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Uncategorized

Narrow Networks, Tiered Plans May Reduce Costs

Inflation, an aging workforce and people catching up on care they skipped during the COVID-19 pandemic are some of the main ingredients that will drive the cost of group health benefits over the coming years.

The key for employers grappling with these higher costs is how they can reduce their impact by switching up plan offerings and choosing plans that do a good job of managing specialty drug costs, which have been spiraling over the last decade.

Health spending dropped considerably in 2020 and 2021 as people stayed away from health care environments, but now people are back seeking care that was delayed. That’s caused a sudden spike in claims for health plans across the board.

Also, more health plans have boosted their mental health offerings, which patients have been taking advantage of, leading to further outlays, according to a recent report by Marsh McLennan Agency.

While there is not much employers can do about rising premiums, a combination of measures could help businesses defray cost increases in the near term.

Compare insurance plans and providers

If you’ve been offering the same plans every year, we can work with you to compare providers to see if there are better deals for you among their competitors.

Also, plans can vary greatly among insurance plans and each insurer will have different deals to offer. Even your current slate of insurers may have plans that you are not offering.

We can help you cut through the noise and find plans that may be a better fit for your organization.

It is important to keep in mind that a lower premium does not mean it’s the best deal. Some lower-cost plans may have narrower networks, which could result in some employees losing access to their regular doctors.

That said, there’s been a trend towards so-called “high-performance,” narrow provider networks that aim to reduce costs while maintaining efficiencies and quality of care.

Other cost-saving measures

Insurance carriers have been trying out new approaches to controlling costs, while improving health outcomes for their plan enrollees. Money spent up front on quality health services can yield future savings if the patient needs less treatment.

Some insurers and self-insured employers have been able to generate savings of 5 to 15% by employing:

Tiered networks — These health plans sort providers into tiers based on their cost and, often, quality relative to other similar providers who treat comparable patients. Providers with higher quality and lower cost are typically given the most-preferred tier rankings.

Centers of excellence — Many self-insured employers and more health plans are also contracting with “centers of excellence.” While there is no specific definition of a COE, these providers deliver positive patient outcomes, lower costs, raise member engagement and have high rates of patient satisfaction.

Often, an OEC may have a specialty, like a chronic disease or a specific service such as radiology. Working in tandem with a clinical analytics vendor, payers will connect members with health systems that demonstrate high performance in these areas.

Referral management — More health plans are also starting to use referral management software to improve efficiency and trust in care coordination.

These systems synchronize patient data transmission from one physician to another, and also to the patient. A referral management system aims to facilitate good communication between the consultant, specialist, health care provider and the patient.

The system increases trustworthiness and transparency of treatment and diagnosis, and decreases inefficiency in care coordination and operational arrangements.

The above measures can be applied across the care continuum — hospitals, primary care, specialty groups, post-acute providers and ancillary care — while maintaining access and quality of care.

The takeaway

Getting the cost equation right will be a challenge in the coming years as premiums are expected to rise at a faster clip than they have been in the last five years.

Talk to us about finding health plans that are offering different structures for addressing costs while also improving care for your workers.

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Uncategorized

Inflation Could Hit Group Health Insurance Premiums

The health care sector is not immune to the effects of spiking inflation, and the increasing cost of care is likely to spill over into health insurance — but it’s uncertain by how much.

Mid-year is the time that health insurers start setting their pricing for the upcoming year, and they are currently locked in what one trade publication calls “bloody” contract negotiations with doctors and medical networks to secure the highest prices they can for their services.

Hospitals and medical services facilities such as labs and imaging centers, like other employers, have to contend with the volatile job market and the spiking cost of supplies and machinery.

But the effects on health plans are still unclear as insurers can reduce the impact of higher costs by paring down networks, scaling back some benefits. This may be the case for smaller insurers that have less clout than their larger counterparts, but experts say that inflation will have a greater effect on rates than in recent years.

Add to the equation recent interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve, which will increase health systems’ borrowing costs and even impede funding for new capital projects.

When they negotiate network rates with insurers, providers take into account all of their own costs when tabulating their offers.

Using spiking inflation as leverage

The trade publication Modern Healthcare noted in a recent report that escalating costs have already influenced contract negotiations between medical providers and insurers.

According to Modern Healthcare, providers that are currently in negotiations “can use inflation as leverage, given that physician groups’ and hospitals’ daily operations are tied to the rising cost of gas, food and other goods.”

It predicts also that providers will argue that more people will forgo or delay care as inflation eats into their expendable income, which in turn will increase the cost of care in the long run as those untreated issues develop into serious ailments.

