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.

Alzheimer’s Inc.: Colleagues Question Scientist’s Pricey Recipe Against Memory Loss

When her husband was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease in 2015, Elizabeth Pan was devastated by the lack of options to slow his inevitable decline. But she was encouraged when she discovered the work of a UCLA neurologist, Dr. Dale Bredesen, who offered a comprehensive lifestyle management program to halt or even reverse cognitive decline in patients like her husband.

After decades of research, Bredesen had concluded that more than 36 drivers of Alzheimer’s cumulatively contribute to the loss of mental acuity. They range from chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes to vitamin and hormonal deficiencies, undiagnosed infections and even long-term exposures to toxic substances. Bredesen’s impressive academic credentials lent legitimacy to his approach.

Pan paid $4,000 to a doctor trained in Bredesen’s program for a consultation and a series of extensive laboratory tests, then was referred to another doctor, who devised a stringent regimen of dietary changes that entailed cutting out all sugars, eating a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet and adhering to a complex regimen of meditation, vigorous daily exercise and about a dozen nutritional supplements each day (at about $200 a month). Pan said she had extensive mold remediation done in her home after the Bredesen doctors told her the substance could be hurting her husband’s brain.

But two years passed, she said, and her husband, Wayne, was steadily declining. To make matters worse, he had lost more than 60 pounds because he didn’t like the food on the diet. In April, he died.

“I imagine it works in some people and doesn’t work in others,” said Pan, who lives in Oakton, Virginia. “But there’s no way to tell ahead of time if it will work for you.”

Bredesen wrote the best-selling 2017 book “The End of Alzheimer’s” and has promoted his ideas in talks to community groups around the country and in radio and TV appearances like “The Dr. Oz Show.” He has also started his own company, Apollo Health, to market his program and train and provide referrals for practitioners.

Unlike other self-help regimens, Bredesen said, his program is an intensely personalized and scientific approach to counteract each individual’s specific deficits by “optimizing the physical body and understanding the molecular drivers of the disease,” he told KHN in a November phone interview. “The vast majority of people improve” as long as they adhere to the regimen.

Bredesen’s peers acknowledge him as an expert on aging. A former postdoctoral fellow under Nobel laureate Stanley Prusiner at the University of California-San Francisco, Bredesen presided over a well-funded lab at UCLA for more than five years. He has been on the UCLA faculty since 1989 and also founded the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Marin County. He has written or co-authored more than 200 papers.

But colleagues are critical of what they see as his commercial promotion of a largely unproven and costly regimen. They say he strays from long-established scientific norms by relying on anecdotal reports from patients, rather than providing evidence with rigorous research.

“He’s an exceptional scientist,” said George Perry, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas-San Antonio. “But monetizing this is a turnoff.”

“I have seen desperate patients and family members clean out their bank accounts and believe this will help them with every ounce of their being,” said Dr. Joanna Hellmuth, a neurologist in the Memory and Aging Center at UCSF. “They are clinging to hope.”

Many of the lifestyle changes Bredesen promotes are known to be helpful. “The protocol itself is based on very low-quality data, and I worry that vulnerable patients and family members may not understand that,” said Hellmuth. “He trained here” — at UCSF — “so he knows better.”

The Bredesen package doesn’t come cheap. He has built a network of practitioner-followers by training them in his protocol — at $1,800 a pop — in seminars sponsored by the Institute for Functional Medicine, which emphasizes alternative approaches to managing disease. Apollo Health also offers two-week training sessions for a $1,500 fee.

Once trained in his ReCODE Protocol, medical professionals charge patients upward of $300 for a consultation and as much as $10,500 for eight- to 15-month treatment packages. For the ReCODE protocol, aimed at people already suffering from early-stage Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive decline, Apollo Health charges an initial $1,399 fee for a referral to a local practitioner that includes an assessment and extensive laboratory tests. Apollo then offers $75-per-month subscriptions that provide cognitive games and online support, and links to another company that offers dietary supplements for an additional $150 to $450 a month. Insurance generally covers little of these costs.

Apollo Health, founded in 1998 and headquartered in Burlingame, California, also offers a protocol geared toward those who have a family history of dementia or want to prevent cognitive decline.

Bredesen estimates that about 5,000 people have done the ReCODE program. The fees are a bargain, Bredesen said, if they slow decline enough to prevent someone from being placed in a nursing home, where yearly costs can climb past $100,000 annually.

Bredesen and his company are tapping into the desperation that has grown out of the failure of a decades-long scientific quest for effective Alzheimer’s treatments. Much of the research money in the field has narrowly focused on amyloid — the barnacle-like gunk that collects outside nerve cells and interferes with the brain’s signaling system — as the main culprits behind cognitive decline. Drugmakers have tried repeatedly, and thus far without much success, to invent a trillion-dollar anti-amyloid drug. There’s been less emphasis in the field on the lifestyle choices that Bredesen stresses.

“Amyloids sucked up all the air in the room,” said Dr. Lon Schneider, an Alzheimer’s researcher and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine at USC.

Growing evidence shows lifestyle changes help delay the progress of the mind-robbing disease. An exhaustive Lancet report in August identified a long list of risk factors for dementia, including excessive drinking, exposure to air pollution, obesity, loss of hearing, smoking, depression, lack of exercise and social isolation. Controlling these factors — which can be done on the cheap — could delay or even prevent up to 40% of dementia cases, according to the report.

Bredesen’s program involves all these practices, with personalized bells and whistles like intermittent fasting, meditation and supplements. Bredesen’s scientific peers question whether data supports his micromanaged approach over plain-vanilla healthy living.

Bredesen haspublished three papers showing positive results in many patients following his approach, but critics say he has fallen short of proving his method’s effectiveness.

The papers lack details on which protocol elements were followed, or the treatment duration, UCSF’s Hellmuth said. Nor do they explain how cognitive tests were conducted or evaluated, so it’s difficult to gauge whether improvements were due to the intervention, to chance variations in performance or an assortment of other variables, she said.

Bredesen shrugs off the criticism: “We want things to be in an open-access journal so everybody can read it. These are still peer-reviewed journals. So what’s the problem?”

Another problem raised about Bredesen’s enterprise is the lack of quality control, which he acknowledges. Apollo-trained “certified practitioners” can include everyone from nurses and dietitians to chiropractors and health coaches. Practitioners with varying degrees of training and competence can take his classes and hang out a shingle. That’s a painful fact for some who buy the package.

“I had the impression these practitioners were certified, but I realize they all had just taken a two-week course,” said a Virginia man who requested anonymity to protect his wife’s privacy. He said that he had spent more than $15,000 on tests and treatments for his ailing spouse and that six months into the program, earlier this year, she had failed to improve.

Bredesen said he and his staff were reviewing “who’s getting the best results and who’s getting the worst results,” and intended to cut poor performers out of the network. “We’ll make it so that you can only see the people getting the best results,” he said.

Colleagues say that to test whether Bredesen’s method works it needs to be subjected to a placebo-controlled study, the gold standard of medical research, in which half the participants get the treatment while the other half don’t.

In the absence of rigorous studies, said USC’s Schneider, a co-author of the Lancet report, “saying you can ‘end Alzheimer’s now and this is how you do it’ is overpromising and oversimplifying. And a lot of it is just common sense.”

Bredesen no longer says his method can end Alzheimer’s, despite the title of his book. Apollo Health’s website still makes that claim, however.

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