Welcome to the Illinois Health Matters Blog

Welcome to the Illinois Health Matters Blog. Our blog discusses various topics around how health care reform is affecting the people of Illinois. We present a variety of different perspectives from health care experts, both from our state, and nationally. For more information please visit IllinoisHealthMatters.org.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Same-Sex Couples Celebrate New Marriage and Healthcare Rights


The Supreme Court of the United States has been awfully busy lately—after last week’s landmark
rulings to uphold the Affordable Care Act and legalizing same-sex marriage, SCOTUS is certainly living up to its name. And while these decisions have massive implications in completely different realms of the American social and political landscape, they both improve the future of healthcare for same-sex couples. After facing decades of coverage ineligibility and discriminatory practices, achieving marriage equality means that same-sex couples will finally receive equitable treatment in a number of different areas of the healthcare arena.

New Options for Enrollment and Coverage

Because same-sex marriage is now recognized under federal law, LGBT couples are entitled to utilize insurance enrollment and coverage options designated for married spouses. One such opportunity now available to same-sex couples is the special enrollment period. Newly married same-sex spouses previously needed to wait to apply for coverage until the open enrollment period but these couples are now eligible to apply for coverage within 60 days of their union. These special enrollment periods are available to applicants who have recently experienced a major life event, a category which now incorporates same-sex marriages in light of the Supreme Court ruling.

Same-sex partners across the nation are now eligible to receive coverage under their spouse’s employer. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that less than half of employers offer insurance to non-married same-sex couples. Now that same-sex marriages are recognized under federal law, married same-sex couples across the nation will be able to access the same coverage benefits as heterosexual couples.  Although coverage for same-sex spouses was previously available through many insurance providers, same-sex couples will now have equal opportunity to access these benefits.

Spousal Rights

Friday’s Supreme Court decision also marks a huge step towards equal rights for same-sex spouses in healthcare settings. Couples who were previously denied basic spousal rights such as default power of attorney will be entitled to the same privileges as heterosexual couples in healthcare settings.

Although this may seem like a small victory to couples that have faced this type of discrimination, this decision marks a giant leap forward in the fight for equality. Take the story of LGBT rights activist Janice Langbehn: while vacationing with their family in Florida in 2009, Janice’s partner of 18 years Lisa Marie Pond suddenly collapsed and was rushed to a local trauma center. Because they were not Lisa’s blood relatives, Janice and their three adopted children were not allowed to see Lisa and were in the waiting room while she received treatment. Although Janice had power of attorney and the documentation was faxed to the hospital within an hour of Lisa’s arrival, it was too late: Lisa had suffered a brain aneurysm and slipped into a coma, and died without her partner or her children by her side.

Unfortunately, Lisa and Janice’s story is not unique—hundreds of same-sex couples have similar heart-wrenching stories of being denied basic spousal rights in hospitals and other healthcare systems. This landmark ruling will hopefully put an end to these discriminatory practices and allow same-sex couples the same fundamental rights to which all married couples are entitled.

An End to Discrimination

The recent ruling will hopefully mark an end to the prejudicial practices often employed by hospitals and healthcare facilities in serving same-sex couples and their families. As illustrated by Lisa and Janice’s story, unequal treatment of same-sex couples has been an unfortunate part of our nation’s healthcare history. These practices will hopefully be left in the past with this monumental decision.

Although Illinois was ahead of the curve in officially recognizing same-sex marriage, our statewide healthcare institutions have not all been sensitive to the specific care needs of LGBT patients. In an effort to hold healthcare organization accountable for their policies and practices for serving LGBT communities, the Human Rights Campaign launched their Healthcare Equality Index (HEI), which evaluates the equitable treatment of LGBT patients in healthcare settings based on the presence of four criteria: providing staff training in LGBT patient-centered care, equal visitation rights for LGBT patients and their visitors and written patient and employment non-discrimination policies. Although 16 Illinois hospitals and healthcare systems ranked among the 427 national leaders in LGBT healthcare equality, 12 of the 50 Illinois facilities surveyed in 2014 failed to meet the majority of equality criteria.

