When COVID-19 smacked the United States in March and April, health plans feared medical costs could skyrocket, jacking up premiums drastically in 2021, when millions of the newly unemployed might still be out of work.
But something else happened: Non-COVID care collapsed as hospitals emptied beds and shut down operating rooms to prepare for an expected onslaught of patients sickened by the coronavirus, while fear of contracting it kept people away from ERs, doctors’ offices and outpatient clinics. In many regions of the country, the onslaught did not come, and the billions of dollars lost by hospitals and physicians constituted huge savings for health plans, fattening their bottom lines.
But that doesn’t mean consumers will see lower premiums next year.
Numerous insurers across the country have announced plans to hike rates next year, though some have proposed cuts.
Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, appeared skeptical about premium reductions in the state’s Affordable Care Act exchange, which is likely to announce 2021 health plan rates next week.
“Would we like zero increases? Absolutely. Would we like them negative? Yeah — but not if that means you’re going to increase premiums in a year by 20%,” Lee said in an interview with California Healthline this week. “We’ve been leaning on them to do what we always lean on them to do, and this is to have the lowest possible rates where you won’t be on a rate roller coaster. We want health plans to price right — not to price artificially low or artificially high.”
Covered California provides coverage for about 1.5 million residents who buy their own insurance.
If the insurance exchanges in other states offer any guidance for Covered California, it is in the direction of moderate premium increases for 2021, though there is wide variation.
A KFF analysis last week of proposed 2021 rates in the exchanges of 10 states and the District of Columbia showed a median increase of 2.4%, with changes ranging from a hike of 31.8% by a health plan in New Mexico to a cut of 12% in Maryland. (Kaiser Health News, which produces California Healthline, is an editorially independent program of KFF.)
Among the roughly one-third of filings that stated how much COVID-19 added to premiums, the median was 2%, with estimates ranging from minus 1.2% at a plan in Maine to 8.6% at one in Michigan.
The proposed premiums for ACA marketplace plans do not affect job-based coverage, but they may indicate how the pandemic is affecting premiums generally.
The consensus among industry experts is that COVID-19 has generated little pressure for rate rises, and health plans should err on the side of moderation. But some fear that many insurers will hold onto the reserves they’ve built up, citing the possibility of widespread vaccinations and concerns that the care forgone in 2020 could rebound with a vengeance next year.
“The tendency of health plans, when they are faced with any degree of uncertainty, is to be very conservative and price for the worst-case scenario,” said Michael Johnson, an industry observer and critic who worked as an executive at Blue Shield of California from 2003 to 2015. “Actuaries are less likely to get fired if the plan prices too high than if the plan prices too low. But I think regulators really need to push back hard on that.”
Lee said all 11 insurers participating in the exchange this year will remain in 2021, and no new ones will be added to the mix, though some of the current carriers will extend their coverage geographically. Ninety percent of consumers who buy their own health insurance get subsidies from the federal government or the state to help pay their premiums.
In January, California became the first state to offer subsidies to middle-income people who make too much money to qualify for federal subsidies. The lion’s share of the state subsidies is earmarked for those who earn between 400% and 600% of the federal poverty level, or $51,040 to $76,560 a year for an individual and $104,800 to $157,200 for a family of four.
The rate proposals expected to be unveiled next week will be subject to scrutiny by state regulators before they are finalized. Sign-ups for the plans start Nov. 1 and run through Jan. 31. This year, the average Covered California rate increase statewide was 0.8%, the lowest since the exchange started providing coverage in 2014.
The benefits reaped by health plans so far in the pandemic can be seen in strong second-quarter earnings and reduced spending on care. UnitedHealth Group, the nation’s largest health insurer, announced earlier this month that its net profit in the April-June quarter nearly doubled from the same period a year earlier. Its medical spending plummeted from 83.1% of premium revenue to 70.2% over that period.
Anthem, the parent company of Blue Cross of California, reported Wednesday that its net profit in the second quarter doubled from the same period in 2019, also on the back of plunging medical expenses.
Anthem said it offered one-month premium credits ranging from 10% to 50% to enrollees in individual, employer and group dental policies — including its Blue Cross plans in California.
UnitedHealth said it has provided $1.5 billion worth of financial support to consumers so far, including premium credits and cost-sharing waivers, and expects to pay out $1 billion in rebates.
