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What health reform means for the people of Illinois

A blog by IllinoisHealthMatters.org

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

NOTICE Act could do more for patients

Starting August 6th, the Notice of Observation Treatment and Implication for Care Eligibility Act, or NOTICE Act, will go into effect. This new law requires hospitals to give written and verbal notice to Medicare beneficiaries who have been on observation status for more than 24 hours.

What is observation status? 

In a nutshell, observation status is a term hospitals use to bill Medicare. Observation status is based on a doctor’s medical determination. Doctors place patients on observation status if their condition is not serious enough for inpatient admission status, but still requires monitoring in case health worsens.

The NOTICE Act is a step in the right direction because patients are often unaware of their observation status or its potential consequences. Prior to the NOTICE Act, the only way to know your status was to ask. Part of the reasoning behind the law is that beneficiaries get hit with serious financial consequences including higher than expected hospital bills and that Medicare won’t cover skilled nursing care needed after discharge from the hospital. However, the law could do better to prevent those consequences.

The issue for many patients is that being on observation status also means they are classified as an outpatient, not an inpatient. That means that rules for Medicare Part B (outpatient services) and D (prescription medication coverage) apply to their hospitalization rather than part A (inpatient). To understand this better, see this comparison chart 

Oftentimes, Medicare beneficiaries learn about their observation status when arranging for the skilled nursing facility care they need after discharge. These patients make the very valid assumption that because they are wearing hospital gowns, in a hospital bed, eating hospital food, meeting with nurses and taking tests administered by doctors that they are an inpatient. They learn their actual status, and its consequences, too late and have little recourse.

How could the law be improved?

An appeal process is needed.
The NOTICE Act ensures people know about their observation status and the financial consequences of this determination. And that’s it. They don’t know the medical reasons a doctor made the decision and they aren’t given any avenues to appeal this determination. Patients will be informed of their observation status and the possibility of higher medical costs, but have no recourse to fight the decision.

Use plain-language in the notice to ensure comprehension. 
The Medicare Outpatient Observation Notice, or MOON, used to inform patients about their observation status is not written using easy-to-understand language. In its current form, the MOON is written for a 12-grade reading level, a break from the common practice of writing consumer materials for no more than an 8th grade reading level.

Do you agree Medicare patients deserve more?

Tell the federal government. They are asking for your comments right now in response to the proposed rules. You can use this comment template or submit comments on your own. Submit your comments with these simple steps:

  • Go to the website where comments are submitted. Enter the phrase "Medicare Program: Hospital Inpatient Prospective Payment Systems" in the search box. The first hit will be the rule you want to comment on. Click the "Comment Now!" blue box. 
  • Use our comment template to show how people you know have been hurt by observation status and why changes need to be made by including personal information where indicated with yellow highlights. Adding specific examples of real people makes your case more compelling.
  • You can also write your own feedback directly in the comment box.

Go ahead, make your voice heard! The greater number of people that speak up, the more likely changes will be made.

How can you get ready? 

While the law could be improved, it will be implemented August 6th. Prepare for the changes by getting informed:
Going to the hospital is already stressful. Deciphering complex notices, understanding jargon and dealing with unexpected medical bills increases the strain. Armed with knowledge, you can act as a more effective advocate for yourself, your clients or patients, and loved ones so they can focus on their health and recovery.

Bryce Marable
Health Policy Analyst
Health & Disability Advocates
Blogger Tricks

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Health Care Changes for Small Businesses in 2016

It’s been about six years since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, but some provisions of the health care law that can improve health care options for small businesses are still being implemented – like employee choice. By learning about this addition and other aspects of the law, small business owners can empower themselves to make the best decisions regarding health coverage for themselves and their employees. In many ways, health care options for small businesses are remaining the same this year. For instance, the Small Business Health Options Program in Illinois will continue offering an array of cost-competitive insurance plans from which employers can choose. And as always, qualified small businesses that purchase health insurance through SHOP may receive federal tax credits to help offset the cost of coverage.

