Navigators: The Folks Who Will Help You Surf the New Insurance Exchanges

Over at Healthinsurance.org, I’ve addressed some “frequently asked questions” about the “navigators” who will help individuals and small business find the coverage they want in the new Exchanges. 

– Who Will Become Navigators?

–  Can Insurance Agents and Brokers Apply to Be Navigators? (Wouldn’t that create a conflict of interest?)

–  Just How Will Navigators Help People Sort Out Their Options in the Exchanges?

–  How Much Training Will They Receive?

–Finally, many people worry that the “navigators” just won’t be able to handle the heavy traffic. Giving the American public the information it will need about Obamacare is an enormous task. Will these navigators be up to it?

The answer to that last question is that the navigators will have help.  Patient advocacy groups, the states, and county health agencies will pitch in.  The federal government  also is launching a marketing program, “Enroll America” that will urge mothers to nag their uninsured 20-something and 30-something sons. (Seriously– and I expect that in many cases, this will be effective.)

Meanwhile insurers will be eager to draw young, healthy customers into the Exchanges. This means that they will invest in marketing campaigns designed to let 20-somethings and 30-somethings know that the vast majority will be eligible for generous government subsidies.

Just one example: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois already has launched a “Be Covered Illinois” campaign. The campaign is being funded by the insurer, and carried out by various community groups:  

Keep in mind that if insurers mislead customers about their offerings, those customers will have an opportunity to pick a different plan a year later. And under the ACA, they will have “navigators” to help them make a better choice.

Insurers know this. They  also are well aware  that under the new ACA rules that regulate them, a health insurance company will have to draw—and keep—a large share of the market’s customers in order to survive financially. For that reason, I suspect that savvy insurers will make a major effort to provide information about specific plans that will attract customers who will want to stick with those plans.

For my answers to the first four questions above, go to Health Insurance.org, click on the question and the answer will pop up.

POST A COMMENT

Obamacare’s Opponents Spread Doubt and Confusion About Small Business Exchanges

In the past, I have reported on misinformation about healthcare reform going viral. It has happened again, and this time, reform’s critics have outdone themselves.

In March, the Obama administration proposed revising the rules governing insurance marketplaces or “exchanges” where small business owners will be able to pool their buying power, and purchase affordable, high quality insurance for their employees. The change to the rules is small, and it is temporary.

Nevertheless, Obamacare’s critics pounced, and soon began distorting what the administration said. USA Today quoted the Chamber of Commerce (long a foe of reform), claiming that the small business exchanges “will be of little or no value to employers, or by extension, their employees.”

                                     How Small Business Exchanges Lower Premiums

Before considering the charges, let’s review what the health reform law’s Small Business Health Options (SHOP) exchanges offer. Today, insurers charge small companies 18 percent more because the administrative costs of hand-selling policies to small groups are high.

But in the SHOP Exchanges, small businesses automatically become part of large groups. Some will qualify for tax credits.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates premiums will fall by 2 percent to 11 percent. Meanwhile those premiums will buy far better coverage. (Policies sold in the SHOP Exchanges will have to meet the high standards set for plans in the individual exchanges).

                             The Proposed Change: What the Administration Actually Said

Now consider the proposed change. Originally, the Affordable Care Act called for opening SHOP exchanges to employees in 2014. First, the employer would choose a tier of insurance. (Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum tiers will pay 60 percent to 90 percent of an average group’s covered benefits, with any individual’s out-of-pocket spending capped at roughly $6,000.) Employees would then pick plans from that tier.

But Washington had assumed that states would be eager to help their small businesses by setting up exchanges. Today, only 16 states and the District of Columbia have begun. Now the administration realizes it will need more time to set up the IT that millions of employees will need to navigate exchanges in 34 states.

 HHS still plans to open the exchanges in 2014, but only to employers. They will survey the many plans available, and then pick one for their employees. “Employee Choice” will be delayed – but just for one year. And the postponement will apply only to the 34 states that have not set up exchanges. In 2014, the other 16 states and D.C. can (and probably most will) open exchanges to employees.

Nearly 40% of small businesses in this country do business in the 17 states implementing their own exchanges,” observes John Arensmeyer, president of Small Business Majority (SBM), a non-profit advocacy group. And “starting next year, small employers will still be able to pool their buying power in the exchanges, giving them the kind of clout large businesses currently enjoy.”

“This is not a failure, it’s a bump in the road,” Small Business Majority’s Rhett Buttle told me.