But UnitedHealth, which does not participate in Covered California, is seeking a rate increase of 13.8% in the New York exchange. Anthem, which covers about 80,000 people in Covered California, is planning rate hikes of 16.6% in Kentucky and 9.9% in Connecticut.
On the other hand, Kaiser Permanente, which covers more than one-third of Covered California enrollees, plans rate cuts in other states, ranging from 1% in Hawaii to 11% in Maryland. (Kaiser Health News, which produces California Healthline, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)
Lee downplayed the notion of a financial boon for California health plans, saying that, partly because of the use of telehealth, primary care has rebounded and the plans are paying for it. “So we don’t see this as being at this point a bonanza year for health plans,” he said. “Rather, it’s a year in which there are lessons learned for how we can deliver care in a pandemic.”
Still, the health plans are in a far stronger position than they had feared earlier this year.
In March, Covered California released a study showing that COVID-19’s impact on 2021 premiums for individuals and employers could range from an increase of 4% to more than 40%. But less than three months later, projections commissioned by the industry’s national advocacy group, America’s Health Insurance Plans, showed that even in the worst-case scenario of a 60% COVID infection rate — far above where it stands now — the pandemic would increase medical costs in 2020 and 2021 by 6% at most, and could even decrease them.
That moderate effect is largely attributable to what Katherine Hempstead, a senior policy adviser at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, called “a kind of yin and yang: If you have a lot of COVID, you don’t have a lot of other health care spending.”
Independent of the course the pandemic takes, emergency room and outpatient visits still lag behind pre-COVID levels and will probably continue to do so next year, to the continued benefit of insurers, predicted Glenn Melnick, a professor of health care finance at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. That could be good news for consumers, he said, potentially leading to lower premium increases or even reductions next year.
On the other hand, hospitals and doctors have lost money, and the ones whose contracts with health plans are up for renewal will be looking to make up those losses, Melnick said.
“Providers could be asking for 20-25% increases next year,” he said, “and if they’ve got market power, they can make it stick.”
July 31, 2020
Stay away from People.
Large crowds, do avoid.
Act as if you lived
on an asteroid,
plummeting through the sky.
For this we believe,
is the way to be
and how we must live.
There is no need
to be with people, near,
so we live out our life
in a great, health fear,
of contracting a virus;
some say we could,
but avoiding everyone,
how can that be good?
Not good for socializing,
is certainly the word
for not seeing family
is just simply absurd.
Just as the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 approaches new highs in some parts of the country, hospital data in Kansas and Missouri is suddenly incomplete or missing.
The Missouri Hospital Association reports that it no longer has access to the data it uses to guide state coronavirus mitigation efforts, and Kansas officials say their hospital data may be delayed.
The Trump administration this week directed hospitals to change how they report data to the federal government and how that data will be made available.
In an email, Missouri Hospital Association spokesperson Dave Dillon called the move “a major disruption.”
“All evidence suggests that Missouri’s numbers are headed in the wrong direction,” Dillon said. “And, for now, we will have very limited situational awareness. That’s all very bad news.”
The absence of the data will make it harder for health and public officials, as well as the general public, to understand how the virus is spreading.
“It’s hugely problematic,” said Dr. Karen Maddox, a public health researcher at Washington University in St. Louis. “The only way that we know where things are going up and where things are going down and where we need to be putting resources and where we need to be planning is because of those data.”
The White House instructed hospitals to report data to the Department of Health and Human Services through a new system created by a Pennsylvania-based company, TeleTracking, instead of to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The directive came as a surprise to hospitals, according to Kansas Hospital Association spokesperson Cindy Samuelson.
“From our perspective, these changes are big,” Samuelson said. “We only found out Tuesday, and we had to update the data by Wednesday night — so, less than 48 hours.”
The Missouri Hospital Association currently does not have access to the new HHS system, according to Dillon. He said the new system is also significantly different from the CDC system.
“The new datasets for reporting are not identical and in several cases are ill-defined,” Dillon said. “That has complicated hospitals’ efforts.”
In the wake of the announcement, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services posted a notice on its website this week that the daily and weekly updates on hospitals, including the numbers of people hospitalized and the availability of standard hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators, would be temporarily halted.