Employee Choice, a Positive New Change

There are several new features of the law being implemented this year, though. One of the biggest and most promising changes is the implementation of employee choice, which is now available in every state. Employee choice allows small business workers to choose from a number of plans from different insurance carriers. Under employee choice, workers choose which carrier they’d prefer to use, instead of business owners choosing for them. This option plays a key role in distinguishing SHOP from the outside health insurance market, and it’s popular among small business owners. In fact, Small Business Majority’s polling found two-thirds of small employers believe allowing employees to choose among multiple carriers is an important element of the health care marketplaces.

While employee choice is a great development for small businesses, options under Illinois’s employee choice program aren’t as robust as they could be. In some parts of Illinois, only one or two insurance providers are participating in SHOP. While employers can still choose different levels of coverage from participating providers, more providers will need to participate to boost options for small businesses.

Taking Advantage of the New Opportunities 

If your business has fewer than 51 full-time employees, you can enroll in SHOP at any time during the year to take advantage of employee choice. In order to begin the enrollment process now, entrepreneurs should visit www.getcoveredillinois.gov or the National Association of Health Underwriters to contact a health insurance broker who is trained and certified to enroll small businesses for SHOP Marketplace plans. Brokers are well-versed in the ins-and-outs of the ACA, and there’s often no extra cost to utilize their services.

While 2016 offers changes in Illinois’s small business health insurance landscape, small business owners shouldn’t be concerned. Changes like employee choice are a step in the right direction for entrepreneurs. The best bet is for employers to arm themselves with information; that way, they can choose health coverage that maximizes benefits for their business.

Geri Aglipay
Outreach Manager, Midwest Region and Greater Chicago
Small Business Majority 

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Budget Crisis Impact on Centers for Independent Living

Like many other human services providers, the Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living
(INCIL) is being hit hard by the Illinois budget crisis. Access Living is one of the 22 Centers for Independent Living (CILs) in Illinois. The CILs serve 95 of the 102 counties in Illinois. INCIL’s Executive Director, Ann Ford, shared the following, based on reports from 19 of the 22 CILs, which employ between 450-500 people:

•39 CIL staff have been laid off state wide since July 1, 2015
•93 CIL staff are working reduced hours because of furlough days, experiencing pay cuts ranging from 20% to 40%
•21 vacant CIL positions remain unfilled throughout the state (delaying hires is one way to save money)
•Two CILs are in the process of closing satellite offices
•All CILs are restricting travel, including in some areas travel to consumers’ homes
•At least four CILs are developing contingency plans to close in the event funding doesn’t come within the next six months
•It is difficult to determine how many consumers have gone without services. A reasonable estimate would be 800 to 1,000 people statewide
•The impact includes the enormous emotional toll this issue is taking on staff at all CILs, as they take on increased workloads while losing a portion of their income.

The CILs are doing the very best they can to continue to provide services to empower people with disabilities to live as independently as possible in the community. Quite often they are a real lifeline for many people with disabilities. During this difficult state budget crisis, know that your local CILs have been doing everything they can to show why their programs matter to the local community. The CILs are still waiting for just over $4 million in FY 16 budget money for CILs from the state of Illinois, as well as other funds specific to certain disability programs they run.

While Access Living has been holding on, we are very concerned about our fellow CILs at risk of closing. Please contact Ann Ford at annford@incil.org if you have questions about the network; you can also check www.incil.org to see what CILs serve your area. We also urge you to contact your Governor, state senators and representatives to urge them to work on a budget solution ASAP so that disability services are not further impacted.

Ann Ford
Executive Director
Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living 

This was originally shared as an Advocacy Alert from Access Living.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Key Lessons from Health & Medicine’s Budget Forum

On January 15, 2016, Health & Medicine hosted a meeting of The Chicago Forum for Justice in forum proceedings notes as a reference guide for the forum’s content.

Our notes are written as a summary and while they can’t fully capture the presentations, videos of each of the five mini panels are available on the event webpage, as are slides from speakers who used them in their presentations. We thank CAN TV for recording, editing, and sharing videos of the forum, extending the potential impact of our panelists’ presentations.

We hope these notes will be useful for advocates and policymakers seeking to understand issues related to the budget, think about potential revenue solutions, and consider strategies, framing, and narratives likely to advance progress.  Health & Medicine will be convening a small group soon to review the forum proceedings and discuss next steps for our work on this critical area, which we’ll share on our website.

