her insurance company for a tier reduction, which was denied. The plan denied two more requests for price adjustments, despite assistance from Pam Smith, program manager for five California counties served by the Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program. They are now appealing directly to CMS.

“It’s important to us to work with our members who have questions about any out-of-pocket costs that are higher than the member would expect,” said Lisa Dimond, a Humana spokesperson. She could not comment about Griffith’s situation because of privacy rules.

However, Griffith said she received a call from a Humana executive who said the company had received an inquiry from the media. After they discussed the problem, Griffith said, the woman told her, “The [Medicare] Plan Finder is an outside source and therefore not reliable information,” but assured Griffith that she would find out where the Plan Finder information had come from.

She won’t have to look far: CMS requires insurers to update their prices every two weeks.

“I want my money back, and I want to be charged the amount I agreed to pay for the drug,” said Griffith. “I think this needs to be fixed because other people are going to be cheated.”

Source

CVS and Walgreens Under Fire for Slow Pace of Vaccination in Nursing Homes

The effort to vaccinate some of the country’s most vulnerable residents against covid-19 has been slowed by a federal program that sends retail pharmacists into nursing homes — accompanied by layers of bureaucracy and logistical snafus.

As of Thursday, more than 4.7 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna covid vaccines had been allocated to the federal pharmacy partnership, which has deputized pharmacy teams from Walgreens and CVS to vaccinate nursing home residents and workers. Since the program started in some states on Dec. 21, however, they have administered about one-quarter of the doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Across the country, some nursing home directors and health care officials say the partnership is actually hampering the vaccination process by imposing paperwork and cumbersome corporate policies on facilities that are thinly staffed and reeling from the devastating effects of the coronavirus. They argue that nursing homes are unique medical facilities that would be better served by medical workers who already understand how they operate.

Mississippi’s state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said the partnership “has been a fiasco.”

The state has committed 90,000 vaccine doses to the effort, but the pharmacies had administered only 5% of those shots as of Thursday, Dobbs said. Pharmacy officials told him they’re having trouble finding enough people to staff the program.

Dobbs pointed to neighboring Alabama and Louisiana, which he says are vaccinating long-term care residents at four times the rate of Mississippi.

“We’re getting a lot of angry people because it’s going so slowly, and we’re unhappy too,” he said.

Many of the nursing homes that have successfully vaccinated willing residents and staff members are doing so without federal help.

For instance, Los Angeles Jewish Home, with roughly 1,650 staff members and 1,100 residents on four campuses, started vaccinating Dec. 30. By Jan. 11, the home’s medical staff had administered its 1,640th dose. Even the facility’s chief medical director, Noah Marco, helped vaccinate.

The home is in Los Angeles County, which declined to participate in the CVS/Walgreens program. Instead, it has tasked nursing homes with administering vaccines themselves, and is using only Moderna’s easier-to-handle product, which doesn’t need to be stored at ultracold temperatures, like the Pfizer vaccine. (Both vaccines require two doses to offer full protection, spaced 21 to 28 days apart.)

By contrast, Mariner Health Central, which operates 20 nursing homes in California, is relying on the federal partnership for its homes outside of L.A. County. One of them won’t be getting its first doses until next week.

“It’s been so much worse than anybody expected,” said the chain’s chief medical officer, Dr. Karl Steinberg. “That light at the end of the tunnel is dim.”

Nursing homes have experienced some of the worst outbreaks of the pandemic. Though they house less than 1% of the nation’s population, nursing homes have accounted for 37% of deaths, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Facilities participating in the federal partnership typically schedule three vaccine clinics over the course of nine to 12 weeks. Ideally, those who are eligible and want a vaccine will get the first dose at the first clinic and the second dose three to four weeks later. The third clinic is considered a makeup day for anyone who missed the others. Before administering the vaccines, the pharmacies require the nursing homes to obtain consent from residents and staffers.

Despite the complaints of a slow rollout, CVS and Walgreens said they’re on track to finish giving the first doses by Jan. 25, as promised.

“Everything has gone as planned, save for a few instances where we’ve been challenged or had difficulties making contact with long-term care facilities to schedule clinics,” said Joe Goode, a spokesperson for CVS Health.

Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, acknowledged some delays through the partnership, but said that’s to be expected because this kind of effort has never before been attempted.

“There’s a feeling they’ll get up to speed with it and it will be helpful, as health departments are pretty overstretched,” Plescia said.

But any delay puts lives at risk, said Dr. Michael Wasserman, the immediate past president of the California Association of Long Term Care Medicine.

“I’m about to go nuclear on this,” he said. “There should never be an excuse about people not getting vaccinated. There’s no excuse for delays.”

Bringing in Vaccinators

Nursing homes are equipped with resources that could have helped the vaccination effort — but often aren’t being used.

Most already work with specialized pharmacists who understand the needs of nursing homes and administer medications and yearly vaccinations. These pharmacists know the patients and their medical histories, and are familiar with the apparatus of nursing homes, said Linda Taetz, chief compliance officer for Mariner Health Central.

