Pandemic Clouds Health Insurance Cost Predictions

With large employers expecting health insurance rates to climb 5.3% in 2021, they are concerned about how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect overall health care costs in the coming years, a new survey has found.

Those expectations gleaned from the survey by the National Business Group on Health would mean average premiums and out-of-pocket spending could reach $15,500 per worker. The expected increase is on par with the average 5% annual increase that large employers have projected in the last five years.

Employers have been using different strategies to tame those costs, most notably pushing more telemedicine for their workers, a trend that has increased during the pandemic.

Additionally, employers have increased their investments in employee health and well-being programs, a trend that was largely spurred by the pandemic and employers’ understanding that their business performance is linked to the health of their workers.

The numbers going into 2021 are squishy because there has been a significant drop-off in the use of medical services in 2020 due to the pandemic. Many people have delayed non-urgent care to avoid the risk of being infected with COVID-19 if they go to the hospital.

Other people with serious conditions have also unwisely decided to forgo care out of fear of getting sick from the coronavirus.

Health care experts are not sure if that means there will be an uptick in utilization in 2021 and think the 5.3% estimate increase in costs will pan out if people continue to put off care, Conversely, if care resumes in 2021, the projected trend may prove to be too low.

Here’s what large employers are expecting:

  • Average total health care spending on premiums and out-of-pocket costs will reach $15,500 per worker in 2021, up from $14,769 this year.
  • Large employers will cover nearly 70% of costs (premiums), while employees bear the rest. That would mean the average outlay per employee would be $10,850 for the employer and $4,650 for the employee.

Trends

Employers are continuing to address health care costs by focusing on new areas that can improve health outcomes for their workers. The trends that large employers predict would continue in 2021 are:

Continued move towards telehealth services — The use of telemedicine has exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the survey respondents:

  • 76% have made changes to provide better access to telehealth services.
  • 71% have boosted the types of telehealth services they offer, such as adding health coaching and emotional well-being support.
  • 80% expect virtual health will play a significant role in how care is delivered in the future. That’s compared with just 64% last year and 52% in 2018.
  • 52% will offer more virtual care options next year.
  • Nearly all will offer telehealth services for minor, acute services.
  • 91% will offer online counseling or therapy.
  • 29% may start offering virtual care for musculoskeletal issues, like physical therapy for back and joint pain.

Boosting wellness and mental health services — As many as 88% of respondents said they would provide access to online mental health support resources, such as apps, videos and articles. The survey also found that:

  • 54% are lowering or waiving costs for virtual mental health services in 2021.
  • 27% will reduce the cost of counseling services at the worksite.

Focusing on primary care — More employers are looking at advanced primary care strategies to reduce costs, with 51% saying they will have one at least one such strategy in place for 2021.

This would include contracting directly with primary care providers who can improve the delivery of preventive services, chronic-disease management, mental health and whole-person care.

Addressing high-cost drug therapies — Two-thirds of respondents said they were very concerned with the cost of new million-dollar treatments, just one of which can blow up their health cost budget.

New Accumulator Programs Can Surprise Employees at Pharmacy Counter

An ongoing tense relationship between insurers and drug companies is spilling over and hitting enrollees in group health plans, by saddling them with additional out-of-pocket expenses.

Some insurers have started adopting copay accumulator programs — sometimes called accumulator adjustment programs — that change the way a patient’s out-of-pocket medication costs are added up (accumulated) when there is some type of drug company financial assistance for the health plan enrollee. 

These accumulator programs do not count the drug company assistance (in the form of coupons or copay cards) that defray the employee’s out-of-pocket expenses.

Unfortunately, many group plan enrollees often do not know that their group health plan has changed its policy to be an accumulator program. This is because they did not read the plan summary when they renewed their policy during open enrollment, or they read about it and didn’t understand how it works.

For most employees, the change will not make much of a difference, if any at all, if they are low users of their health benefits and rarely need prescription medications.

But, for heavy users and those with chronic health problems, the change could mean hundreds, if not thousands of dollars more out of pocket for their medicines. For patients who need expensive medications, drug makers will often provide copay assistance in the form of coupons or copay cards, which the enrollee shows the pharmacy when buying the drugs.

Essentially, accumulator programs block patients from using any third party monies toward their deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums.

How it works

To understand how an accumulator program works and how it may affect your employees, take the example of a patient who needs $15,000 worth of medications a year with a pharmaceutical out-of-pocket maximum of $7,000 on their health plan:

  • Traditional plan with no copay assistance: Employee pays $7,000 and the insurer pays $8,000.
  • Typical plan that allows copay assistance: Employee pays $4,000, copay assistance pays $3,000 and insurer pays $8,000.
  • Plan with copay accumulator: Employee pays $7,000, copay assistance pays $3,000 and insurer pays $5,000.

Insurers that have instituted the practice say they did so because they want to steer health plan enrollees toward generic medicines and away from pricier brand-name drugs.

They say that these copay cards and coupons are an incentive for pharmaceutical companies to inflate list prices for drugs, then offer copay assistance that spares the patient, but shifts more of the costs to the insurer.

Lawmakers in a number of states have taken note and are trying to address the practice legislatively. They have introduced legislation that would ban insurers from using accumulator policies when there’s no generic version of the drug available.

However, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in February 2020 proposed a rule allowing insurers to impose copay accumulator policies.  

What you can do

Many health plan enrollees do not know that their health plan has a copay accumulator program until they get to the pharmacy counter after they think they’ve reached their out-of-pocket limit and still have to pay for their medications. 

If they haven’t had this experience in the past with their plan, it’s maybe because they didn’t realize that it had switched to an accumulator program.

Come your company’s next open enrollment, you should stress to your staff that if any of them are large users of prescription medications, they need to carefully read their current plan’s summary of benefits as well as other plan documents.

If you have concerns that any of your staff might run into issues, you can call us to go over your current plans to identify those with or without accumulator programs.

This is especially important during open enrollment, as those enrollees that require expensive prescriptions should be given options, including at least one plan that does not use an accumulator program.