What Good Is Health Plan Cost-Sharing When Persons Can’t Afford to Access Care?

Increasing numbers of persons challenged by cost-sharing options only adds to the growing tally of persons struggling with social determinants of health and mental health; this counters efforts to attain wholistic health equity.

Outcomes
Researchers analyzed data from the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances with telling results:
• High percentages of non-elderly households lack sufficient assets to meet typical plan cost-sharing amounts.
-45% of single-person non-elderly households unable to pay average cost-sharing amounts of $2,000 annually; low income households were in the same boat
-63% could not pay over the higher plan amounts of $6,000.
• Available liquid assets for single-person non-elderly households with incomes <150% of the federal poverty level (FPL) were limited; available assets averaged $577 vs $1,753 for those between 150% and 400% of FPL, and $13,243 for those above 400% of FPL.
• Median available liquid assets among multi-person households were $698 for those below 150% of poverty compared to $2,996 for households between 150% and 400% of poverty, and $23,439 for households with incomes of 400% of poverty or more.
• 84% of multi-person households with incomes <150% of the FPL lack $4,000 in liquid assets
• 50% of households could not afford a basic employer insurance plan deductible ($2000)
• 2:3 households lacked funds to covered a high-end deductible ( $6000)

Deductibles, co-pays, co-insurance are common means of health plan cost-sharing. However, what happens when healthcare consumers are unable to pay them? A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed the sorry truth: health plan enrollees are too often unable to access the care they need, or forced into medical debt and bankruptcy to do so. In a time when strong efforts are in play to bridge healthcare disparities and ease access to care, that reality remains an elusive butterfly for too many individuals.

Most households lack sufficient liquid assets to meet an out-of-pocket maximum. Some might recall that the Affordable Care Act limited out-of-pocket maximums for most private health insurance plans: $8700 for single coverage, $17,400 for family coverage. This is appalling considering the Affordable Care Act set out-of-pocket minimums, yet the average out-of-pocket maximum for single coverage in 2021 was $4272.

Rising Medical Debt
Amid the pandemic, high numbers of persons faced emergency medical bills from care, whether related to COVID-related costs, or deferred health and behavioral issues. Roughly 62% of households with incomes between 150% and 400% of the poverty level were unable to afford care or access the approximately $3000 needed to cover urgent care costs.

Recent reports show dismal results for persons dealing with psychosocial challenges, as well as rising medical debt:
• >50% of Americans experience medical debt
• >57% owed over $1000
• 40% had problems paying medical bills or affording premiums
• 65% who earned <$40,000 and 51% earning $40,000 to $75,000 could not afford premiums despite having employer-sponsored coverage.

• >51% of persons with employer-sponsored plans reported someone in their household delayed or skipped care, or filling a prescription due to the associated expense
• 26% of adults with an employer-sponsored plan had to cut spending on food, clothes, or other household items to pay their health-related expenses.
• 20% took on an additional credit card debt to pay their expenses

The rising numbers of persons challenged by cost-sharing options must be resolved. This reality only adds to the growing tally of persons struggling with social determinants of health and mental health, countering efforts to attain health equity. More must be done to enhance access to care for every person across the wholistic health landscape of physical, behavioral, and psychosocial health.

The Impact of Trauma and Systemic Racism on Wholistic Health Equity

Abundant data on wholistic health disparities mandates intentional, sustainable quality improvement action. Will the next generation of metrics account for this reality?

There is an industry priority to right the societal wrongs associated with historical trauma and systematic racism. These long-standing realities are key drivers of wholistic health disparities: physical, behavioral, and psychosocial health.. A fluid stream of outcomes mandate concordant approaches to racial, ethnic, and other cultural contexts of treatment (e.g., disability, familial choice, gender orientation, regional influences). Yet, despite research to validate data wholistic health outcomes, reflective quality metrics have not been developed.

What Are We Talking About?

