COVID-19 Changes to Health Plans Must Be Documented, Circulated

A number of plan sponsors have made changes to their group health plans in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as covering testing and sometimes treatment without any cost-sharing by the plan enrollee.

But any changes that are made must be followed up by amending the plan and communicating the changes to the enrollees.

Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, all health plans are required to deliver a Summary Plan Description (SPD) to enrollees to inform them of the full spectrum of coverage and their rights under the plan.

Whenever a plan sponsor makes a material modification to the terms of the plan or the information required to be in an SPD, they must amend the plan and let participants know about the change through a Summary of Material Modification (SMM).

Material changes

To qualify as “material,” a change must be important to plan enrollees. Examples include adding or eliminating a benefit, changing insurance companies, or changing rules for dependent eligibility.

Plan changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic that would have to be included in the SMM and SPD could include:

  • Offering continuing coverage to staff who would otherwise lose coverage due to a furlough, layoff or reduction of hours.
  • Changing eligibility terms to allow workers who may not have been eligible for coverage before to secure coverage (this could include part-time workers).
  • Covering a larger portion of an employee’s premium share.
  • Adding an employee assistance program to provide counseling for workers who may be undergoing unusual stress.
  • Adding telemedicine coverage.
  • Using funds in health savings accounts (HSAs) and flexible spending accounts (FSAs) to purchase over-the-counter medications.
  • Covering COVID-19 testing with no cost-sharing. 
  • Covering COVID-19 treatment without cost-sharing.

Some of the above changes are required by new laws and health plans must respond accordingly by changing their SMMs and SPDs. For example, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires that group health insurance and individual health insurance plans cover coronavirus testing with zero cost-sharing.

And the Coronavirus Aid, Recover and Economic Stabilization Act reverses an Affordable Care Act rule that barred policyholders from using funds in HSAs and FSAs to pay for over-the-counter medications. 

When the plan sponsor adopts these changes, it must also amend its plan summaries.

And SMMs must be delivered to plan participants within 60 days after a change has been adopted. You can deliver the SMM by mail, e-mail or posting it on your company’s intranet site. It’s recommended at this time that you opt for e-mail delivery.

One of the issues that may come up with any changes implemented in response to the COVID-19 outbreak is that some of the changes may be temporary. 

If that’s the case, the plan needs to include the termination date of any benefits that are adopted on a temporary basis.

However, if you don’t know how long the temporary benefits will be in effect, their temporary nature must be communicated in the SMM. Employers need to issue another SMM when the temporary benefit or coverage term ends.

The takeaway

This is an unusual time and unusual times call for unusual measures. It’s unusual for changes to be made to a plan in the middle of a plan year but because of the way the pandemic crash-landed, many plan sponsors have had to make changes. 

That said, you should work with us and your carrier on ensuring that the amended documents are sent out to staff.

As the employer, you should be aware of all the changes that have been made in response to COVID-19 so you can discuss them with any employees that have concerns or questions.

Substance-Abuse Benefits under Affordable Care Act

One less-touted aspect of the Affordable Care Act is that it provides employers more tools for assisting employees with substance-abuse problems to seek help.

According to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 10% of America’s workers are dependent on one substance or another. The study also found that 3.1% have used illegal drugs either before or during a shift. 

Also, 79% of heavy alcohol users have jobs, and 7% of them say they’ve had drinks while on duty. 

Drug use and abuse have been on the rise — both illegal drugs and prescription painkiller abuse, the latter of which led a more than a 500% increase in people seeking treatment for addiction to doctor-prescribed opioids between 2007 and 2017.

As an employer, the costs are great if you have someone on staff who has a substance-abuse problem. It behooves you to ensure that the group health plan you offer your workers is comprehensive amid this growing problem. 

Far-reaching costs

Addicted workers have been found to have:

  • Lower or lack of workplace productivity;
  • Higher health care costs;
  • Increased absenteeism and presenteeism;
  • Diminished quality control;
  • More disability claims;
  • Increased workplace injuries;
  • Lower morale;
  • Higher job turnover; and
  • Employee theft.