Medical providers and insurers usually negotiate new contracts every three years, so those hospitals and doctors that renegotiated last year or in 2020 will have to absorb their higher costs. Inflation is already built into these contracts, which didn’t anticipate the higher levels we’ve witnessed in 2021 and 2022.

That leaves them in a bind since insurers won’t be willing to renegotiate contracts that include provisions offsetting higher-than-expected inflation.

It’s due to these pre-negotiated contracts that employers didn’t see a surge in their premiums coming into 2022. But that may change as new contracts come into effect.

While the industry was not terribly affected by inflation in 2021, recent data suggests it’s starting to hit health care providers.

Hospitals’ average labor expense per adjusted discharge in March 2022 rose 15% from the same month in 2021 and 32% from 2020, according to the Kaufman Hall “National Hospital Flash Report.”

Meanwhile, providers are paying more for supplies and equipment, as well. Non-labor expense per adjusted discharge rose nearly 26% compared with February 2020.

How will my premiums be affected?

The big question of how much of these increased costs hospitals and other providers will be able to pass along to health insurers and patients remains. For certain, inflationary pressures will be a topic of discussion during contract negotiations for 2023.

While rates for group health plans are still being set, many carriers have already filed 2023 rates for plans they sell on Affordable Care Act marketplaces. Average rate hike filings for 2023 have been hovering around 7.5% in mid-2022.

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Uncategorized

Tackling the Group Health Employee Premium Burden

As the labor market tightens and businesses struggle to attract new talent, many companies are starting to boost their employee benefit offerings, particularly voluntary benefits.

But besides added benefit choices, what many employees want is relief from continually increasing health premiums as well as more options to choose from for their health insurance.

Group health insurance cost inflation has been averaging about 5% annually over the past few years and many employees have been put into plans that may have kept their share of premiums steady (like high-deductible health plans, or HDHPs), but which have instead increased their out-of-pocket costs. 

As we exit the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, more workers are looking to their employers to give them some relief from spiraling premiums and health care expenses. Here are a few things you can do.

Reduce the employee’s share of premium

You could choose to pay for a higher percentage of the premium, which would reduce their monthly contributions. If that’s not feasible, one tactic that can end up saving you and your employees money is offering to either pay a certain portion of the premium if they choose a silver plan, or pay for the entire premium for employees who choose bronze plans.

The trade-off for the workers who choose the latter option is having no premiums, but more out-of-pocket expenses when they use health care services.

But if you are thinking about taking this route, please discuss it with us first as it’s best to crunch the numbers to see how cost-effective it would be for you. 

The majority of workers contribute a portion of the premium for their coverage. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation “2020 Employer Health Benefits Survey”:

  • The average U.S. worker contributes 17% of the group health plan premium for single coverage, and 27% of the premium for family coverage.
  • Workers in small firms contribute on average 35% for family coverage.
  • Workers in large firms contribute on average 24% for family coverage.
  • Workers in both small and large firms contribute on average 17% for single coverage.

The other option is to just offer to pay for a greater percentage of the premium across the board on the policies you do offer. Obviously, that comes with added expense. But it’s not a strictly financial decision, as a more generous benefits package can have the added advantage of helping you keep key talent and generate employee loyalty.

Offer different types of plans

This can be a win-win for everyone. Younger, healthy employees that do not use health care services often can opt for an HDHP, which features a lower up-front premium in return for the participant having to spend more out of pocket for services they access. But if someone doesn’t use medical services often, this type of plan may the right and most cost-effective option.

On the other hand, for older workers or those who see the doctor more often or have health issues, they may be more inclined to go with a preferred provider organization (PPO) to pay more for a higher premium in exchange for lower out-of-pocket costs over the year.

For the fifth year in a row, the percentage of companies that offer high-deductible plans as the sole option will decline in 2021, according to a survey of large employers by the National Business Group on Health. That may be a continuation of a trend, but the pandemic has also put an emphasis on improved employee benefits.

Here’s a breakdown of the kinds of small group plans across the country in 2020, according to Kaiser:

  • PPOs covered 47% of workers.
  • HDHPs covered 31%.
  • Health maintenance organizations (HMOs) covered 13%.
  • Point-of-sale plans covered 8%.
  • Conventional (indemnity) plans covered 1%.

Hire more employees

The more people you have in your group health plan, the more the risk is spread around, which can yield lower premiums. 

If you divide the risk amount of a small group of workers compared with a large pool, the law of averages dictates that the insurer will pay less in claims per worker in the larger pool.

In other words, the more employees you hire, the less risk for the insurance company, and the greater premium discount they can offer.