                                               The Attack Begins

Nevertheless, Robert Laszewski, a long-time health reform critic, jumped on the bump, telling Modern HealthCare: “Offering a single employer all of the exchange options is a complex undertaking . . . a delay means that the exchange isn’t going to offer any advantage over the employer simply staying with their existing insurer.”

Laszewski suggests that “a single employer“ will not be able to choose from all of the exchange options.” This is simply not true. Business owners will choose from all plans in the exchange. As for an employer keeping his “existing” coverage – why would he do that? The policies in the exchanges will offer better coverage for less.

Above, the opening of a post that I wrote for HealthInsurance.org.   To find out more about why Lawzewski’s is bashing small business Exchanges–and what what Time’s Joe Klein, the Wall Street Journal and Wonkblog’s Sarah Kliff had to say– read the entire post on HIO.   You’ll also find out  why some of us think that the importance of “consumer choice” may be “way overblown.”

POST A COMMENT

Problems with Health Insurance? Under the Affordable Care Act You Will No Longer Be Alone

If you sent in your health insurance payment on time, and paid it the way you always have (as a direct withdrawal from you checking count), but made a mistake when you put the checking account number on your payment,  would you expect that your insurer would drop you?

What if your insurer sent you an email a few days after you sent in your payment saying “Your payment has been received? Wouldn’t you assume that you were still insured?

Mike Holden did. He was wrong.

Yesterday, he sent an email explaining his story.  

 “On March 16, I paid my family’s monthly health insurance bill to United Healthcare (UHC) the same way I have for almost a year now. But I was using a new bank account that we set up after a recent move. Unfortunately, I entered the account number incorrectly. It turns out I left off three digits that are part of the account number but listed separately on the checks.”

Holden had no idea that he had made a mistake. On March 20, he received an email from UHC saying “Your payment has been received.”

Yet in April, when he went online to pay his family’s April bill, he was told his coverage had been terminated. He then talked to a customer service representative at UHC and received a letter explaining that he had until March 31 to correct his mistake.

Unfortunately, the letter, which was postmarked March 27, went to his old address. .

He appealed to UHC, explaining the problem and asking that his insurance be reinstated,

He then received a letter telling him that his appeal had been denied:  “United Healthcare Benefit Services follows the guidelines for payments and grace periods defined by the Department of Labor. Your account has been reviewed and the termination remains, as payment was not received within the guidelines provided.”

                          How the Affordable Care Act Brings Us Together

Beginning in 2014, people like Mike Holden will no longer be alone, trying to stand up to insurance companies. Individuals and families who buy their own insurance will be able to purchase coverage in “Exchanges”—marketplaces where insures will be regulated and individuals and families who purchase their own insurance will become part of a large group. There, they will have far more clout than they do now.
Continue reading

POST A COMMENT

Who is Douglas Holtz-Eakin and why is he saying such terrible things about health reform?

Today, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health will hold a hearing entitled: Unaffordable: Impact of Obamacare on Americans’ Health Insurance.  (Always nice to know that our elected representatives are keeping an open mind.)

Prominent on the list of witnesses: “Douglas Holtz-Eakin.” Even before reading his testimony, I knew what Holtz-Eakin would say: young, health Americans should brace for “sticker shock.”  Conservatives like Holtz-Eakin tend to stay on script. However stale the rhetoric, they firmly believe that if you repeat a sound-bite often enough, people will believe it.                                     

                                        Who is Douglas Holtz-Eakin?

If you recognize the name, it’s probably because Holtz-Eakin has become a familiar figure in the mainstream media, quoted in the New York Times, writing Op-eds for Reuters and Politico.com, and appearing, not only on Fox Business News, but on CNN and the PBS’ Newshour.

Alternatively, “Holtz-Eakin” may ring a bell because he served as a member of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), and as Director of Bush’s Congressional Budget Office (CBO.)

In a remarkably candid 2011 interview, Holtz Eakin recalled his tour in the Bush administration:

“Going into the summer of 2001, things were getting worse. . . When we first went in and talked to the President, Glenn [Hubbard] and Larry Lindsey said, ‘Mr. President . . . We’re probably not going to run a surplus on budget.  We’re going to run a deficit.”

Bush’s reply: “We’re not going to run a deficit. If you come in here with a deficit, you’re both fired. Go fix it.’”