Some employers have tried to help employees tackle their addictions or abuse problems by implementing workplace prevention, wellness and disease-management strategies. These programs improve health, which lowers health care costs and insurance premiums and produces a healthier, more productive workforce.

Under the ACA, anybody covered by a health plan has access to substance-abuse treatment. That’s because the law makes such treatment one of 10 benefits insurance plans must offer.

The ACA requires health plans to pay for prevention and early intervention. 

Health care plans also have to comply with a “parity” law, which requires them to treat mental health issues the same way they do physical diseases.

What else can you do?

  • You can start by adding addiction to your prevention, intervention, treatment and disease-management strategies.
  • Use confidential screenings and assessments. There are a number of screening, brief-intervention and referral-to-treatment modules available to help people confront their drinking or drug use and get the help they need. 
  • Review your policy for coverage. If you have coverage for substance-abuse treatment, employees with addictions will be more apt to seek out help knowing the cost is at least partially covered.

And, importantly, make sure your substance-abuse benefit is robust, and that it covers a full continuum of care. 

A strong benefit would include:

  • Inpatient care;
  • Residential treatment programs; 
  • Outpatient care; and
  • Continuing care for those in need of treatment.

Concerns Rise Over Letting Employers Fund HRAs for Individual Health Plans

Employers, health insurers, regulators and hospitals are all raising concerns about the Trump administration’s rules issued last year that allow employers to fund health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) that their workers can use to purchase health plans on the open market.

The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, IRS and the Department of Labor issued the final rules in late 2019. They reverse one of the major pinch-points of the Affordable Care Act, which bars employers from paying employees to buy their own health insurance either on publicly run health insurance exchanges or on the open market.

The fine for breaching this part of the law is a hefty $36,500 annually.

The rules continue to receive pushback from small business groups, insurers, regulators and others, who say that employers who want to go this route are facing a bureaucratic nightmare.

And one of the biggest concerns is that employers will use the opportunity to move older and sicker workers from their group health plans to exchanges, in order to reduce the cost burden on their plans.

Complexity a major issue

The National Federation of Independent Business has said that small businesses that want to offer workers an HRA integrated with an individual-market health plan are facing a lot of complexity.

“NFIB recommends that your departments plan to release… a publication that explains in plain English, step-by-step, how small businesses can establish, administer, and comply with the rules,” the group wrote.

HRAs are tax-sheltered accounts funded employers that typically are offered to reimburse employees for out-of-pocket medical expenses. This rule expands how those HRAs can be used. HRAs have been tax-advantaged only if they are coupled with an ACA-compliant group health plan. They cannot be used now to pay premiums for individual-market health insurance.

Under the rule, employers could provide an HRA that is integrated with individual health insurance coverage. The rule does include provisions to prevent employers from steering workers or dependents with costly health conditions away from the employer group plan and toward individual coverage.

Employers also could offer a different type of HRA, funded up to $1,800 a year, that could be used by employees to pay premiums for short-term plans that don’t comply with ACA consumer protections.

Employers could not offer the same employees the choice of either a traditional group plan or an HRA-funded individual-market plan. But they could offer a group plan to certain classes of employees, such as full-time workers under age 25, and an HRA plan to other classes, such as part-time employees.

Fears many may be shunted from group plans

Other concerns that are being raised include those by the American Academy of Actuaries that self-insured employers, in particular, may use the rule to shunt less healthy employees out of their group health plans, which in turn could result in worsening the ACA individual-market risk pool.

The Federation of American Hospitals expressed concern that the proposal would shift people out of the employer group market into the less stable individual market, which offers thinner benefits and less support for consumers.

The conservative National Federation of Independent Business supports the new rule but is concerned that it will be a complex process to set this type of arrangement up, especially for small businesses.

The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said the proposal to let a special type of HRA be used to buy short-term plans could be challenged legally, because the ACA and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prohibit group plans from discriminating based on health status, as short-term plans are allowed to do.

New Rules Allow Employers to Reimburse for Health Premiums

Starting Jan. 1, 2020, employers can establish accounts for their employees to help them pay for individual health insurance policies they purchase, as well as for other health care expenses.