Talk to us

An experienced benefits consultant can help you analyze your spending, and a good broker can help you get the best rates thanks to their network and know-how.

We can provide the insights you need to make the best decision on which types of plans to offer your workers and the best plans for your and your employees’ money ― and we can negotiate the best rates possible on your behalf.

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Uncategorized

How a New Law Affects Group Health Plans

The newly enacted Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 contains a number of provisions that will affect group health plans, with most changes aimed at helping insured workers with flexible spending accounts (FSAs), cost transparency and surprise billing.

Some of the provisions are permanent while others are temporary, slated to run through the anticipated end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s a look at the highlights that will affect employer-sponsored health benefits.

FSA carryover rules loosened

The new law authorizes employers to amend their cafeteria plans and FSAs to either:

  • Allow participating staff to carry over unused amounts from the 2020 plan year to the 2021 plan year (and from 2021 to 2022 as well), or
  • Provide a 12-month period at the end of the 2020 and 2021 plan years.

Under existing law, employers can only allow employees to carry over $550 from one plan year to the next.

The law also allows employees who stop participating in their FSA because they were terminated to continue receiving reimbursement from unused funds through the end of the year during which they stopped participating.

Finally, under the CAA, employees can change how much they set aside into their FSA mid-year (usually they can only change their contribution levels ahead of a new plan year).

In all of the above cases, employers must approve these changes and update them in their plan documents.

Health plan transparency

The CAA also bars “gag clauses,” which bar health insurers from entering into contracts that restrict a plan from accessing and sharing certain information. This is effective as of Dec. 27, 2020.

The goal of these new rules is to increase transparency in pricing and quality information for health care consumers and plan sponsors. 

In addition, there are new requirements for health plan ID cards for enrollees, and they will be required to include the following information starting with the 2022 plan year:

  • Deductibles that are applicable to their coverage
  • Out-of-pocket maximum limits
  • Phone number and website address that enrollees can access for assistance.

Surprise billing

The CAA also created the No Surprises Act, which will, starting with the 2022 plan year, cap a plan enrollee’s cost-sharing obligations for out-of-network services to the plan’s applicable in-network cost-sharing level for the following three categories of services:

  • Emergency services performed by an out-of-network provider or facility, and post-stabilization care if the patient cannot be moved to an in-network facility;
  • Non-emergency services performed by out-of-network providers at in-network facilities, including hospitals, ambulatory surgical centers, labs, radiology facilities and imaging centers; and
  • Air ambulance services provided by out-of-network providers.

The takeaway

With so many changes, employers who sponsor group health plans for their workers need to have a plan to make sure they and their health plans comply.

 What to do now: If you offer FSAs to your staff and want them to be able to carry over funds from 2020 to 2021, and next year as well, you will need to make those changes to your plan documents.

Employers that sponsor group health plans should review their agreements with their health insurers and ensure that their plan contractors include language indicating that the contract complies with the prohibition on gag clauses.

What to prepare for: Starting with the 2022 plan year, employers should check with us or their insurer to make sure that the transparency changes are reflected in their plan documents and that their employees’ health plan cards also include the changes required by the new law. 

Plans should also reflect the new rules created by the No Surprises Act.

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Uncategorized

Uncertainty Weighs on Group Plan Cost Expectations

U.S. employers are expecting their group health insurance costs to climb 4.4% in 2021, despite the ravages of pandemic and a likely uptick in health care usage next year, according to a new survey.

The expected rate increases are on par with much of the last few years, when insurance premium inflation has hovered between 3% and 4%. Despite the expected increase, employers do not plan to cut back on benefits for their employees, according to the Mercer “National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans 2020.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has injected a large dose of uncertainty into the marketplace. Overall, health care expenditures have plummeted since the pandemic started, which at first seems counterintuitive. But many hospitals postponed elective and non-emergency surgeries and procedures, while fewer individuals were seeking care either out of fear of going in for it or because they could not get appointments.

For example, the first three months after the pandemic had gotten a foothold in the U.S., according to the Willis Towers Watson “2020 Health Care Financial Benchmarks Survey,” monthly paid claims per employee dropped as follows:

  • April: 21%
  • May: 29%
  • June: 14%

“So far, the additional medical costs associated with the testing and treatment of COVID-19 have been more than offset by significant reductions in utilization across many service categories,” the insurance industry research firm recently wrote in its report.

Additionally, the Mercer report predicts that a significant portion of the deferred care will never be realized. And, for those people who have deferred care, when they eventually decide to come for the care will also depend on the course of the pandemic, hospital capacity and whether people feel safe to go in for the treatment.

