With the cost of insulin nearly tripling over the past decade, many Americans with diabetes face difficult decisions when it comes to their health – whether to limit or stop taking their insulin because of the staggering cost.  Seniors on fixed incomes may be even more vulnerable to the dire consequences of not being able to afford their medications. 

In an effort to address the growing problem, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid have implemented the Senior Savings Model for Part D Drug plans starting in January 2021.  This new model limits copays in the deductible, initial and coverage gap phases for certain brands of insulin to a maximum of $35 per 30-day supply. The cost could even be less, depending on the medication.  These rules apply to both stand-alone Part D drug plans and those imbedded in Advantage plans.  Plans do not have to participate in the new model, and there are a limited number of plans that have opted into the new program. 

In California, the stand-alone Part D plans that have agreed to participate are as follows: AARP Medicare Rx Preferred, Cigna Secure-Extra Rx, Express Scripts Medicare Choice, Express Scripts Medicare Saver, Humana Premier Rx, Mutual of Omaha Rx Premier, WellCare Medicare Rx Value Plus, WellCare Value Script, WellCare Wellness Rx.  Advantage plans participating in the Senior Savings Model vary by county.

Part D drug plans are how Medicare recipients receive their prescription drug coverage. Whether you have a Medicare Advantage plan or a Supplemental plan, your Part D works the same way with 4 levels of coverage. The 4 levels of coverage are:

Deductible Phase – If your plan has a deductible, you must pay the full amount of your medications until the deductible is met. Some plans exclude Tier 1 and Tier 2 drugs from the deductible.

Initial Coverage Phase – You pay a portion of your drug cost via a copayment or coinsurance until your total costs reach $4,130.00 (Initial Coverage Limit for 2021 plans). Once this is met, you move into the Coverage Gap.

Coverage Gap or Donut Hole – You pay 25% of drug costs for brand and generic drugs until total out-of-pocket (TROOP) costs reach $6,550.00 (TROOP for 2021 plans) at which time you move into Catastrophic Coverage.

Catastrophic Coverage Phase – You pay the greater amount of 5% of the drug costs on any tier or $3.60 copay for Tier 1 & 2 drugs and $8.95 copay for all other tiers.

Part D drug plans may have changes every year which might include, premium and deductible increases (or decreases), formulary changes (the drugs covered under the plan), tier changes (changes to tiers of covered medications) and changes in preferred pharmacies. You will receive an Annual Notice of Change every year from your drug plan. You should check to make sure your medications are still covered under the plan, the tiers haven’t changed and whether a deductible has increased or been added.

The Annual Enrollment Period starting on October 15 and lasting to December 7 is the time to switch coverage, with your new plan going into effect on January 2021.

A Medi-Medi plan, also often referred to as a dual-special-needs plan or “look alike” plan, is a type of Medicare Advantage plan for people who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid or Medi-Cal in California. Medicare is the primary payer on these types of plans with Medi-Cal being the secondary payer. You must go to doctors who accept both Medicare and Medi-Cal, and your share of cost is determined by your asset level. In California, to qualify in 2020 as a single person, your asset level is at $2,000 or below ($3,000 or below for couples). There are many things that are not included in your asset level like your primary residence, household items, pre-paid burial expenses and your car.

The advantages of having a Medi-Medi plan are that they coordinate your care with a provider network and often include extra benefits such as vision, dental and transportation services. You do, however, have to use the doctors and specialists in the plan’s network to be covered (except in cases of emergency). These plans are provided by private insurance companies, and the benefits and costs can vary from company to company. Prescription drugs are included in the plan with copays at no more than $1.30 for generic drugs and no more than $8.95 for brand drugs. If you pay no share of cost, your copays would be $0 for your medications.

You will automatically be enrolled in Medi-Cal if you qualify and sign up for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) through Social Security. You may qualify, as well, if you don’t get SSI, but you must contact your Medi-Cal county office to see if you meet eligibility requirements. If you are considering a Medi-Medi plan, be sure and check that your current doctors are in the plan’s network (if you wish to remain with them), and that your medications are in the plan’s formulary. You can also apply for one of these plans if you become newly eligible for assistance or during the Annual Enrollment Period from October 15 to December 7.