While the budget problems and solutions are more complex than this, here are some main points that have emerged for me from conversations and from the presentations and discussion at the conference:

  • Illinois lacks sufficient revenue, which represents a structural budget problem, priming the State to have recurring budget shortages and hampering our ability to provide Illinoisans with the public services they need and want, thus harming the health of the public, and disproportionately harming vulnerable communities.
  • The structural budget problems have several potential revenue solutions, including a progressive income tax structure and efforts to ensure corporations pay their fair share, both of which are more equitable than our current system and would better grow revenue in proportion to the size of Illinois’ economy.
  • State elected officials are collectively responsible for passing a budget and using a selection of revenue solutions that will help preserve and improve the vital health, social, and education programs and services that support people’s health and Illinois’ economy.  Inaction on the structural revenue shortages that Illinois faces is an unacceptable abdication of the governing duties our public officials share.

Of course, these salient points are based on a range of facts and history about Illinois’ taxes and budgets, beyond the scope of this post.  A significant amount of such relevant detail is covered in the forum proceedings notes, as well as the slides and videos on the event webpage (linked to above).

Also, related to this subject, Health & Medicine’s Executive Director, Margie Schaps, had two letters focused on Illinois’ budget published in the last couple of weeks:

Wesley Epplin
Director of Health Equity
Health & Medicine Policy Research Group

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Blacks Hit Especially Hard in Illinois Budget Impasse

February is Black History Month – and Illinois’ eighth month without a State budget. As we highlight black people’s contributions to the American narrative, the message sent by Illinois’ budget impasse is hardly celebratory.

All Illinoisans are suffering as the fragile web of supportive services slowly unravels. Communities across the state are feeling the ripple effects of layoffs, reduced services, slow State payments and the tension that comes with sustained uncertainty.

In the midst of our shared suffering, we must acknowledge this sad truth. People of color, especially black people, are enduring the deepest battle scars from this budget stalemate. And if history is our teacher, these will become the scars of future generations. America’s tortured racial history is embedded in the laws and policies that govern all of us, resulting in widening social, health and economic gaps that operating without a state budget only exacerbates.

Earlier this month, Heartland Alliance’s Social IMPACT Research Center issued a report that illustrates how pervasive these disparities are in Illinois. The study reports that despite significant dips over the past several decades, the number of Illinoisans living in poverty today, 14.4%, is almost the same as it was in the late 1960s (14.7%). While under 10% of whites in Illinois are living in poverty and Hispanic and Asian populations each have poverty rates of close to 20%, a whopping 30.6% of black people are living in poverty statewide, while making up less than 15% of Illinois’ population. And what is even more disheartening is that 43.2% of black children under the age of 17 are poor. In fact, poverty among black people outpaces that of whites, Latinos, and Asians in all age categories.

The report lays out a number of health and economic disparities by race. But what is at least as important as the data is the case the authors lay out for the “legacy of inequality” that colors public policy in America. The report offers a historical soundbite of the legalized racist policies of the past that benefited whites and created barriers for people of color, policies and practices that ignore the generational impact of those benefits and barriers, and the practice of mid-twentieth century redlining that seems to have intertwined race, ZIP code and opportunity into perpetuity.

This budget impasse threatens any progress made towards reducing inequalities in Illinois. For example, last year, for the first time in decades, Chicago saw fewer than 1,000 new HIV cases. That does not happen without a network of community organizations and institutions focused on communities hardest hit by the epidemic — black bisexual and gay men, transgender women of color, and black heterosexual women living in communities with high HIV rates. Blacks make up only 15% of the State’s population but account for 50% of new HIV cases. Yet, the governor’s proposed budget includes a devastating 66% cut to the African-American HIV/AIDS Response Act, a dedicated line of HIV funding that supports the black community, the community hardest-hit by HIV. This at a time when an estimated 6,525 Illinoisans do not know their HIV status and nearly 50% of people living with HIV in this State are not receiving any medical care or HIV medications.

One thing is abundantly clear this Black History Month in “the land of Lincoln:” Elections have consequences. We must continue to put pressure on the Governor and our state Legislature to approve a humane budget with a revenue increase even as we prepare ourselves for the next budget battle. As the late poet Maya Angelou often said, “When you know better, you do better.” We can do a lot better, Illinois.