            Abundant data assesses the impact of historical, racial, and other types of trauma on health and behavioral health outcomes. Increased healthcare utilization has been identified for survivors of physical and sexual trauma, primarily minority women. Campbell et al. (2002) studied 2,355 females, 21-25 years old, enrolled in a large health maintenance organization (HMO). Patients who experienced intimate partner violence had a far higher prevalence (>50%-70%) of gynecological and central nervous system complaints (e.g., back and pelvic pain, fainting, headaches, seizures), plus other stress-related health issues (e.g., hypertension, insomnia, susceptibility to viral/bacterial infections). Purkey et al. (2020)identified trauma survivors as frequent users of primary, urgent, and emergency care for acute and chronic symptoms. Clarke et al., (2019) discussed the presence of vague somatic complaints by patients who endured traumatic experiences (e.g., ACEs, bulling, pressures to excel in school and career). Costly emergency department visits and ambulatory diagnostic tests are frequently used to identify etiology for chronic and diffuse pain, digestive problems, headaches accompanied chronic illness exacerbation, yet to no avail.    

Another vital dyad for attention involves chronic pain management and stigma experienced by patients from marginalized communities. Wallace et al. (2021) completed a recent study; participants were trauma survivors (e.g., historical, racial, sexual) and members of indigenous, LGBTQIA+, or refugee communities. The results were telling. When physical and emotional pain were expressed to providers, they was minimized or dismissed. If acknowledged by providers, short-term prescriptions were given versus referrals to behavioral health and other specialists.

What Does it Imply?

Data mandates the need for intentional, sustainable quality improvement in this arena. Will the next generation of metrics account for this reality? Racism remains a major factor to drive racial and ethnic inequities in health and mental health, though fails to be addressed in healthcare’s quality proposition. Of the articles reviewed for this blog post, trauma-informed quality analysis of care remained elusive. 2021 saw a fresh generation of industry health equity measures, yet few addressed integrated care, let alone assesses wholistic health equity. Existing metrics continue to silo health or behavioral health. Insufficient focus has been on industry-vetted quality models addressing population-focused, concordant, trauma and equity-focused interventions. 

Where Will Health Equity’s Quality Compass Point?

This author is developing a Quintile Aim for consideration, which adds the pivotal domain of Wholistic Health Equity to the industry’s seminal quality compass. NCQA continues to push this agenda in evolving new metrics. Public comment is open (until 3/11/22) for new HEDIS measures targeting the SDoH. Wyatt et al. (2016) posed a 5-step quality model for organizations to advance health equity delivery to the communities they served, addressed in Figure 1. 

Figure 1: A Framework for Healthcare Organizations to Achieve Health Equity (Wyatt et al., 2016) 

Wyatt R, Laderman M, Botwinick L, Mate K, Whittington J (2016). Achieving Health Equity: A Guide for Health Care Organizations. IHI White Paper: Institute for Healthcare Improvement 

The model was well-intended though had limited substance or strategic action to leverage the intent. This effort was reminiscent of the Quadruple Aim; little data drove the model and obstructed full industry acceptance. By contrast, Dover and Belon’s (2019) Health Equity Measurement Framework (HEMF) is worthy of exploration. Based on the World Health Organization’s Social Determinants of Health model, HEMF vast evaluation areas to measure health equity at macro, meso, and micro levels, as shown in Figure 2. 

Figure 2: HEMF Framework Elements (Dover & Belon, 2019)

Dover, D.C. and Belon, A.P.  (2019. The health equity measurement framework: a comprehensive model to measure social inequities in health. Int J Equity Health 18,36 https://doi.org/10.1186/s12939-019-0935-0

The HEMF model is worthy of a test drive to gauge its true merit. Use of the wide-scope of theoretical and evidence-based industry elements is an asset. Population diversity and complexity are accounted for through power-related and disparity measures. Health beliefs, behaviors, and values are acknowledged with stress factored in; the traumatic-response across circumstances is embedded. My desire to keep this post brief limits further elaboration on the HEMF model. However, know it poses strong value as a robust quality model to address health, behavioral, and racial health disparities across populations exposed to trauma’s diverse lens.  

Have other integrated care quality models that account for wholistic health equity? Add your considerations and comments below!

Are Safety Net Programs Losing Their Safety Net?

A far bigger safety net must be in place to support these essential facilities, programs, providers, and the communities who rely on them. More must be done quickly to ensure safety net sustainability.