A new regulation expands on how health reimbursement accounts can be used. Currently, employers and their workers can contribute to these accounts, which can be used to reimburse workers for out-of-pocket medical expenses.

With these new Individual Coverage HRAs, employers can fund the account workers would use to pay for health insurance premiums for coverage that they secure on their own.

Up until this new regulation, such arrangements were prohibited by the Affordable Care Act under the threat of sizeable fines in excess of $36,000 per employee per year.

This rule is the result of legislation signed into law by President Obama in December 2016, which created the “qualified small employer health reimbursement arrangement (QSEHRA),” which would allow small employers to reimburse for individual insurance under strict guidelines.

The Trump administration was tasked with writing the regulations, which created the Individual Coverage HRA (ICHRA).

How it works

Under the new rule, if an employer is funding an ICHRA, the plan an employee chooses must be ACA-compliant, meaning it must include coverage for the 10 essential benefits with no lifetime or annual benefit maximums — and must adhere to the consumer protections built into the law.

Once the ICHRA is created, the employer will a set amount every month into the account on a pre-tax basis, which the employee can then use to buy or supplement their purchase of health insurance benefits in the individual market.

The law allows employers to set up as many as 11 different classes of employees for the purposes of distributing funds to ICHRAs. The employer can vary how much they give to each different group. For example, one class may get $600 a month per single employee with no dependents, while members of another class may receive $400 a month.

The allowable classes are:

Full-time employees — For the purposes of satisfying the employer mandate, that means a worker who averages 30 or more hours per week.

Part-time employees — Like the above, the employer can choose how to define what part-time is.

Seasonal employees — Workers hired for short-term positions, usually during particularly busy periods.

Temps who work for a staffing firm — These employees provide temporary services for the business, but are formally employed through a staffing firm.

Salaried employees — Staff who have a have a fixed annual salary and are not typically paid overtime.

Hourly employees — Staff who are paid on an hourly basis and can earn overtime.

Employees covered under a collective bargaining agreement — Employees who are members of a labor union that has a contract with the employer.

Employees in a waiting period — This class would include workers who were recently hired and are in their waiting period before they can receive health benefits (in many companies, this is 90 days).

Foreign employees who work abroad — These employees work outside of the U.S.

Employees in different locations, based on rating areas — These employees live outside the individual health insurance rating area of the business’s physical address.

A combination of two or more of the above — Businesses can also create additional classes by combining two or more of the above classes.

The rules for ICHRAs are as follows:

  • Any employee covered by the ICHRA must be enrolled in health insurance coverage purchased in the individual market, and must verify that they have such coverage (as mentioned above, that coverage must be ACA-compliant);
  • The employer may not offer the same class of workers both an ICHRA and a traditional group health plan;
  • The employer must offer the ICHRA on the same terms to all employees in a class;
  • Employees must be allowed to opt out of receiving an ICHRA;
  • Employers must provide detailed information to employees on how the ICHRA works;
  • Employers may not create a class of employees younger than 25, whom they might want to keep in their group plan because they’re healthier;
  • A class cannot have less than 10 employees in companies with fewer than 100 workers. For employers with 100 to 200 employees, the minimum class size is 10% of the workforce, while for employers with 200 or more staff, the minimum size is 20 employees;
  • While benefits must be distributed fairly to employees that fall within each class, each class can be broken down further by age and family size. That means employees with families can be offered a higher amount per month and rates can be scaled by age.

As Specialty Drug Costs Bite, Employers Have Options

A new study has found that while group health plan costs will continue growing at the same rate as in the last few years (about 4% a year), the increases would be far less were it not for the spiraling costs of high-cost specialty prescription drugs. 

The 2020 “Segal Health Plan Cost Trend Survey,” which polled health insurers, third party administrators, pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) and other payers, found that chemotherapy drugs and other specialty pharmaceuticals are having an outsized effect on overall health claims payments.

Unfortunately, this is forcing plan sponsors to figure out how to balance coverage of life-saving drugs with plan affordability. But there are steps you can take to rein in drug cost inflation.