“It’s not that they aren’t capable,” Taetz said of the retail pharmacists. “They just aren’t embedded in our buildings.”

If a facility participates in the federal program, it can’t use these or any other pharmacists or staffers to vaccinate, said Nicole Howell, executive director for Ombudsman Services of Contra Costa, Solano and Alameda counties.

But many nursing homes would like the flexibility to do so because they believe it would speed the process, help build trust and get more people to say yes to the vaccine, she said.

Howell pointed to West Virginia, which relied primarily on local, independent pharmacies instead of the federal program to vaccinate its nursing home residents.

The state opted against the partnership largely because CVS/Walgreens would have taken weeks to begin shots and Republican Gov. Jim Justice wanted them to start immediately, said Marty Wright, CEO of the West Virginia Health Care Association, which represents the state’s long-term care facilities.

The bulk of the work is being done by more than 60 pharmacies, giving the state greater control over how the doses were distributed, Wright said. The pharmacies were joined by Walgreens in the second week, he said, though not as part of the federal partnership.

“We had more interest from local pharmacies than facilities we could partner them up with,” Wright said. Preliminary estimates show that more than 80% of residents and 60% of staffers in more than 200 homes got a first dose by the end of December, he said.

Goode from CVS said his company’s participation in the program is being led by its long-term care division, which has deep experience with nursing homes. He noted that tens of thousands of nursing homes — about 85% nationally, according to the CDC — have found that reassuring enough to participate.

“That underscores the trust the long-term care community has in CVS and Walgreens,” he said.

Vaccine recipients don’t pay anything out-of-pocket for the shots. The costs of purchasing and administering them are covered by the federal government and health insurance, which means CVS and Walgreens stand to make a lot of money: Medicare is reimbursing $16.94 for the first shot and $28.39 for the second.

Bureaucratic Delays

Technically, federal law doesn’t require nursing homes to obtain written consent for vaccinations.

But CVS and Walgreens require them to get verbal or written consent from residents or family members, which must be documented on forms supplied by the pharmacies.

Goode said consent hasn’t been an impediment so far, but many people on the ground disagree. The requirements have slowed the process as nursing homes collect paper forms and Medicare numbers from residents, said Tracy Greene Mintz, a social worker who owns Senior Care Training, which trains and deploys social workers in more than 100 facilities around California.

In some cases, social workers have mailed paper consent forms to families and waited to get them back, she said.

“The facilities are busy trying to keep residents alive,” Greene Mintz said. “If you want to get paid from Medicare, do your own paperwork,” she suggested to CVS and Walgreens.

Scheduling has also been a challenge for some nursing homes, partly because people who are actively sick with covid shouldn’t be vaccinated, the CDC advises.

“If something comes up — say, an entire building becomes covid-positive — you don’t want the pharmacists coming because nobody is going to get the vaccine,” said Taetz of Mariner Health.

Both pharmacy companies say they work with facilities to reschedule when necessary. That happened at Windsor Chico Creek Care and Rehabilitation in Chico, California, where a clinic was pushed back a day because the facility was awaiting covid test results for residents. Melissa Cabrera, who manages the facility’s infection control, described the process as streamlined and professional.

In Illinois, about 12,000 of the state’s roughly 55,000 nursing home residents had received their first dose by Sunday, mostly through the CVS/Walgreens partnership, said Matt Hartman, executive director of the Illinois Health Care Association.

While Hartman hopes the pharmacies will finish administering the first round by the end of the month, he noted that there’s a lot of “headache” around scheduling the clinics, especially when homes have outbreaks.

“Are we happy that we haven’t gotten through round one and West Virginia is done?” he asked. “Absolutely not.”

KHN correspondent Rachana Pradhan contributed to this report.

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Medicare Open Enrollment Is Complicated. Here’s How to Get Good Advice.

If you’ve been watching TV lately, you may have seen actor Danny Glover or Joe Namath, the 77-year-old NFL legend, urging you to call an 800 number to get fabulous extra benefits from Medicare.

There are plenty of other Medicare ads, too, many set against a red-white-and-blue background meant to suggest officialdom — though if you stand about a foot from the television screen, you might see the fine print saying they are not endorsed by any government agency.

Rather, they are health insurance agents aggressively vying for a piece of a lucrative market.

This is what Medicare’s annual enrollment period has come to. Beneficiaries — people who are 65 or older, or with long-term disabilities — have until Dec. 7 to join, switch or drop health or drug plans, which take effect Jan. 1. By switching plans, they can potentially save money or get benefits not ordinarily provided by the federal insurance program.

For all its complexity and nearly endless options, Medicare fundamentally boils down to two choices: traditional fee-for-service or the managed care approach of Medicare Advantage.

The right choice for you depends on your financial wherewithal and current health status, and on future health scenarios that are often difficult to foresee and unpleasant to contemplate.

Costs and benefits among the multitude of competing Medicare plans vary widely, and the maze of rules and other details can be overwhelming. Indeed, information overload is part of the reason a majority of the more than 60 million people on Medicare, including over 6 million in California, do not comparison-shop or switch to more suitable plans.