“Different assumptions about cost for COVID-related care, including a possible vaccine, and whether people will continue to avoid care or catch up on delayed care, are driving wide variations in cost projections for next year,” Tracy Watts, a senior consultant with Mercer, said.

Employer reactions

Despite the expected cost increases, Mercer found that few employers plan to make any changes to their benefits this year, as they seek to keep things stable for their staff. The survey found that:

  • 57% will make no changes at all to reduce cost in their 2021 medical plans (up from 47% in the prior year’s survey).
  • 18% will take cost-saving measures that shift more health care expenses to their employees, including raising deductibles and copays.

Employers are also adding benefits, some of them prompted by the pandemic and shifts in how health care is accessed. For example:

  • 27% are adding or improving their telemedicine services (telemedicine for episodic care, artificial-intelligence-based symptoms triage, ‘text a doctor’ apps and virtual office visits with a patient’s own primary care doctor).
  • 22% are adding or improving their voluntary benefits (critical illness insurance or a hospital indemnity plan).20% are boosting their mental health services coverage.
  • 12% are offering targeted health services, like for diabetes and other chronic conditions.
  • 9% are offering more support for complex cases.
  • 4% are offering services to limit surprise billing.

The takeaway

Mercer noted the following trends going into 2021:

Keeping the status quo – A majority of employers surveyed are avoiding making any changes to their health plans, including increasing employee cost-sharing, even if premiums increase. Instead they are focused on providing a stable source of health insurance for their staff and supporting their workers as they deal with stress and effects of the pandemic.

Digital migration – More employers are offering digital health resources like telemedicine, tele-health apps and virtual office visits, for their convenience, safety, efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

Costs uncertain – Due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, cost projections are uncertain at best. The avoidance of medical care could translate into a higher utilization in 2021 and hospitals may start charging more to recoup lost revenues from 2020. Or people may have forgone a lot of that care forever. It’s too early to tell.

Uncategorized

A Primer on Changes to 2021 Group Health Plans

While most business owners and executives have been fretting about the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects on the economy and the survival of their business, now is a good time to conduct a review of group health plans in light of changes and new rules for 2021.

Here are some of the main changes that you should consider ahead of the new year:

Out-of-pocket limits – The out-of-pocket limit amounts for 2021 are:

  • $8,550 for self-only coverage.
  • $17,100 for family coverage.

For HSA-compatible high-deductible health plans, the out-of-pocket limits for HDHPs with attached health savings accounts for 2021 are:

  • $$7,000 for self-only coverage
  • $14,000 for family coverage.

New preventative care recommendations

ACA-compliant health plans are required to cover preventative care services with no out-of-pocket costs, and new ones that become effective in 2020 and 2021 include:

  • Perinatal depression prevention.
  • HIV prevention pill for healthy people at risk.
  • Updated recommendation for prevention of BRCA 1 and 2-related cancer.
  • Updated recommendation for breast cancer: medication use to reduce risk.
  • Updated recommendation for hepatitis screening.
  • Updated recommendation for screening for unhealthy drug use in adults.

Flexible spending accounts

This year, the IRS issued a notice that increased the maximum allowable amount of unused funds at year end in FSAs that can be carried over to the next year.

The notice increases the maximum $500 carryover amount for 2020 or later years to an amount equal to 20% of the maximum health FSA salary reduction contribution for that plan year. That means the health FSA maximum carryover from a plan year starting in calendar year 2020 to a new plan year starting in calendar year 2021 is $550.

Additionally, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) allows employers to remove restrictions that funds in FSAs, health reimbursement accounts and HSAs cannot be used for over-the-counter medications.  This is not a requirement that employers relax this rule for their FSA plans, but it allows them to choose to do so.

Summary of benefits and coverage

There are new Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC) materials and supporting documents that must be used for all plans that incept on or after Jan. 1, 2021.

Please remember that any changes to benefits in your group plan must be reflected in the SBC plan document and summary plan description.

The takeaway

2021 is fast approaching and with all the chaos of 2020, it would be wise to get a head start on understanding changes in store for the plans you offer. This would benefit both you and your employees.

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Uncategorized

What Insurers, Employers Expect in COVID-19 Aftermath

A study has come out predicting that COVID-19, as devastating as it has been, will have little effect on 2021 group health plan rates, as well as offerings.

The study, by eHealth Inc., also found that many insurers have increased utilization of telemedicine and that many of them are extending benefits related to coronavirus testing and treatment.

Here are the main points of the study:

Waiving COVID-19 testing costs ― 97% of insurer respondents say they are waiving out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus testing.