Payers expect that pharmaceutical costs will increase by 7.1% in 2020 from this year and that the cost of specialty drugs will double that inflationary rate at 15.4%.

Rebates account for a significant part of the pharmaceutical equation. Survey respondents said that they expect the average impact of rebates would reduce overall drug price inflation by about 1.5%.

The rising cost of brand-name drug expenditures is due to drug price inflation primarily, although one-third of the increase is due to more prescriptions being filled.

Other findings in the report by Segal, a health and retirement consulting firm, are:

  • Price increases are the primary driver of medical and drug trends.
  • Double-digit specialty drug costs are mostly driven by price increases and the introduction of new and more expensive drugs.
  • Reimbursement rates for hospital networks are projected to increase at a higher rate than physician claims.
  • Plan cost trends continue to outpace both inflation and wage growth by a factor of more than two.

The study notes that projected costs in earlier surveys have always been lower than actual inflation of medical treatment and drug outlays. To deal with these increasing costs, Segal identified the top health plan cost-containment strategies that are in use in 2019:

  • Use of health care transparency tools.
  • Expanding pharmaceutical management for non-specialty drugs.
  • Expanding pharmaceutical management for specialty drugs.
  • Offering telehealth/virtual care.
  • Value-based contracting. 

What you can do

Segal recommends the following tactics for managing drug benefit costs, as well as for contracts with PBMs:

Aim for innovative contracting with PBMs ― Hold PBMs contractually accountable for controlling costs. Contract terms can include unique specialty-drug pricing guarantees, performance-based rebates, direct contracting with regional specialty pharmacies and adoption of value-based formularies.

Expand clinical checks ― Amend plan terms to include clinical safeguards like step therapy, targeted prior authorization for high-cost services and quantity-duration limits based on Food and Drug Administration guidelines.

Plan benefit design ― Use benefit designs to increase the use of generics and lower-cost brand-name drugs, in order to help manage drug cost inflation. This can include the use of tiered designs which place clinically effective, lower-cost drugs into lower tiers at lower cost-sharing. 
Also, more plan sponsors that charge drug coinsurance offer point-of-sale rebates that lower participants’ out-of-pocket expenses.

Auditing ― Conduct periodic audits of your PBM and carefully evaluate drug classification against contract terms and pricing guarantees. This is important because some PBMs continue to apply complicated pricing reclassifications that can increase your costs.

Short-term Health Plans Skimp on Medical Payments

A new report by the trade publication Modern Healthcare shows just how little short-term care plans spend on enrollees’ medical claims.

The report found that some plans spent as little as 9 cents of every premium dollar they collected on medical care.

The average paid out among the short-term plans analyzed in a report by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners was 39.2%. That’s a far cry from the 80% of premiums health plans are required to spend on medical care to comply with the Affordable Care Act.

The figures shine a harsh light on just how little short-term health plan policyholders benefit from the plans they purchase. 

The Trump administration issued regulations in 2018 that extended the amount of time someone can enroll in a short-term health plan to 12 months, and policyholders can renew coverage for a maximum of 36 months.

These plans do not have to comport with the ACA, like not covering 10 essential benefits and not having to cover pre-existing conditions – and they can even exclude coverage for medications.

2018 short-term health plan medical outlays*

Cambia Health Solutions: 9.3%
Spectrum Health: 36.1%
Genève Holdings: 36.2%
UnitedHealth Group: 37.3%
Medical Mutual of Ohio: 40.4%
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of SC: 44.2%
As a percentage of premium charged

The above chart means that for every dollar collected in premium, the average short-term plan spent 39 cents on medical care for policyholders – with the rest spent on administration or kept as profit.

Short-term plans usually lack the consumer protections found in ACA-compliant plans and they have gaps in coverage that may not be readily apparent in marketing materials, which makes it difficult to compare plans and understand the full scope of coverage.

Importantly, as stated above, they are not required to and usually don’t cover the 10 essential health benefits that the ACA requires compliant plans to cover at no cost to the enrollee.

This scant coverage makes these plans much cheaper than ACA-compliant plans.