“Missouri Hospital Association (MHA) and the State of Missouri will be unable to access critical hospitalization data during the transition. While we are working to collect interim data, situational awareness will be limited,” the notice on the department’s website says.
Dillon said the hospital association hopes to have “within a few days or weeks” hospital and coronavirus data that had been available through the CDC.
“However, in the short term, we’ll be very much in the dark,” Dillon said.
The hospital association will create an alternative reporting system for hospitals, according to Dillon, and plans to continue producing weekly reports, despite the uncertainty about data.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services did not respond to inquiries regarding the data.
Kansas health officials are still able to access hospital and coronavirus data through the CDC and TeleTracking, according to Kansas Department of Health and Environment spokesperson Kristi Zears.
However, Kansas Hospital Association spokesperson Samuelson said the Kansas hospital data may be delayed if it is incomplete.
“If we’re not able to get a bulk of our members converted and uploading, I’m not sure we want to show it because then it will look like things have gotten a lot better,” Samuelson said.
The most recent data shows that as of July 12, 875 Missourians were hospitalized with COVID-19, among the highest reported numbers since an early May peak of 984. Kansas’ most recent data shows 1,393 people have been hospitalized with the disease.
The Trump administration said the reporting change was needed due to reporting delays and other problems with the CDC.
But the move has been widely criticized for being disruptive, especially as COVID-19 infection numbers reach new highs and hospitals in some areas of the country are reaching capacity.
“By now, we should have a foolproof, streamlined reporting system for COVID,” Maddox said. “And this change — midstream — is not going to do anything to help our ability to fight the disease.”
The randomness of words,
lay on my plate.
Too many words may come
and they will suffocate.
The thoughts that are now
running through my head,
wishing they were happy,
but No; fearful instead
The words have become hateful;
not what they should be,
for I care for my own
and for strangers too,
as life has given pause
of what one can do.
A scary situation. It's been hard,
for if you are not diligent
and let your down your guard
you could be the victim
of Co-vid nineteen.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be a lot of information about the virus and its effects on mental health. How you respond to the stress during the pandemic can depend on many factors..........Read more
From late March into April, Timothy Regan had severe coughing fits several times a day that often left him out of breath. He had a periodic low-grade fever, too.
Wondering if he had COVID-19, Regan called a nurse hotline run by Denver Health, a large public health system in his city. A nurse listened to him describe his symptoms and told him to immediately go to the hospital system’s urgent care facility..........................Read more
Home gardening has taken root and spread across the nation. In a world without theaters, sports events, concerts, and theme parks, tending a garden is the perfect home-based activity for all ages. Whether you’re a furloughed worker, a parent with small children, or a housebound senior, gardening can benefit your body, mind, and soul.
With temperatures getting milder and days getting longer, now is the ideal time to start. And it’s a great way to support local businesses, with garden centers deemed as “essential” by most states. Whether you’re a farmer or a florist at heart, nursery staff are happy to advise what to plant in your local climate and conditions.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of gardening is getting us outside at a time when we’re all feeling cooped up indoors. Gardening promotes physical health by exposing us to fresh air, sunlight, and a healthy dose of vitamin D. Weeding, digging, and planting burns calories and strengthens the heart; in fact, the CDC says that one hour of gardening can burn 330 calories. The activities of gardening provide a whole-body workout, by using many different muscles and increasing strength, flexibility, and stamina—all without a gym membership.
Case studies show that gardening also improves our mental outlook, by reconnecting us with nature and providing a respite from the challenges of everyday life. The predictable rhythms of gardening can be comforting in uncertain times, and green environments can decrease levels of cortisol, the hormone linked to stress. In turn, gardening activities prompt the release of endorphins, the hormones that help us feel relaxed and content. And inhaling the healthy soil bacteria M. vaccae can increase serotonin, known as the “happiness hormone”—giving a whole new meaning to “a breath of fresh air”!
If that’s not enough to get you digging, consider that gardening rewards us for our efforts, whether it’s the beauty of flowers, the symmetry of a manicured hedge, or the bounty of fresh produce. As the old saying goes, “Gardening is cheaper than therapy—and you get tomatoes.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, gardening fosters a sense of faith in the future. Indeed, planting a seed or a sapling is a hopeful thing to do. And what better time for hope?