This article was originally posted on RebootIllinois.com.

Kim Hunt
Executive Director, Pride Action Tank
AIDS Foundation of Chicago

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Food Keeps Illinois Families Healthy: Help Illinois Reduce the SNAP Gap

Forty-eight million Americans live in food insecure households, meaning they worry about where and how to find their next meal. Many of these individuals and families are covered by Medicaid but are not receiving critical nutritional support. They are eligible for SNAP which could help support their nutrition and improve their health, but they are not enrolled.

What is SNAP?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) helps low-income households purchase adequate, nutritious food. Benefits are distributed monthly on an Electronic Benefits Transfer card, known as “Link” in Illinois, which acts much like a debit card. Money from SNAP can be spent at authorized retailers, and some farmers markets, on any foods that recipients prepare and eat at home. SNAP recipients nationally spend over 85 percent of benefits on fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy, meat and meat alternatives. Beneficiaries also increase the amount of money they spend on groceries each month, instead of simply replacing their food budget with SNAP dollars. By supplementing, not replacing, grocery budgets and allowing for the purchase of more nutritious food, SNAP reduces food insecurity in low-income households. This is particularly true of households with children.

Why Help Consumers Apply for SNAP Benefits?

Connecting more Medicaid recipients with SNAP benefits can address food insecurity and inadequate nutrition, which this population experiences at high rates, and improve health outcomes. In addition to helping a family afford healthier food, children who receive nutrition supports are healthier and more likely to finish school while participating in the program. A report recently released by the White House Council of Economic Advisers details the long-term benefits of this program, including: for mother’s receiving support during pregnancy, reductions in incidences of low birth-weights; and for adults who received support when they were children, reductions in obesity rates and metabolic syndrome, increased likelihood of having completed high school, and significant improvements in overall health and economic self-sufficiency among women.

New Opportunities in Illinois to Reduce the SNAP Gap

The Affordable Care Act has made it easier for low-income individuals and families to access public benefits by helping states pay for electronic systems to apply for benefits. In Illinois, the new Application for Benefits Eligibility enables applicants to submit a single application for both SNAP and Medicaid. However, despite this improved online application, we have not fully reduced the “SNAP Gap”—the number of Medicaid clients who are income-eligible for SNAP but do not receive this benefit.  We need to work with medical providers, medical plans, social service organizations and other partners to make sure that everyone who is eligible for SNAP gets the help they need to pay for healthy food.

The newest change to the Illinois SNAP program is that on January 1, 2016, Illinois raised the gross income limit for SNAP from 130% to 165% of the federal poverty level, making nearly 40,000 low-income working families newly eligible for SNAP. With more families in Illinois now eligible for SNAP and the ability to submit a single application for both SNAP and Medicaid benefits, it’s time to close the SNAP Gap and make sure families have the food they need to stay healthy. If you’re not familiar with SNAP’s application process join us on HelpHub for more information and resources for both providers and consumers.

MacKenzie Speer
Advocacy Program Associate
Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Clarifying, Eliminating and Enforcing Special Enrollment Periods

As the Health Insurance Marketplace grows and matures, we continue to listen and learn to find ways to make it work even better for consumers and those who serve consumers. We know that each year, as the Marketplace evolves, we must seek to continually adapt and refine the way we operate. In addition to continually improving the consumer experience, we also must make changes to keep the Marketplace vibrant, stable and strong.

The fundamental principles to achieve this are simple: the Marketplace must be attractive for consumers, and the Marketplace must be attractive for insurance companies that offer plans on it.

Consumers need to know that affordable options are available and that insurers are competing for their business. We know that consumers want affordable health care and value the insurance they’re finding at the Health Insurance Marketplaces. This Open Enrollment we’ve seen a significant influx of new consumers – many of them young – making it clear there is still a large untapped market for insurance companies to serve.

The Marketplace must also be attractive to insurers, so that they make quality plans available at affordable prices and continue to drive innovation, and so consumers can find plans that meet their health and budget needs. Building an attractive Marketplace starts with establishing a predictable, stable set of rules that help to keep the risk pool balanced. As the Marketplace grows and evolves, we continue to analyze data to understand how our rules are impacting insurers and consumers and to make sure they are working to sustain a stable Marketplace. By having clear rules for how the Marketplace operates and making adjustments when needed, we are creating a more stable rate environment with more affordable plan choices for consumers.