Here are some of the features of short-term plans that ACA-compliant plans are not permitted to offer:

Use health histories to determine who can get coverage – Applicants for short-term plans must often answer a health questionnaire used to screen out applicants with symptoms of an illness or condition – even if not yet diagnosed or treated. Some plans also exclude coverage for conditions for which medical advice, diagnosis, care or treatment was recommended or received in the prior 12 months.

Exclude key service categories from covered benefits – Few if any short-term plans cover maternity. Prescription drugs are not always covered, or they are only partially covered. Some plans exclude coverage for mental health, substance use disorder services, and tobacco cessation treatment.

No pre-existing conditions – Few short-term plans cover any pre-existing conditions. Typically, they cover only what’s listed in the Schedule of Benefits. If one of those is a pre-existing condition, it will likely have a cap of no more than $30,000. Also, insurers will often deny claims or cancel coverage for conditions they consider to be pre-existing.

Covered services limited – Many short-term plans have covered benefit limits like:

  • $1,000 per day for a hospital room and board
  • $1,250 a day for intensive care
  • $50 a day for doctor visits while in hospital
  • Total benefits are often capped at little more than $100,000 per year.

Renewal not guaranteed – Short-term plans will rarely guarantee renewal. If an enrollee suddenly develops a new health condition, the plan will likely not renew them.

Small Employers Can Reimburse for Medicare Part B, D Premiums

As the workforce ages and many employers want to keep on baby-boomer staff who have the experience and institutional knowledge that is irreplaceable, one issue that always comes up is how to handle health insurance.

Once your older workers reach the age of eligibility for Medicare, under current law you can help them pay for Part B and D premiums with a Medicare Premium Reimbursement Arrangement. These types of arrangements became legal after legislation was signed into law in 2013 to help employers provide benefits to their Medicare-eligible staff.

But the issue surfaced again recently when the Trump administration came out with new guidance for health reimbursement arrangements that paves the way for employers to set up HRAs to reimburse staff for health premiums in their personal (not company group) health plans.

Anybody who is about to turn 65 has a six-month period to sign up for basic Medicare, but if they want additional coverage they can pay for Medicare supplemental coverage such as Parts B and D.

Part B covers two types of services:

Medically necessary services: Services or supplies that are needed to diagnose or treat your medical condition and that meet accepted standards of medical practice.

Preventive services: Health care to prevent illness (like the flu) or detect it at an early stage, when treatment is most likely to work best.

Part D, meanwhile, covers prescription drug costs.

The dilemma for employers has often been whether to keep the Medicare-eligible employee on the company health plan or cut them free on Medicare.

Smaller employers – those with 20 full-time-equivalent employees – have the option to open a Medicare Premium Reimbursement Arrangement for those employees if they are coming off a group health plan and into Medicare.

For small employers, it’s legal to set up an arrangement like that, as long as doing so is at the employee’s discretion. Employers are not allowed to push an employee into a Medicare Premium Reimbursement Arrangement in order to get them off the company’s health plan.

The good news for employers is that they often can reimburse their employees in full for Part B and D, as well as Medicare Supplement, and still pay less than they would pay in group employee premiums alone. 

On top of that, the employee gets a lower deductible and overall out-of-pocket experience with less, if any, premium contribution.  

What you need to know

Here’s what you should know if you’re considering one of these arrangements:

A Medicare reimbursement arrangement is one where the employer reimburses some or all of Medicare part B or D premiums for employees, as long as the employer’s payment plan is integrated with the group’s health plan.

To be integrated with the group health plan:

  • The employer must offer a minimum-value group health plan,
  • The employee must be enrolled in Medicare Parts A and B,
  • The plan must only available to employees enrolled in Medicare Parts A and B, or D, and
  • The reimbursement is limited to Medicare Parts B or D, including Medigap premiums.

Note: Certain employers are subject to Medicare Secondary Payer rules that prohibit incentives to the Medicare-eligible population.

New Rule Allows Employers to Pay Workers to Buy Their Own Health Coverage

The Trump administration has issued new rules that would allow employers to provide workers with funds in health reimbursement accounts (HRAs) that can be used to purchase health insurance on the individual market.