We ended up running a budget surplus of one billion dollars,” Holtz-Eakin confided, “driven by gimmicks of remarkable proportions.”
Continue reading

24 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

Why Is It That the Truth Never Goes Viral?–A Campaign of Misinformation Unites Conservative Activists and Insurers

The Post below originally appeared on Healthinsurance.org (mm)

Wild rumors, such as the one claiming Obamacare premiums will start at $20,000 a year for a family of five, are much jucier than the truth.

About a week ago, Investor Daily’s website published a “Fact-Check” post that illustrates how misinformation spreads.

In the post, Jed Graham explains that when the IRS published a final rule about penalties under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), it included a few hypotheticals. For example, the IRS wrote, “The annual national average bronze plan premium for a family of 5 (2 adults, 3 children) is $20,000′ in 2016.”

The $20,000 figure was just an example, Graham explains. “The IRS always uses hypothetical numerical examples in its regulations to illustrate how the rules will work in practice and this was no different.”

Nevertheless, before long, the “conservative news site CNSNews.com began to blare out this shocking headline: ‘IRS: Cheapest Obama Care Plan Will Be $20,000 Per Family.’”

From there, “the ‘fact’ got picked up by countless media outlets and pundits” Graham reports, “most of them on the right,” including:

 •Betsy McCaughey writing for the New York Post;

Rush Limbaugh;

•Breitbart

•On the left, even Naked Capitalism (a well-researched blog,) reported the news bulletin from CNSNews.com.

This is the problem: Once a faux-fact gets out there, even reporters who have no axe to grind continue to repeat it. If you see the number often enough, you assume it must be true.

How could a reporter tell that $20,000 wasn’t an IRS estimate?

It should have been clear that this was a hypothetical, Graham points out, if you just looked at other hypotheticals in the IRS ruling. “For example: ‘the annual national average bronze plan premium for a family of 4 (1 adult, 3 children) is $18,000.’

“Both examples can’t be true,” he observes, “unless an adult’s premium is $2,000 and a child’s is $5,333.”
Continue reading

6 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

Join the debate on “Reining in Medicare Costs without Hurting Seniors”

The January 26 post below (“How to Rein in Medicare costs without Hurting Seniors“) has drawn some 43 comments (including mine, as I responded to readers). I thought of turning a couple of my replies into posts, but then decided it might be more interesting for you to read them in the context of what other readers said.

I would love to see more readers participate in this thread. Comments are still open.

It’s a lively thread that takes on a number of third-rail issues: Does Medicare spend too much on pricey cancer drugs, end-of-life care and brand name hospitals?

 Should we try to spend less on end-of life care? Many say “Yes,” but Zeke Emanuel (a medical ethicist and oncologist who was part of the Obama team during the president’s first term), says “No.” I link to a column where he notes that “It is conventional wisdom that end-of-life care is an increasingly huge proportion of health care spending. . . Wrong. Here are the real numbers: end-of-life care (not just for the elderly, but for all Americans) accounts for just 10% to 12% of  total health care spending. This figure has not changed significantly in decades.”

He goes on to suggest that while we probably can’t make end-of-life “cheaper,” we can make it “better . . .  Here are four things the health care system should do to try to improve care for the dying, even if they won’t save money.”

A number of readers comment on what is driving Medicare spending. Is it “patient expectations,”  “doctors’ fear of litigation,”  “regulations that dictate nurse-staffing ratios,” “practice patterns that doctors learned long ago,” or is the biggest problem “promotional efforts by manufacturers?”

Other questions come up: Does anyone really have any idea how much Medicare will cost in 2022?  By then will Medicare have begun negotiating with drug-makers and device-makers for discounts on drugs (the way the VA does now, saving 40%)?  How far will Medicare go in using medical evidence to decide what to cover?

One doctor/reader points out that in his field Medicare has begun to refuse to pay for procedures when research shows that they are not effective. He and another reader agree that in this way Medicare can provide “political cover” for private sector insurers who will follow Medicare’s lead.

We also discuss the deficit, and whether we should be trying to address the deficit now — or wait until the recession ends and unemployment falls. Also, is the deficit already dissolving as CAP suggests? 

And is the deficit our biggest problem? On this question, you will find links to Paul Krugman, Peter Orszag (who analyzes the slow-down in health care spending over the past three years as a “structural change, not just the result of the recession) and Ezra Klein,

  Continue reading

POST A COMMENT

Ignore the Hype: Why Health Insurance Premiums Won’t Skyrocket in 2014

Health reform’s critics are sounding the alarm: in 2014, they say, health insurance premiums will climb, both for small businesses and for individuals who purchase their own coverage. “Hold onto your hat,” writes  Bob Laszewski, editor of Health Care Policy and Market Place Review. “There Will Be Sticker Shock!” 