Seven companies have won grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop better and faster testing to help fight the spread of the Coronavirus.  Six of the seven companies are here in California.     

“This is a very substantial investment to try to speed up the availability of COVID-19 testing to try to deal with this pandemic,” said Francis Collins, NIH Director, during a virtual briefing to reporters.   

Mammoth Biosciences, Inc. and Fluidigm Corp. are two San Francisco-based companies that will get a portion of the $1.5 billion in emergency funding provided by Congress back in April. Mammoth will base its testing using CRISPR, DNA editing technology that can pinpoint a specific location in a genetic code. Fluidigm has developed a saliva test that could be a game-changer for ease and rapid testing.        

Quidell Corp. and Mesa Biotech, headquartered in San Diego, also received funding.  Quidell’s new antigen test can get a result in as little as 15 minutes, and Mesa’s hand-held device can produce results in as little as 30 minutes.

Helix OpCo LLC is located in San Mateo and plans to ramp up processing to up to 100,000 nasal swabs by year’s end using next generation sequencing, and Ginko Bioworks in Boston is scaling up to do the the same. The final company, Talis Biomedical located in Melo Park, California has a test which uses a multiplexed cartridge to detect the virus with results in 30 minutes.

Trump recently signed four executive orders in hopes of curbing high drug prices in the United States. One of the orders targets how Medicare reimburses physicians for the administration of medications in hospital or office settings which is covered under Medicare Part B. The standing rule is that doctors can charge up to an additional 6% of the average sales price of a medication, which would incentivize physicians to use higher cost drugs. Trump’s order reduces the amount that can be charged to the lowest price paid by industrialized nations under an International Pricing Index.

Another executive order revamps the rebate rule which allows pharmacy benefit managers to pocket these payments instead of passing these discounts to the consumer. Under the order, patients would receive the savings instead of these middlemen, who would receive a fixed dollar amount instead of a percentage of the price of the medications.

Obtaining low-cost drugs from other countries is addressed in an order which allows FDA-approved medications to be imported, and the final order targets lowering the cost of insulin and epinephrine. Insulin prices have more than doubled in the last five years and the average cost of a two-pack EpiPen continues to soar. The order would require Federally Qualified Health Centers who serve low-income patients to pass on savings to their consumers instead of pocketing the discounts made available to them under the federal drug discount program or 340B.

If you have Medicare, you are considered among the high-risk groups for having complications should you get the COVID-19 virus, so knowing how you are going to be covered should you get sick is important. Utilizing the services you are entitled to can help keep you and your loved ones healthy and safe during these difficult times.

Medicare covers COVID-19 lab tests with no out-of-pocket costs, so if you feel ill, get tested. If you think that you have already had the virus, Medicare also covers the FDA-authorized antibody test. Once there is a COVID-19 vaccine, that will be covered as well.

Medically necessary hospitalizations are covered, but you will pay any deductibles, copays or coinsurance applicable to your stay. If you have a Medicare Supplemental or Advantage plan, the plan may pay all or some of these associated costs. Advantage plans may also pay for costs like meal delivery or medical transportation.

Under the 1135 Waiver implemented in March by the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid have expanded the availability and use of telehealth services to allow evaluation and management visits with your doctor, mental health counseling and preventative screenings. These “virtual check-ins” are brief communications with your health practitioner for an issue that wasn’t related to a medical visit within the previous 7 days and does not lead to a medical visit within the next 24 hours or next available appointment. Verbal consent by you and documentation by your doctor is needed to initiate these services. Online patient portals can also be used with prior consent as well.

If you do go to the doctor, be ready for some changes many practices have implemented to minimize exposure to the virus. You might have to wait in your car prior to the start of your appointment, have your temperature taken, wear a face mask, and social distance.

When you are considering your options to cover the gaps in Medicare, i.e. deductibles, copays and coinsurance (yes, Medicare has all those), you might be looking at Supplemental or Advantage plans. There is a lot of confusion about how these types of plans differ and how they cover what Medicare doesn’t.