One of the areas we have been reviewing closely is the special enrollment periods we offer. Special enrollment periods are an important way to make sure that people who lose their health insurance during the year or who experience a major life change like getting married or having a child, have the opportunity to enroll in coverage through the Marketplaces. People who experience these qualifying events have the opportunity to enroll in coverage outside of the normal Open Enrollment period from November 1 to January 31, similar to how enrollment works in the employer market. In addition, in the first two years of the Marketplace, a number of special enrollment periods were created for consumers who were still learning how to enroll in coverage for the first time.

As the Marketplace matures and consumers learn more about how and when to enroll, we continue to review the rules around special enrollment periods in order to keep them fair for consumers and for issuers. We are taking initial steps in adjusting how special enrollment periods work – and will continue to make further adjustments in the future based on what we learn from continued monitoring and analysis of special enrollment period usage and compliance.

The action we are taking today announces the elimination of several unnecessary special enrollment periods, clarifies the definitions of other special enrollment periods, and provides stronger enforcement so that special enrollment periods serve the purpose for which they are intended and do not provide unintended loopholes.

Eliminating Unnecessary Special Enrollment Periods

Last month, we announced that the Tax Season special enrollment period will no longer be offered. Today we are announcing the elimination of six other special enrollment periods that are no longer needed. Just as the Marketplace evolves, so too does consumer behavior. The rules we use to operate the Marketplace need to keep up with these changes. As such, special enrollment periods are no longer available for:

  • Consumers who enrolled with too much in advance payments of the premium tax credit because of a redundant or duplicate policy
  • Consumers who were affected by an error in the treatment of Social Security Income for tax dependents
  • Lawfully present non-citizens that were affected by a system error in determination of their advance payments of the premium tax credit
  • Lawfully present non-citizens with incomes below 100% FPL who experienced certain processing delays
  • Consumers who were eligible for or enrolled in COBRA and not sufficiently informed about their coverage options
  • Consumers who were previously enrolled in the Pre-Existing Condition Health Insurance Program
We’ll continue to monitor how special enrollment periods are used and may make changes in the future as Marketplace systems and operations continue to improve.

Clarifying Eligibility

Our review of current special enrollment periods also showed that some of the eligibility guidelines need to be further clarified so consumers can understand the intent and so they will not be abused. Today we are updating guidance to more clearly define the special enrollment period that is available to consumers who permanently moved, and as a result, gained access to new health plans. Specifically, we clarify that this special enrollment period cannot be used for a short-term or temporary move where the consumer doesn’t plan to stay in their new location, including situations in which a consumer is admitted to a hospital for treatment in a different area. This clarification is intended to assist consumers, brokers, issuers and others in understanding who is eligible for this special enrollment period.

If we identify other areas where the rules for special enrollment periods are unclear, we will issue additional clarifying guidance as needed.

Enforcing the Rules

Finally, we will take steps to make sure that consumers understand and comply with the rules. We will conduct an assessment of plan selections that are made through certain special enrollment periods to evaluate whether consumers properly accessed coverage. Our program integrity team will pull samples of consumer records nationally and may request additional information from some consumers or take other steps to validate that consumers properly qualified for these special enrollment periods. The findings from the assessment will help us to inform future policy and operational improvements to enhance program integrity. Additional details will be provided in the coming weeks.

We will also emphasize more strongly to applicants that the law requires that consumers provide accurate information to the Marketplace, and they may be subject to penalties under federal law if they intentionally provide false or untrue information.

There is still time for consumers who need coverage to enroll during the Open Enrollment period that ends on January 31st. While there will continue to be special enrollment periods for people who lose coverage mid-year or experience other life changes, this channel for enrollment will not be available for the vast majority of consumers. For example, special enrollment periods are not allowed for people who choose to remain uninsured and then decide they need health insurance when they get sick.  Consumers who do not currently have other health insurance coverage should enroll through the Marketplace now during these last two weeks of Open Enrollment, to make sure they have coverage if they get sick and to avoid the tax penalty.

This was originally posted on the CMS Blog.

Kevin Counihan
Health Insurance Marketplace