Despite this, equitable healthcare treatment for the LGBT community on a national scale is closer now than ever before. The 2014 HEI survey found that 84% of the hospitals met all four criteria for LGBT patient-centered care. This is a 101% increase in the number of healthcare systems designated as national leaders in promoting LGBT equality in 2013.

The Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage symbolizes a new era of equality, while the upholding of the Affordable Care Act marks a huge stride towards equal healthcare for same-sex couples nationwide. Now that the federal government has done its part in recognizing same-sex marriage, it’s up to healthcare systems across the nation to follow suit and ensure that their practices promote equitable treatment for LGBT patients and their families.

Dena Balk
Policy Intern
Health & Disability Advocates

Blogger Tricks

Small Employers: Take Another Look at Wellness Programs

Small employers want a healthy workforce but wonder how and if they should promote healthy
behaviors among their employees.  Trends show that larger employers, who typically self-fund their health insurance programs, find a direct link between the benefits of wellness programs and their health insurance bottom line.  This provides clear motivation for internal programming and incentives to keep employees fit, eating healthy and smoke-free.  For small employers who traditionally provide fully insured health insurance programs, the direct return on investment from implementing a wellness program may be less obvious.

The Return on Investment

Research has consistently shown that unhealthy employees are less productive and take more sick days. In 2010, The Harvard Business Review made a compelling argument in favor of worksite wellness programs. In the programs they highlighted, they found improved health status, fewer sick days and workers' compensation premiums declining by as much as 50%.  Even though small employers are faced with a highly regulated premium environment because of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), wellness programs might allow small businesses a solution for lowering workers' compensation costs.

Healthy Employees, Happy Employees

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies several ways that both employers and employees can benefit from work-based health programs.  At the top of their list for employees: increased well-being, self-image and self esteem.   This kind of indirect impact on the employee psyche can boost morale, reduce turnover and ultimately improve productivity. Calculating the cost of employee turnover can be tricky for a small business, but some estimate it to be between 150 – 175% of the annual salary depending on the job level.

The question for small employers comes down to the bottom line.  The actual cost of employer wellness programs can vary greatly. Questions to consider as you begin exploring the feasibility include:

Will the program be run in house or using an external vendor?
How extensive will the health interventions be?
Will you include health screenings?
What type of employee incentives will be provided?

In addition, small businesses may not be aware that the ACA has created new tax-based incentives for qualified employer wellness programs.   There are rules to comply with, as plans must be reasonably designed to “promote health or prevent disease.”  Additionally they must be made available to all “similarly situated” employees.  For more details see this Department of Labor Fact Sheet.

Small Scale Ideas Make a Big Difference

Still unsure about incorporating a more comprehensive wellness initiative into your business model? Some small scale initiatives can make a big difference.  Even something as simple as extending lunch hours can give employees time to make lunchtime fitness practical and possible.   Rather than allowing employees 30 minutes to grab a burger and fries, 90 minute lunch slots offer employees time to hit the gym. Small changes like this can give a boost to employees and the small business as a whole.

Worth the Time to Investigate

Small employers have a lot to consider when it comes to how to allocate their health related workforce dollars.  Finding a little room in the budget now as well as spending some time re-thinking a few basic workplace rules could ultimately pay off.   Proven reductions in workers' compensation premiums, employee turnover rates and new ACA tax incentives make it the perfect time for small employers to give worksite wellness programs a closer look.

Michele Thornton MBA
Insurance and Benefits Consultant



Thursday, June 25, 2015

Illinois Dodges Disaster on Supreme Court's Obamacare Ruling

The following originally appeared on Crain's Chicago Business.

Illinois just dodged a bullet with the outcome of King v. Burwell. If the Supreme Court had ruled against subsidies being challenged in the case, working people and families in the state collectively would have lost more than $49 million a month to help purchase health insurance.

In its decision, the court affirmed the legality of the provision of premium tax credits under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in all states, whether they established their own health insurance marketplace or used the federal marketplace. On average, working poor and middle-class Illinoisans are getting $211 monthly to help pay their health insurance premiums. A different decision would have meant a 169 percent increase in out-of-pocket expense on the average premium.