First, let’s take a look at Medicare Supplemental plans. These plans work similar to a PPO. With a regular PPO plan you can go to doctors in or out of network, but you generally pay more if you go out of network. Medicare Supplemental plans work a little differently because there are no networks. The only stipulation is that you must go to doctors that take Medicare whether they are primary care doctors or specialists. You can go to any doctor throughout the United States, including specialists, and be covered under your Supplemental plan. Supplemental plans are standardized, which means they have the same coverage regardless of carrier or region and are offered by private insurance companies. Premiums are determined by age and geographic location. You don’t need referrals from your primary care doctor to see a specialist. Supplemental plans do not include prescription drug coverage so you would have to purchase a separate Part D drug plan to cover your prescription medications.

Advantage Plans are also called Medicare Part C. Most Advantage plans work like an HMO. You must go to network doctors or you won’t be covered. They are specific to a certain geographic location, usually by county, and, in most cases, you must get a referral from your primary care doctor to see a specialist. Advantage plans are offered through private insurance companies and combine your Medicare Parts A, B and D (prescription drug coverage) into one plan. There are some plans that don’t have the Part D added if you have other drug coverage like Veteran’s Benefits. When you sign up for an Advantage Plan, you opt out of Original Medicare and the plan administers all your benefits. These plans may offer extra coverage like vision, hearing, and transportation to and from medical facilities, although some Supplemental plans are beginning to add these benefits as well. Advantage Plans include Special Needs Plans for people with certain chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease and those that are eligible for both Medicare and Medi-Cal.

 In an effort to address the ramifications of unprecedented job loss due to COVID-19, Covered California is extending Open Enrollment to sign up for health insurance through July 31.     

“The ongoing challenges of COVID-19 make it vital that we help Californians get into and stay in Medi-Cal and Covered California health coverage.  The goal is to make it easier to access needed care and services during these difficult times,” said Will Lightbourne, director of the Department of Health Care Services.   

The Open Enrollment also applies to off-exchange plans.  Medi-Cal renewal reviews are also being suspended indefinitely in light of the pandemic to assure those receiving assistance will not lose coverage.  New state subsidies that went into effect at the beginning of the year may help more people qualify for premium assistance.   Depending on where you are on the Federal Poverty Level chart determines the amount of assistance you will get.   While most states cap the amount at 400% of the FPL, California has increased it to 600% of the FPL.

While the worldwide pandemic is currently affecting everyone’s daily lives, you have to wonder what permanent changes this life-altering event will have on the healthcare system. The roles of hospitals and primary care doctors will likely be altered in the new normal of “touchless” care.

Public health policy changed drastically in the wake of the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic which claimed between 50 and 100 million lives. Many countries moved to a more socialistic approach to medicine while the United States embraced a solution which offered health insurance through employers. In 1919 an international bureau for fighting contagious diseases was formed, the precursor to the World Health Organization.

It took years for the U.S. to implement systems like Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, but the suddenness of COVID-19 has forced the government to act with an impetus born of necessity. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid quickly expanded the access to telehealth for its members, and a recent Gallop poll showed virtual visits nearly doubled from March to mid-May. Telemedicine is sure to be one of the tools that will be widely used in the future by the healthcare system.

While many hospitals are struggling to staff emergency rooms which is often the first point of contact for those seriously ill from COVID-19, other healthcare services are struggling to survive. Physicians have seen a vast decrease in patient visits because of widespread fear of getting the illness. Elective procedures have been postponed or canceled because of the same fear. Experts say the “fee-for-service” model of doctors billing for each service performed is out-dated and instead should be focused more on “lump-sum” payments tied to quality of patient care. It would give physicians more incentive to expand services like telehealth and patient education instead of focusing on seeing as many patients as possible which the “fee-for-service” model promotes.

The pandemic has also highlighted the inequality of healthcare in minority populations with these groups reporting higher incidence of hospitalization and death. Future governmental policy will need to address how to better care for the people most at risk. Data collected during the pandemic can be used to focus funding and allocate resources to manage risk in these vulnerable populations.

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.