Waiving treatment costs ― 58% of the insurers say they’re waiving out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 treatment. Among insurers who say they have done this, 80% say they have waived all out-of-pocket costs, while 20% say they have waived only a portion of members’ out-of-pocket expenses.

Premium assistance ― 60% of carriers are letting enrollees financially affected by the coronavirus defer premium payments.

Few anticipate raising 2021 premiums due to coronavirus – 83% say they do not anticipate raising rates for 2021 in response to the crisis, while 17% anticipate raising rates no more than 5%. Eighty-seven percent of respondents offering Affordable Care Act plans say it is unlikely they will leave the ACA market due to the coronavirus.

More telemedicine services ― 96% of insurers say they are seeing increased demand for telemedicine services that include virtual doctor visits. Eighty-five percent think the crisis will drive increased demand for telemedicine benefits into the future. 

Elective or non-emergency services spike – 80% of insurers expect a spike in these claims after the crisis is over. Seventy-three percent of those who anticipate this believe it will come within the next six to 12 months.

More use of mental health benefits – 33% of insurers surveyed say they have seen an increase in utilization of mental health benefits by members since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis.

Rate hikes, but more involvement

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has predicted that the country could spend $4 trillion on all forms of health care this year, which is 5.2% higher than in 2019.

Willis Towers Watson’s “COVID-19 Benefits Survey” estimates that due to COVID-19 testing and treatment, health insurance premiums could increase as much as 7% on top of the 5% increase employers previously projected for 2021. 

At the same time, the survey found that despite facing unprecedented challenges and rapidly shifting business priorities due to COVID-19, many organizations are taking steps to protect the health and wellbeing of their employees. In particular, it found that:

  • Employers are focusing on promoting virtual medical care by raising awareness and reducing point-of-care costs.
  • Over 80% of employers have or are planning to offer expand access to virtual mental health services.
  • About two in five employers are planning to revise their 2021 health care strategy.
  • Nearly two-thirds of companies will prioritize access to mental health solutions in their 2021 health care program.
  • Employers are looking to communicate more on existing benefits.
  • Employers plan to enhance mental health services and stress management.
  • Companies are addressing benefits for employees on leave and furlough.
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Uncategorized

Some Insurers Step Up Group Health Plan Assistance

Some health insurers are helping business workers in group plans maintain employee benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new survey has found. 

Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have put the hurt on hundreds of thousands of businesses across the country, which has forced them to reduce employees’ hours, furlough them or lay them off.

Besides all those employees seeing their pay drastically curtailed or disappear altogether, it also affects their employee benefits, with health coverage topping the list.

With so many people concerned they may lose coverage and business owners equally worried about their employees, some insurers are stepping up by extending coverage for affected group plan participants. 

The survey by insurance research organization LIMRA found that 42% of group health plans are automatically continuing coverage for all employees for a specified period of time, and another 22% are extending eligibility on a case-by-case basis to employees whose status has changed.

About 35% of insurance companies have adjusted reinstatement rules to make it easier for those affected by COVID-19 to regain coverage, and a similar number are extending the timeframe in which employees may elect to pay or continue coverage if separated from their employer.

Nearly all carriers in the survey said they are offering premium grace periods of 60 days on average to workers unable to pay their premiums due to COVID-19, while others plan to reassess or extend those timelines if needed.

These moves are important, considering that about 70% of all workers in the U.S. receive health coverage from their jobs, according to LIMRA.

The typical scenario

When an employee is laid off or furloughed, their hours are essentially reduced to zero, which can result in a loss of eligibility to participate in their employer’s group health plan.

Group health insurers will have written documents that outline the rules for particular plans. These rules include a definition of eligible employees, including how long an employee can be absent from work before the employee will lose eligibility for insurance coverage.

Health plan documents do not usually differentiate between an employee who is terminated and one who is laid off and one who is furloughed.

To be eligible under the typical plan’s rules, an employee must work a minimum number of hours per week (usually at least 30). If an employee is under protected leave – such as Family Medical Leave Act protection – benefits continue during leave.

In other words, an employee who is not meeting the hours requirement or is not actively at work (work from home is considered actively at work) based on being terminated, furloughed  or laid off – even temporarily – will generally have their benefits terminated. They should then receive an offer of COBRA or state continuation, unless state law does not require it due to an employer’s size.

However, if an employee continues to remain eligible for the business’s group health plan during an unpaid absence, the employer will need to determine how to handle their insurance premium payments.

The takeaway

If you are concerned about benefits continuation for laid-off, furloughed or terminated employees, you can call us to see if your health plan has made any special arrangements during the COVID-19 outbreak.

We can check to see if there is any way to continue coverage for any affected employees, and for how long and at what cost to you.