Recent data by the Kaiser Family Foundation show nearly 73 percent of the remaining uninsured in Illinois eligible for Get Covered Illinois, the state's health insurance marketplace—roughly 597,473 people—live and work in metropolitan Chicago. In the Chicago area, more than 100,000 of the remaining uninsured reside in areas where English is not the predominant spoken language. While concise data are not available of how many of the uninsured are working, American Community Survey data indicate that as many as 62 percent of the uninsured in Illinois are working at least part time and more than likely work for small businesses.

The most recent year for which U.S. Census data on businesses are available, 2012, show 314,199 business establishments in Illinois. However, 94 percent of these companies employ fewer than 50 employees and thus are not required to provide health insurance via the ACA. Cook County alone accounts for 41 percent of the state's total small businesses.

NOW WHAT?

Now that the King v. Burwell decision has put the legality of subsidies to rest, Illinois needs to get busy enrolling the remaining 597,473 uninsured individuals eligible for a path to coverage in the Get Covered Illinois marketplace. Of these uninsured, 283,629 are eligible for a tax credit or subsidy.

It's a matter of economic security for our residents and for Illinois' economic environment. The math tells us that the business community—especially small businesses—needs to be at the heart of efforts to enroll the remaining uninsured. Crain's and Health & Disability Advocates surveyed small businesses last fall and learned that Chicago-area companies still face increasing health care costs; are confused by the requirements of the ACA; and are unlikely to enroll themselves and their employees online. In fact, more than 80 percent of those surveyed said they shop for health insurance for themselves and their employees using health insurance brokers and agents.

Now that federal funding for ACA assisters and navigators is ending, a public-private partnership for enrollment in Get Covered Illinois is critical. We need to double down on engaging health insurance brokers and agents. While the state did an amazing job in enrolling 633,757 adults in Medicaid as part of ACA, Illinois ranked well behind others in marketplace enrollment, coming in 20th out of 37 states that operate marketplaces using HealthCare.gov.

Get Covered Illinois is key to helping Illinois businesses thrive, enabling them to better attract and retain talent. The marketplace also encourages entrepreneurship by ending the reliance of individuals on larger employer-sponsored coverage.

A strong ACA marketplace is a win-win for the business community and the state. We urge Springfield, City Hall and county governments to make enrollment of the remaining uninsured a top priority and engage the business community, health insurance brokers and agents in the process.

Barbara Otto                                          
CEO                                                        
Health & Disability Advocates           

Erica Salem
Director of Strategic Health Initiatives
Health & Disability Advocates

What Really Happens After Enrolling in Medicaid Managed Care?

Health & Disability Advocates (HDA) is monitoring the rollout of the Medicare-Medicaid Alignment Initiative (MMAI) and has heard from frustrated case managers working with consumers who are confused about the enrollment process and their rights. In response, HDA developed an enrollment timeline that explains what new enrollees can expect from Managed Care Organizations (MCOs) and plan representatives upon enrollment. To produce the timeline, HDA researched the MMAI demonstration contract developed by the State of Illinois and approved by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)  HDA also solicited input from health plans on whether their on-the-ground practices were accurately reflected in the timeline.

The finished product outlines important points for case managers and their clients to consider.

One Day Changes Everything

Consumers who are enrolled in a managed care plan after the 12th day of the month will not see their coverage start until the month after next. This is relevant for consumers choosing a specific managed care plan in order to see a particular provider or specialist in that plan’s network. Submitting paperwork after the cut-off date means consumers would have to wait longer than expected for necessary treatment. Helping consumers submit required documents in a timely manner can guarantee they are connected to the medical treatment they need, which promotes continuity of care.

Stratification Sets Up Future Contact Standards

Once enrolled in a plan, all enrollees can expect to complete a Health Risk Screening within 60 days. The screen collects information on the enrollee’s physical and mental health conditions and identifies their current medical providers. This is what IlliniCare’s Health Screen looks like. Health plans use the screen to establish intensity of services and frequency of contact with Care Coordinators by stratifying the enrollee as low, moderate or high risk.

