Saturday, August 17, 2013
This past week, the New York Times published a story about yet another delay in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Earlier this summer, NPR also reported the delay, which concerns total limits on out of pocket costs that consumers can be required to pay. Under ACA, beginning in 2014 consumers were supposed to have to meet only one out of pocket limit--$6,350 for an individual and $12,700 for a family--including all deductibles and co-payments. But the Times story reports that insurers have been granted a year's grace in implementing this requirement and quotes an administration official as attributing this decision to the inability of insurance plans to communicate with each other in determining out of pocket costs.
Both stories emphasize the plight of patients who are covered under separate medical and pharmacy benefit plans. Pharmacy plans in particular may have very high copayments, without annual limits. Patients with expensive drug needs for diseases such as multiple sclerosis are especially hard hit by these benefit structures.
As I ruminated on this delay, it occurred to me that the problem of the plans' inability to communicate with one another is the plan's problem, not the patient's. To say the least, it does seem rather unfair to have patients bear all of the costs of the delay.
Moreover, there is a model that could have been used to implement the single limit: submission of claims for out-of-network care. Patients do this all the time and receive reimbursement to the extent covered by their plans. The payer has a record of the claim and can credit it against the patient's deductible. Why couldn't this model have been applied to the problem of multiple plans for patients? It would be simple. These are primarily patients with employer-provided plans. All that would be needed would be to stipulate which plan is primary for the purpose of maintaining the single out of pocket total. Medical plans are used to maintaining such totals. If the medical plan were stipulated to be the primary plan, all the patient would need to do would be to submit records of out of pocket payments under their pharmacy plans. When patients meet the out of pocket total for the year, they would no longer be responsible for copays or deductibles from the primary plan. How would other plans know about this? Patients will receive records from their primary plans that they have met their deductible for the year. They would then be responsible for submitting these records to their other plans--after which the other plans would no longer be able to charge copays or deductibles.
This approach, to be sure, puts the burden on patients to solve the communication problem. But I'm surprised notbody seems to have entertained this suggestion, in a health care climate that heralds patient responsibility. Perhaps the difficulty instead is that the multiple-plan structure emerged as a way to limit health care costs for payers by shifting costs to consumers.