Laszweski’s piece has been cross-posted on popular blogs, and his forecasts have been popping up in mainstream newspapers, including  USA Today Such wide circulation makes Laszewski’s warnings worthy of attention, and compels me to ask an important, if impertinent, question: Is what he says true?

Cherry-picking a CBO report

The Congressional Budget Office expects  that the ACA will have a “negligible” effect on the premiums that large employers pay for insurance, and most experts agree. But in the individual market, Laszewski claims that CBO projections show “10% to 13% premium increases.”

Here is what the CBO actually said:

About 57 percent of people buying [their own] insurance would receive subsidies  via the new insurance exchanges, and those subsidies, on average, would cover nearly two-thirds of the total premium.

“Thus, the amount that subsidized enrollees would pay would be roughly 56 percent to 59 percent lower, on average, than the premiums charged under current law.”

Wait a minute: “56 to 59 percent lower?” Where does Laszweski get “10 percent to 13 percent higher?

Continue reading

13 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

“Fiscal Cliff” Talks: An Update

Today, for the first time since the election, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner met alone, face-to-face, at the White House to discuss ongoing negotions over the budget.   (I can’t help but see the photo, which shows Obama with a hand on Boehnr’s shoulder, as a reference to the “Saturday Night Live” skit that appeared last night.  

I’m more and more hopeful about the budget negotiations. Recentlly, I wrote that Obama had “won round one,” explaining that I believed CNN’s report that  the Republicans and Democrats have reached a deal on taxes. “Both sides agree the wealthy will pay more, so now fiscal cliff talks come down to how much Republicans can wring out of the White House in return for giving in on taxes.”  Based on everything I know about the economics and the politics of the situation, this makes sense. /

Since then Boehner has said:  “No progress has been made.”

This does not change the story:  If, as CNN’s sources say, (and I believe) Republicans have conceded that taxes cuts for the top 2% must expire Janauary 1, while cuts for the remaining 98% will continue, that doesn’t mean they are ready to make the agreement public.

Understandably, Republicans are not willing to acknowledge that they lost round one of negotiations until they can also announce that they won something in round two.  Nor does  President Obama want to blind-side Boehner by letting it leak that a tax deal is in place. That would be counter-productive.

                          The Inside Story and the Outside Story

Recentlly, the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein reported:  “Right now, the fiscal cliff negotiations are proceeding on two tracks.

“One track includes the press releases, public statements and legislative tactics the two parties are deploying to prove the purity of their faith and their commitment to beating the other side to a bloody pulp. Watch these closely and it’s easy to get depressed.  . . ‘There isn’t a progress report;’ Republican House Speaker John Boehner sighed Friday, ‘because there’s no progress to report.’

“The other track includes the offers, counteroffers and red lines proposed by Boehner and President Obama. If you look at these closely, a deal is taking shape.”

 I agree with Ezra about the “two tracks”. But I don’t agree regarding the “shape” of the deal that is emerging.

First, I agree that  the majority of Republicans in Congress have accepted the fact that the Bush-era tax breaks for folks earning over $200,000 (and couples earning over $250,000) will have to expire. I won’t try to guess when politicians will complete the two stages of bargaining and be ready to announce a deal. We may go right up to the January 1 deadline.

Moreover, it is  possible that when it comes to cutting government spending, too many Republicans will remain stubbornly, and foolishly, intransigent — insisting on concessions that would inflict pain on the middle-class.

If that happens, I predict that President Obama will let us sail over the so-called “fiscal cliff.”  He knows this wouldn’t do any permanent damage to the economy.  As Rutgers reported today, even Wall Street does not seem panicked by the prospect: “Investors have peered over the cliff and realized they are looking at a gentle slope . . . . some investors say lawmakers still have time in early 2013 to strike a deficit-reduction deal without imperiling the economy. A survey of 62 Wall Street money managers released on December 5 showed market losses would be manageable if the U.S. goes over the fiscal cliff, even though worries still run deep.

Many on Wall Street understand that, early in the spring, the administration could undo Draconian spending cuts, while lowering tax rates for the 98%. Public pressure will ensure that happens. (In the meantime, the Treasury Secretary could lower withholding rates so that middle-class Americans didn’t suddenly see their paychecks trimmed.)