Enrollees stratified as low risk will receive annual follow-ups from their Care Coordinators while those stratified as moderate or high risk will have quarterly follow-ups. Moderate and high risk enrollees will also complete a Health Risk Assessment and create an Individualized Care Plan within 90 days. These enrollees will help form their own Interdisciplinary Care Team of healthcare providers that meets quarterly to review the Individualized Care Plan.

The Care Coordinators’ Role

Care Coordinators focus on enrollees’ healthcare needs by connecting them to necessary tests, doctors and treatment. They also facilitate information sharing among providers by leading the Interdisciplinary Care Team. Addressing enrollees’ medical needs is their priority. Care Coordinators direct less attention to linking enrollees to social supports, like housing and public benefits.

It’s also important for case managers to know that Care Coordinators must manage a substantial caseload of up to 600 enrollees. Caseloads include a blend of low, moderate and high risk enrollees, with each risk level weighted differently.

Understanding what a care coordinator can—and cannot—be expected to do is advantageous to case managers. When roles are clearly recognized, case managers know how care coordinators can be used as a resource. And in what instances an alternative referral would be more appropriate. This establishes a stronger professional relationship between case managers and care coordinators, which ultimately benefits the enrollee.

Case managers and Care Coordinators are on the front lines of healthcare reform and fostering solid working relationships between these two players will be a critical component of the success or failure of these efforts. Knowing what case managers and their clients can expect from managed care plans can lay the foundation for a strong relationship that supports the health of individuals while also furthering the goals of healthcare reform.

Bryce Marable MSW
Health Policy Analyst
Health & Disability Advocates

Thursday, June 18, 2015

People With Disabilities Who Opt Out of ‘Voluntary’ Wellness Programs Will Pay the Price, and the EEOC’s Okay With That.

The following originally appeared on the American Civil Liberties Union's Speak Freely Blog.

Voluntary wellness programs at work can provide benefits to employees, but employers are increasingly adopting “voluntary” wellness programs that unfairly burden workers with disabilities the most of all. Worse, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seems to think that’s okay, undermining core antidiscrimination protections it used to defend.

Here’s why.

Imagine a woman living with rheumatoid arthritis and severe depression who, under doctor’s care, has finally returned to work. Her medications — a corticosteroid and an antidepressant — have triggered weight gain. Now imagine this woman facing her employer’s “wellness activities:” She is instructed to fill out a detailed questionnaire about her medical conditions; she is weighed and pronounced overweight; she is told to lose weight. Oh, and the program is voluntary — but if she doesn’t comply, she will have to pay hundreds of dollars more in annual health care premiums. 

This imaginary example is all too real: Persons with disabilities risk discrimination and stigma if their employers gain access to their private medical information. And disabled workers are far more likely to have a condition targeted by wellness programs, such as high blood pressure, high blood glucose, or being overweight. 

Historically, the Americans with Disabilities Act has provided employees with disabilities some protections against overly intrusive and punitive wellness programs. The EEOC has maintained, sensibly, that voluntary medical examinations and inquiries cannot impose penalties on employees who decline to participate. 

Until now.

The EEOC has recently proposed new regulations and guidance language on wellness programs that would allow employers to implement wellness programs that add up to 30 percent of the cost of the employee’s health insurance to an employee’s health care bill. Based on the average annual premium, this translates to an extra cost for disabled employees of about $1,800 per year, either because they don’t want to answer questions that could expose their disability to their employer or because they cannot meet the health goal

The EEOC describes these programs as “voluntary,” but workers with disabilities are the least likely to be able to afford additional health care premiums. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, median household income for people with disabilities is less than half of household income for people without disabilities: $25,974 compared to $61,103. At the same time, there is little evidence that these programs are effective. 

If the EEOC is going to allow employers to charge workers hundreds more each year, it needs to be sure important privacy and disability protections are in place.

Three safeguards matter the most. First, the EEOC needs to provide guidance language that workers with disabilities have the right to request a reasonable accommodation waiver from a wellness program, so that their medical status can be taken into account in their ability to comply. The guidelines should also protect disabled workers’ privacy, so that their decision to join or not join the wellness program doesn’t broadcast the details of — or even the existence of — their medical condition to their employer. Finally, disabled workers should rest assured that the guidelines protect them from disability-based discrimination in the workplace, such as harassment of employees who cannot comply with “normal” health standards. 

