Telemedicine is booming during the coronavirus pandemic. People are afraid to venture out of their homes to seek care at doctors’ offices, urgent care facilities and hospitals for fear of exposure to the virus. But sometimes consulting with a physician is necessary to make sure you stay healthy during these stressful times. Putting off or ignoring physical symptoms can worsen a condition that might otherwise be easily treated with the right care.

The best place to start when considering telemedicine is your insurance plan. Many plans already have this benefit in place or have expanded its use during this crisis. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid have implemented new guidelines to expand access to virtual medical visits. If your insurance doesn’t offer telemedicine, you can use one of the many telehealth companies like Teledoc, LiveHealth or Doctor On Demand. Some require insurance and most will have a copay or set fee per virtual visit.

As at a regular doctor’s office, you will be required to disclose your medical history, including the medications you currently take. Prepare yourself before the visit by making a list of your symptoms, writing down any questions you may have, and have your pharmacy information on hand should the doctor need to call in a prescription for you. Not everything can be checked at a virtual visit, and the doctor may require to see you in person, or if your symptoms are severe, he or she may have you go to the nearest emergency room for treatment.

The IRS recently announced it is allowing mid-year changes to health-care plans sponsored by employers, including changes in flexible spending accounts (FSA’s) which lets employees use pre-tax dollars for health expenses.

The new rules will give workers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic options to alter their previous health-care choices that were made prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. They can change the amount of contribution to an FSA to free-up money that can be used for other expenses, elect coverage if they previously declined coverage, or make changes to the type of plan they have, i.e., going from an individual to a family plan.

It is up to each employer’s discretion to offer these changes since it is not a requirement, but many employers have already allowed employees to take loans and/or distributions from their retirement plans to help them during the pandemic. It is important to note that funds that have already been deducted from paychecks and put into FSA accounts will not be impacted; only future contributions would be affected.

Other changes the IRS made include expanding the eligible items for reimbursement from an FSA account and increasing the carry-over amount from one year to the next from $500 to $550. To view the IRS Notice 2020-29, visit: https://www.irs.gohttps://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/n-20-29.pdfv/pub/irs-drop/n-20-29.pdf

The Supreme Court is slated to hear arguments to invalidate the Affordable Care Act signed by President Barack Obama in 2010 as early as this fall. The Trump Administration maintains that the individual mandate requiring health insurance is unconstitutional, and therefore, all provisions of the law must be struck down. Texas and other Republican states initiated the dispute when they sued after Congress eliminated the tax penalty for those going without health insurance.

Attorney General William Barr has recently appealed to the administration to reconsider its stance, letting part or all of the law stand in the midst of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Along with Health and Human Services Secretary, Alex Azar, Barr contends that striking down the law could disrupt the health care of millions and cause others to lose their coverage or go without entirely.

The insurance exchanges that implement the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could be a safety net during the pandemic, providing subsidies and Medicaid for those who have lost employer-based coverage. With an unemployment rate approaching 15%, a major change in health insurance policy would add another burden to an already overwhelmed population.

Although the case will be heard by the Supreme Court this fall, a decision would not likely be announced until 2021. The law has remained intact throughout the litigation, with the exception of the individual mandate which was eliminated in January 2019. Other states have implemented their own laws to preserve key aspects of the ACA as California has done, mandating that its residents have health insurance coverage or face a penalty as well as expanding the parameters to offer more people the ability to qualify for subsidies.

The department of Health and Human Services included in its terms and conditions for hospitals, clinics and doctors who receive federal emergency funding a clause which bans surprise billing. The clause states that, “for all care for a possible or actual case of COVID-19, the provider will not charge patients any more in out-of-pocket costs than they would have if the provider were in-network, or contracted with their insurance company.” The guidance further states, “HHS broadly views every patient as a possible case of COVID-19.”

Leaving the door open to allow everyone to be viewed as a potential coronavirus patient may not have been the intent of HHS. “Because the terms and conditions do not appear to be sufficiently clarified, there is a concern that there will be legal challenges around the balance-billing provision,” said health policy consultant, Rodney Whitlock.

Balance billing has been a health-care practice for years, allowing the industry broad control on how they bill patients. It is banned in many states, but there is no federal legislation on the matter. Jack Hoadley, a professor of health policy at Georgetown University, said the HHS terms for eligibility to receive CARES-ACT funding could address problems not explicitly sited in the relief legislation like patients billed for testing for COVID-19 when the results come back negative.

“The providers, the insurers, everybody else is going to need clarification, as well as, of course, all of us as potential patients,” Hoadley said. “That’s going to affect our willingness to seek testing or treatment.”

Balance Billing is a common problem when you go to out-of-network doctors not covered or partially covered by your health insurance. The consumer is charged for these costs in bills that could come weeks or months after the initial visit or procedure.

There are steps you can take, however, to mitigate these surprise medical bills.  First, be sure to check your Explanation of Benefits (EOB) which usually comes with the bill.  Check the dates to make sure the service you are being billed for is accurate and which services were actually performed by out-of-network providers.  Be prepared.  Get an itemized copy of your bill and know what the “usual” charge is for the procedure.  Sites like FAIR Health can help you determine what costs are common for medical procedures in your area.  Call the provider and ask to speak to someone in billing who can assist you with the bill.  You can also write to your insurer and request that they cover a portion or all of the balance billing.

Ultimately, one of the best ways to avoid balance billing is to make sure you go to network providers.  Call your insurer in advance, if possible, to make certain all your care is being handled by in-network doctors, from the surgeon to the anesthesiologist.  Make sure all lab work and tests needed in preparation for the surgery is covered as well.  

If you failed to meet the January 31 open enrollment deadline to enroll in a health insurance plan for 2020, you might still be able to get coverage this year. Covered California is allowing those who didn’t know about the new mandate to have coverage to sign up by April 30. Not knowing about the new law is considered a qualifying event. You will have to mark a box on the application saying you did not know that there would be a penalty assessed if you do not have health insurance coverage in 2020.

Enrollment increased for the first time in three years, according to statistics from the state-run marketplace, most likely due to the new tax to be implemented on those going without insurance. “I encourage everyone who does not have qualifying health insurance to take advantage of the special enrollment period,” State Controller Betty Yee said in a press release. “I like signing tax refund checks, not assessing penalties.”

While the federal government under the Trump Administration has been slashing its advertising budget for the federal marketplace, California has done just the opposite, spending nearly $121 million on advertising. The state has also increased the length of open enrollment, giving residents longer to sign up than in other states. These factors resulted in an increase in enrollment in California by 1.6% compared to a decline in the federal marketplace of 0.5%.

In a continuing effort to lower health-care expenses for Californians, Governor Newsom is proposing that the state manufacture generic drugs, leveraging the huge market of its residents to increase competition and lower pricing.  Along with asking the drug manufacturers to make rebates more available and establishing a health-care affordability office, Newsom maintains that the reforms would “put consumers back in the driver seat.”   

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, six in ten Americans take a prescription medication and nearly 80% worry about the cost.  Also, three in ten don’t take their medications because they are too expensive.  Amid allegations of price-fixing by big pharma, Newsom signed a bill in 2019 to deter “pay-to-delay” agreements between drug companies and competing manufacturers of generic drugs that serve to delay release of the cheaper off-brands.  According to a study by the Federal Trade Commission, these deals to stifle competition cost consumers as much as $3.5 billion in higher drug costs every year.