The nation’s 56 official safety nets strive to provide quality health and mental health to the nation’s most in need populations. Yet, new struggles to do so are endangering the lives of patients and mandate swift action.

Safety Net Realities 

A quilt of >14,000 sites comprise the safety net system: disproportionate share hospitals, federally qualified health centers (FQHCs), rural, and community health centers. Location maps and listings are accessible at HRSA’s FQHC with a safety net hospital list at their trade association website (America’s Essential Hospitals). These sites provide care:

  • Independent of patient ability to pay and immigration status
  • To the highest share of Medicaid and uninsured patients: 75% and 60% of the population respectively!
  • Across rural and urban regions and both, public and non-profit entities 

Pandemic-related financial headaches continue for the industry, safety net hospitals shouldering more than their share of this burden. Rural regions have seen a waning hospital presence, adding pressure to remaining FQHCs. The Sheps Center displays >100 closures in the past decade50% of 2020 closures for safety net facilities alone.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation issue brief reviewed COVID’s disproportionate impact on populations covered by Medicaid and Medicare, including people of color and those who use long-term services and supports. Providers serving these patients were less likely to have received monies from the $178 B in pandemic federal provider relief funds; barely $13.1B went to safety net hospitals with a mere $11B to rural providers. This reality contributes to national health expenditures soaring to $4.1 Trillion dollars. The amount accounts for early 2020 through the pandemic’s first wave, which hit safety net facilities hard. Pandemic-related losses for the largest safety net hospitals (e.g., 1000 beds) are as high as 50% of their quarterly revenue. 

Loss of 340B Drug Discounts

Recent loss of 340B drug discounts has meant major fiscal challenges for safety-net programs. The legal battle against drug makers wages in the courts. HRSA has stepped up, imposing fines against drug makers when possible. A study of 510 urban facilities identified losses at 23% of savings from due to loss of 340B, a median of $1 M. Critical access hospitals saw 40% of savings lost, roughly $220,000. While that amount seems small, it is a major hit to these rural hospitals with a max of 25 beds, located 10 miles from other providers. While dollars and losses are relative to each organization, the bottom line is the same; patient endangerment from cuts and closures of needed programs, potentially the only facility or service provider for miles.

How to Save the Safety Nets

7 ideas are posed by experts to strengthen the safety-net foundation: 

  1. Increase federal funding: Target funds to hospitals that qualify for Medicaid disproportionate-share hospital (DSH) payments. Use hospital census data to more equitably distribute payments to facilities that primarily treat uninsured and Medicaid patients (and not Medicare patients). 
  2. Clear Guidance: Federal agencies, as the CDC should use hospital census data to more equitably distribute payments to facilities primarily treating uninsured and Medicaid patients. This action is a sound public health reimbursement strategy moving forward. 
  3. Streamline Regulation: Reduce regulatory burdens to foster reimbursement, such as ongoing expansion of telehealth and virtual requirements and reimbursement, lengthen quality reporting programs, and extend leniency with value-based purchasing programs. These will help hospitals to recover financially from pandemic-related losses.
  4. Loan Forgiveness: Expand programs that incentivize new clinicians to accept positions in safety-net programs. This action will bolster the workforce of providers who accept new Medicaid patients.
  5. Expand Coverage Options: Advance these options to limit growth of uninsured patients and uncompensated care
  6. State And Local Initiatives: Enact policies to mitigate effects of hospital closures. Keep public and surrounding healthcare systems informed so regions can best plan for, and provide necessary outreach to service shortage areas. This will also minimize service gaps, providing safer transitions of care.
  7. Community and Volunteer Efforts: Target corporate and community investing to bridge gaps in care: create grants, fundraising campaigns, horizontal mergers, to build satellite clinics, services, and programs. 

A far bigger safety net must be in place to support these essential facilities, programs, providers, and the communities who rely on them. More must be done quickly to ensure safety net sustainability.

I know there will be other suggestions, so add them in the comment area below.

#safetynet #accesstocare #bridgethosegaps #340B #funding #interprofessionalimpact #interprofessional insights 

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