Comments on the proposed regulations are due this Friday, June 19, 2015. Tell the EEOC not to permit employers to subject their disabled workers to a Hobson’s choice: Submit to the prescribed wellness activities, or pay hundreds more each year. The EEOC should instead insure that workers with disabilities can opt out of these programs without penalty. 

Claudia Center
Senior Staff Attorney

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Redoing Redes: Strengthening Communication Procedures in the Illinois Medicaid Redetermination Project

The Illinois Medicaid Redetermination Project (IMRP) is erroneously suspending vital medical care for people who remain eligible. Since the rollout of the IMRP in early 2013, the program has been plagued by inadequate communication from the state that leaves consumers confused and ultimately without healthcare. Consumers report that they are not receiving the required notices by mail and when they call with questions, frontline state staff cannot provide answers. Because of the state’s ineffective communication protocols and inadequate employee training, rightful Medicaid beneficiaries are in the precarious situation of being unable to fill their prescriptions, go to the doctor or receive treatment. The purpose of the IMRP is to save state dollars by trimming the Medicaid program of those who are no longer eligible, not cut people who still deserve services.

Letters Lost in the Mail

Medicaid beneficiaries are cut simply because they never received their redetermination notices in the mail. For example, Health & Disability Advocates worked with a mother whose child had been dropped from Medicaid because IMRP sent the notice to a non-existent address. The fact that IRMP sent the letter to an incorrect address on the same street where the family lived suggests that it was a clerical error. In this situation, a young adult dealing with serious mental illness could not access medication and treatment, because the state, not the individual made an error. Sudden lapses in care can pose serious consequences for people who rely on these supports for their physical and mental health.

This is not an isolated instance. A survey of case managers working with older adults and people with disabilities found that the IMRP fails to adequately notify people of their redetermination responsibilities and inform them when they are bounced from the program. Many get the bad news when they attempt to fill prescription or go to the doctor and are told that they are no longer covered. People deserve clear communication from the state telling them they are no longer covered and the steps to get reinstated.

Confused and Not Covered

Even in cases where Medicaid recipients do receive notices, many consumers find the letters are hard to understand and filled with jargon. Given that the intended audience has never before been required to submit to annual redeterminations and may also have lower literacy levels, the letters must be crystal clear. Reports from case managers suggest the letters are confusing.  One case manager surveyed noted “clients do not understand what documents they need to submit with the form and whether they need to submit anything.” With the potential for people to lose their health coverage, the consequences of this confusion are severe.

IMRP’s own data reveal their communication shortcomings. According to May’s Medicaid redetermination numbers, 81% of cancellations are due to a lack of response. Being cancelled doesn’t mean a person is ineligible. In fact, a substantial portion of these clients should still be receiving services.  Of those dropped, 1/3 were reinstated within three months.  In FY 2015 alone, this translates into 238,025 people being incorrectly cut from Medicaid, and this number could be even higher. People who are less frequent healthcare users may learn of their cancellation when they attempt to schedule a doctor’s appointment. With people who deserve Medicaid cut from the program, the IMRP is not achieving its main objective of reducing state expenditures by eliminating those who no longer qualify. Cutting eligible people will actually result in higher costs. Without access to primary medical treatment, people will resort to more costly emergency room care for conditions that could have been managed or even prevented.

Matters get worse when consumers call state workers for clarification, because frontline staff members are often not fully informed themselves. In the above-mentioned case of the mother fighting for her son’s coverage to be reinstated, her interaction with the IMRP hotline was unhelpful and hurtful. The representative said there was nothing more she could do and blamed the family. Stateline workers should be fully trained to provide answers; anything less only increases confusion and frustration.