But taking a ride down that slope would do lasting damage to the GOP.  Polls show that voters would blame Republicans. This is why I think that, in the end, Republican leadership in Congress will do whatever it must to make a deal before January.  As I indicate in the post below. Tea Party extremists in the Republican party are being side-lined.

Continue reading

6 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

Can U.S. Businesses Afford Obamacare?

No doubt you have heard that the Olive Garden, Denny’s and Papa John’s Pizza all are slapping an “Obamacare surcharge” on the price of their products.  They claim they have no choice.

But the news that Americans might pay 50 cents more for a mediocre $10 meal at the Olive Garden is not what bothers me most. Since President Obama was re-elected each of these restaurant chains have announced that they also plan to cut many full-time workers’ hours back to less than 30 hours a week in order to duck the cost of providing health care benefits.. This means that employees who are now working 40 hours a week will have to look for a second job—or find a way to support themselves on less than three-quarters of their current salary.

Michael Tanner, a fellow at the conservative Cato Institute, argues that companies outside the restaurant business also will be forced to down-size. Just a few days ago, Tanner wrote: “While restaurants are especially vulnerable to the cost of Obamcare other business are being hit too. For example, Boston Scientific has announced that it will now lay off up to 1,400 workers and shift some jobs to China. And Dana Holdings, an auto-parts manufacturer with more than 25,000 employees, says it too is exploring ObamaCare-related layoffs.”

Obamacare will  “keep unemployment high,” Tanner claims, because under reform legislation, businesses that have at least 50 employees working over 30 hours a week are expected to offer their workers affordable health insurance. If they choose not to, and more than 30 of their employees qualify for government subsidies to help them purchase their own coverage, the employer must pay a penalty of $3,000 for each worker who receives a subsidy— up to a maximum of $2,000 times the number of the company’s full-time employee minus 30. (The Kaiser Family Foundation offers an excellent graphic explaining the rule.) 

By paying the fine, the employer is, in effect, paying a share of a tax credit that would cost the government anywhere from roughly $1,700 for a single young worker  to over $12,000 to help the average 35-year-old worker who has a spouse, two children, and reports $35,000 in total household income.

Conservatives like Tanner argue that that is unfair, and that small businesses– “the engine of job growth”– will be hit hardest.  

What they  don’t do is look at the math:

Continue reading

11 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

The Post-Election Edition of Health Wonk Review

This most recent edition of HWR, a compendium of some of the best health care posts of the past two weeks, came out ten days ago. I apologize that I’ve been tardy in commenting— but, not to worry, it’s an “evergreen.” The problems Health-Wonkers raise haven’t been solved in the past week, and the issues discussed remain just as “hot”– as they were.

Managed Care Matters” Joe Paduda does an outstanding job of hosting the round-up in a post titled: “Elections Have Consequences.”

He begins with “Health Policy and MarketPlace Review’s”  Bob Laszewski, who  notes in the wake of the election, we can be certain of one thing: Obamacare will be implemented. To be sure, there will be lawsuits challenging reform legislation, but Laszewski says, “I wouldn’t waste a lot of time worrying about those. Anyone in the market will do better spending their time getting ready for all of the change coming.” He’s far more worried about whether the government will be able to set up the Exchanges in time to meet the deadline—and how legislators are going to solve the “fiscal cliff” problem.

Writing on “Health Affairs” Timothy Jost agrees that “there is a great deal of work needs to be done before reform becomes a reality.”  He focuses on the many rules that the administration will need to issue to provide guidance to the states, to employers and to insurers:  “The exchanges must begin open enrollment on October 1, 2013,” he observes. “By that date, the exchanges must have certified qualified health plans.  But before health plans can be certified, they must have their rates and forms approved by the states.  And before that can happen, insurers must determine what plans they will offer and what premiums they will charge.  Yet insurers cannot establish their plans and set their rates until they know a lot more than they do now about the rules they are going to have to play by.” In other words, the administration had better “roll up its sleeves and get to work.”

Meanwhile, President Obama still must contend with ornery governors, and rebellious states. “In an ominous sign,” Jost notes, “Missouri passed a ballot initiative prohibiting state officials from cooperating with the federal exchange in its state,  and authorizing private lawsuits against any official who cooperates.”   (Thanks, Missouri–just what we need, lawsuits against officials trying to do their jobs..)  “Whether this is constitutional remains to be seen,” says Jost, who is a constitutional expert.

Continue reading

POST A COMMENT