The rule reverses a long-standing part of the Affordable Care Act that carried hefty fines of up to $36,500 a year per employee for applicable large employers that are caught providing funds to workers so they can buy insurance.

The rule was put in place to keep employers from shunting unhealthy or older workers from their group health plans into private insurance and government-run marketplaces.

Under the rules issued by the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Treasury, employers would be authorized to fund, on a pre-tax basis, health reimbursement funds that to buy ACA-compliant plans. The new rules take effect Jan. 1, 2020.

With the final rules written in a way to keep employers from trying to reduce their group benefit costs by sending sicker and older workers into the individual market, HHS noted in a press release announcing the rule that it would closely monitor employers to make sure this type of adverse selection doesn’t occur.

Typically, HRAs have only been allowed to be used to reimburse workers for out-of-pocket medical expenses. This rule allows them to also be used to pay for health insurance premiums for coverage that a worker may secure on their own.

’Integration’ conditions

The regulation permits an HRA to be “integrated” with certain qualifying individual health plan coverage. In order to be integrated with individual market coverage, the HRA must meet several conditions:

  • Any individual covered by the HRA must be enrolled in health insurance coverage purchased in the individual market, and must substantiate and verify that they have such coverage;
  • The employer may not offer the same class of individuals both an HRA and a “traditional group health plan”;
  • The employer must offer the HRA on the same terms to all employees in a “class”;
  • Employees must have the ability to opt out of receiving the HRA;
  • Employers must provide a detailed notice to employees on how the HRAs work;
  • Employers may not create a class of employees younger than age 25, whom they might want to keep in their group plan because they’re healthier.
  • For employers with one to 100 employees, a class cannot have less than 10 employees; for employers with 100 to 200 employees, the minimum class size is 10% of the workforce; and for employers with 200 or more employees, the minimum class size is 20 employees.

While the HRA money can be used mostly for buying plans that meet ACA requirements, employers under the rule can establish a special type of “excepted benefit” HRA for employees who want to buy less expensive short-term plans that do not comply with the ACA.  The contribution for such plans would be capped at $1,800 a year.

Under the ACA, employers with 50 or more full-time workers (applicable large employers) must provide their employees with health insurance that covers 10 essential minimum benefits and must be “affordable.”

Under the new rule, an applicable large employer could meet their obligation if they provide adequate HRA contributions for employees to buy individual coverage.

New Rule Allows Employers to Pay Workers to Buy Their Own Health Coverage

The Trump administration has issued new rules that would allow employers to provide workers with funds in health reimbursement accounts (HRAs) that can be used to purchase health insurance on the individual market.

The rule reverses a long-standing part of the Affordable Care Act that carried hefty fines of up to $36,500 a year per employee for applicable large employers that are caught providing funds to workers so they can buy insurance.

The rule was put in place to keep employers from shunting unhealthy or older workers from their group health plans into private insurance and government-run marketplaces.

Under the rules issued by the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Treasury, employers would be authorized to fund, on a pre-tax basis, health reimbursement funds that to buy ACA-compliant plans. The new rules take effect Jan. 1, 2020.

With the final rules written in a way to keep employers from trying to reduce their group benefit costs by sending sicker and older workers into the individual market, HHS noted in a press release announcing the rule that it would closely monitor employers to make sure this type of adverse selection doesn’t occur.

Typically, HRAs have only been allowed to be used to reimburse workers for out-of-pocket medical expenses. This rule allows them to also be used to pay for health insurance premiums for coverage that a worker may secure on their own.

’Integration’ conditions

The regulation permits an HRA to be “integrated” with certain qualifying individual health plan coverage. In order to be integrated with individual market coverage, the HRA must meet several conditions:

  • Any individual covered by the HRA must be enrolled in health insurance coverage purchased in the individual market, and must substantiate and verify that they have such coverage;
  • The employer may not offer the same class of individuals both an HRA and a “traditional group health plan”;
  • The employer must offer the HRA on the same terms to all employees in a “class”;
  • Employees must have the ability to opt out of receiving the HRA;
  • Employers must provide a detailed notice to employees on how the HRAs work;
  • Employers may not create a class of employees younger than age 25, whom they might want to keep in their group plan because they’re healthier.
  • For employers with one to 100 employees, a class cannot have less than 10 employees; for employers with 100 to 200 employees, the minimum class size is 10% of the workforce; and for employers with 200 or more employees, the minimum class size is 20 employees.