The Path Forward

The state must develop plain-language notices that explain redeterminations and their importance while outlining the specific steps to keeping coverage. This would not be a new undertaking. State officials have previously brainstormed ways to create simple, more consumer friendly forms. Unfortunately, the furor around budget deficits and service cut threats has drowned out the push for clear communication standards. Even worse, continuing to deemphasize this issue will leave many rightful Medicaid recipients suddenly without coverage. Communication protocols and state staff should support individuals in maintaining their vital connection to healthcare, not create hurdles that effectively jeopardize emotional and physical health. State officials must restart the discussions on clear notices and broaden the conversation to include improved training for frontline staff. These reforms will go a long way towards supporting the IMRP’s original objective of eliminating wasteful spending while also keeping those who still deserve coverage connected to care.

Bryce Marable MSW
Health Policy Analyst

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Missing Link: Putting Health into Your Hands

The Affordable Care Act brought about the expansion of Erie Family Health Center, the only health clinic in Evanston and Skokie. Long after its opening in Evanston, Erie Family Health Center was under capacity and wanted to reach more people. In contrast, the Evanston and Skokie Health Departments conducted community surveys in 2013 and found that one of the most prevalent health issues identified by the community was access to healthcare.

Something needed to change in the way that people accessed the healthcare system and the way they were connected to information and care. Inequalities in the healthcare system limit the types of care and information for people of different backgrounds. Many people do not know how to access quality health information or where to go for their health-related needs.

A Community Collaboration Promoting Health

Students at Northwestern University are partnering with public institutions, community organizations and university departments to create student-run health resource centers at the Evanston and Skokie libraries. Called the Health Information Resource Centers Utilizing Libraries in Evanston and Skokie (HIRCULES) Health Hub, the initiative will work to promote health literacy, preventative care, awareness of community resources and understanding of the existing healthcare system. The program is powerful and unique; it empowers people to take ownership through guidance, linkage and education.

The HIRCULES Health Hub will provide the Evanston and Skokie community with a trusted central resource where they can be connected to educational materials to improve health literacy. The HIRCULES Health Hub desks will be staffed by Northwestern students trained as medical librarians at Evanston and Skokie Public Libraries. Students will gather resources and search for materials for library patrons. HIRCULES will also include a website with relevant health resources and databases that contain searchable information including frequently asked questions, health services available in Evanston and Skokie and a calendar of health-related community events.

Identifying Challenges, Creating Solutions

The HIRCULES Health Hub will feature monthly themes with digestible and accessible information. Developing these monthly themes has taught staff a great deal about the community and led to new solutions. For example, last summer staff created a Back to School theme and wanted to inform parents where they could obtain school supplies if they could not afford to buy them from a store. The organization that had previously provided this service had recently closed, and with two months until the start of the new school year, no one else was planning to provide supplies to any Evanston school districts. HIRCULES staff reached out to community organizations, Parent Teacher Associations and school district boards to find a point person who ran a program to fill the need for school supplies for low-income students. Because of HIRCULES, real needs of the community were identified and addressed.

Improving Knowledge and Health

Normalizing routine, preventative care is another important aspect of the project. HIRCULES staff will promote preventative care through education of how to utilize Federally Qualified Health Centers and medical homes. Most people are not aware of the implications of the Affordable Care Act, which promotes preventative care. This reduces costs and improves health outcomes over time. Emphasis on preventative care education is imperative in empowering people to utilize pre-acute and ambulatory points of access to health systems. The partnership between HIRCULES and Erie Family Health Center helps establish a healthy lifestyle through regular, preventative primary care checkups and referrals for more complex health services.

Information Hub for the Community

The final objective of HIRCULES is to guide people to health-related resources, simplifying their search for health and wellness and improving services in the existing, complex healthcare system. All available, health-related resources in the community are being compiled into a virtual database accessible online and through visiting the HIRCULES Health Hub. For example, if an expecting mother wants to know where she can access prenatal and postnatal care, HIRCULES staff can direct them to Family Focus. If a parent needs assistance enrolling his or her family in health insurance, they will be connected with a local health insurance navigator and resources from Get Covered Illinois.

These major health issues will take time to address and overcome. Programs like HIRCULES are a vital contribution to making positive changes and improving the health of Evanston and Skokie citizens.

Brittany Zelch & Emery Weinstein

Brittany and Emery are undergraduate students attending Northwestern University Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences who study global health. They helped found and remain involved in the HIRCULES Health Hub.