“I’ve been doing it for 33 years and my head still spins,” says Jill Selby, corporate vice president of strategic initiatives and product development at SCAN, a Long Beach nonprofit that is one of California’s largest purveyors of Medicare managed care, known as Medicare Advantage. “It’s definitely a college course.”

Which explains why airwaves and mailboxes are jammed with all that promotional material from people offering to help you pass the course.

Many are touting Medicare Advantage, which is administered by private health insurers. It might save you money, but not necessarily, and research suggests that, in some cases, it costs the government more than administering traditional Medicare.

But the hard marketing is not necessarily a sign of bad faith. Licensed insurance agents want the nice commission they get when they sign somebody up, but they can also provide valuable information on the bewildering nuances of Medicare.

Industry insiders and outside experts agree most people should not navigate Medicare alone. “It’s just too complicated for the average individual,” says Mark Diel, chief executive officer of California Coverage and Health Initiatives, a statewide association of local outreach and health care enrollment organizations.

However, if you decide to consult with an insurance agent, keep your antenna up. Ask people you trust to recommend agents or try eHealth or another established online brokerage. Vet any agent you choose by asking questions on the phone.

“Be careful if you feel like the insurance agent is pushing you to make a decision,” says Andrew Shea, senior vice president of marketing at eHealth. And if in doubt, don’t hesitate to get a second opinion, Shea counsels.

You can also talk to a Medicare counselor through one of the State Health Insurance Assistance Programs, which are present in every state. Find your state’s SHIP at www.shiptacenter.org.

Medicare & You, a comprehensive handbook, is worth reading. Download it at the official Medicare website, www.medicare.gov.

The website offers a deep dive into all aspects of Medicare. If you type in your ZIP code, you can see and compare all the Medicare Advantage plans, supplemental insurance plans, known as Medigap, and stand-alone drug (Part D) plans.

The site also shows you quality ratings of the plans, on a five-star scale. And it will display your drug costs under each plan if you type in all your prescriptions. Explore the website before you talk to an insurance agent.

California Coverage and Health Initiatives can refer you to licensed insurance agents who will provide local advice and enrollment assistance. Call 833-720-2244. Its members specialize in helping people who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income people.

These so-called dual eligibles — nearly 1.5 million in California and about 12 million nationwide — get additional benefits, and in some cases, they don’t have to pay Medicare’s monthly medical (Part B) premium, which will be $148.50 in 2021 for most beneficiaries, but higher for people above certain income thresholds.

If you choose traditional Medicare, consider a Medigap supplement if you can afford it. Without it, you’re liable for 20% of your physician and outpatient costs and a hefty hospital deductible, with no cap on how much you pay out of your own pocket. If you need prescription drugs, you’ll probably want a Part D plan.

Medicare Advantage, by contrast, is a one-stop-shop. It usually includes a drug benefit in addition to other Medicare benefits, with cost-sharing for services and prescriptions that vary from plan to plan. Medicare Advantage plans typically have low to no premiums — aside from the Part B premium that most people pay in either version of Medicare. And they increasingly offer additional benefits, including vision, dental, transportation, meal deliveries, and even coverage while traveling abroad.

Beware of the risks, however.

Yes, the traditional Medicare route is generally more expensive upfront if you want to be fully covered. That’s because you pay a monthly premium for a Medigap policy, which can cost $200 or more. Add to that the premium for Part D, estimated to average $41 a month in 2021, according to KFF. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

However, Medigap policies will often protect you against large medical bills if you need lots of care.

In some cases, Medicare Advantage could end up being more expensive if you get seriously ill or injured because copays can quickly add up. They are typically capped each year, but can still cost you thousands of dollars. Advantage plans also typically have more limited provider networks, and the extra benefits they offer can be subject to restrictions.

Over one-third of Medicare beneficiaries nationally are enrolled in Advantage plans. In California, about 40% are.

The main appeal of traditional Medicare is that it doesn’t have the rules and restrictions of managed care.

Dr. Mark Kalish, a retired psychiatrist in San Diego, says he opted for traditional fee-for-service with Medigap and Part D because he didn’t want a “mother may I” plan.

“I’m 69 years old, so heart attacks happen; cancer happens. I want to be able to pick my own doctor and go where I want,” Kalish says. “I’ve done well, so the money isn’t an issue for me.”

Be aware that if you don’t join a Medigap plan during a six-month open enrollment period that begins when you enroll in Medicare Part B, you could be denied coverage for a preexisting condition if you try to buy one later.

There are a few exceptions to that in federal law, and four states — New York, Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut — require continuous or yearly access to Medigap coverage regardless of health status.

Make sure you understand the rules and exceptions that apply to you.

Indeed, that is an excellent rule of thumb for all Medicare beneficiaries. Read up and talk to insurance agents and Medicare counselors. Talk to friends, family members, your doctor, your health plan — and other health plans.

When it comes to Medicare, says Erin Trish, associate director of the University of Southern California’s Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics, “it takes a village.”

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.