While the HRA money can be used mostly for buying plans that meet ACA requirements, employers under the rule can establish a special type of “excepted benefit” HRA for employees who want to buy less expensive short-term plans that do not comply with the ACA.  The contribution for such plans would be capped at $1,800 a year.

Under the ACA, employers with 50 or more full-time workers (applicable large employers) must provide their employees with health insurance that covers 10 essential minimum benefits and must be “affordable.”

Under the new rule, an applicable large employer could meet their obligation if they provide adequate HRA contributions for employees to buy individual coverage.

Ohio Auditor’s Report on PBMs Sparks Changes

An audit carried out for Ohio Medicaid found that large pharmacy benefit managers that contract with the state’s Medicaid program have been pocketing a larger and larger share of drug pricing.

In fact, PBMs charged Ohio Medicaid plans 31% more for generic prescriptions than the amount they paid pharmacists for the drugs, the audit found, shedding light on a practice that observers say is being mirrored throughout the country.

The auditor found that the two largest PBMs operating in the state billed Medicaid managed-care plans $223.7 million more for prescription drugs than they paid pharmacy providers in 2017.

The report comes as pressure grows on PBMs to be more transparent about their pricing and costs amid complaints by pharmacies that are barely breaking even or losing money due to the tough contracts they have to enter into with PBMs. Many critics say that PBMs are not passing on the savings to payers when they negotiate lower contracts with pharmacies.

“We know that Ohio is not alone,” Ernie Boy, executive director of the Ohio Pharmacy Association, said in a prepared statement. “Every state and every payer in the country is grappling with these overinflated costs.”

What’s going on

Medicaid doesn’t directly pay pharmacists. Ohio Medicaid pays five private insurance companies to manage Medicaid plans for the state. The insurance companies contract out pharmacy benefits to middlemen, which pay pharmacists to fill prescriptions.

Medicaid and most health plans contract with PBMs to essentially run the drug portion of the health insurance equation. They are supposed to negotiate volume discounts with drug-makers and rates with pharmacies to reduce the overall drug spend by the payers.

PBMs make a good deal of their money from a growing “spread” between what the PBM pays pharmacies and what it charges payers (in this case, the state Medicaid program). The PBM keeps the spread, but most PBMs are not transparent about how much the spread is, leaving both the pharmacies and the payers in the dark.

According to the report, the overall spread in 2017 in Ohio was $224.8 million – with an average spread of 8.9% per prescription. Generic drugs, which comprise 86% of Medicaid prescriptions in Ohio and for which pricing is most opaque, accounted for an overwhelming majority of the spread.

The report found that during the entire study period:

  • The average spread was $5.71 per prescription.
  • The average spread for brand-name prescriptions was $1.85.
  • The average spread for generic prescriptions was $6.14.
  • The average spread for specialty drugs was $33.49.

Generic drugs account for 86% of Medicaid prescription claims in Ohio.

The auditor stated in its report that PBMs’ administrative fees typically range from $0.95 to $1.90 per prescription.

“Although this figure may not include all of services performed by a (pharmacy benefit manager), it suggests Ohio’s current spread may be excessive and warrants the state taking further action to mitigate the impact on the Medicaid program,” the report stated.

As part of its findings, the auditor noted that pharmacies in Ohio have been shuttering at a brisk pace since Medicaid PBMs have been cutting how much they reimburse them for medications.

Between 2013 and 2017, some 371 pharmacies closed in Ohio, coinciding with significant reimbursement reductions in their PBM contracts. The majority of those closures have taken place since 2016.

As a result of the audit, Ohio’s Medicaid department directed its managed-care organizations to quit their contracts with PBMs, citing the opaque pricing practices.

The state’s five managed-care plans were required to enter into new contracts with companies that were able to manage pharmacy services using a more transparent pricing model by the start of 2019.