For many years, Health Care for All Massachusetts (HCFA) has focused on and prioritized children’s health coverage. In 1995, HCFA started the Children’s Health Access Coalition with the goal of making sure that all kids in Massachusetts had insurance. Today, that goal has been largely achieved, with more than 99 percent of all young people ages 0 to 19 covered. 

However, health insurance is just one piece of the much larger puzzle of children’s health and wellbeing. To ensure the wellbeing of all kids, we need to make sure that children have all the essentials, including stable housing and access to healthy food, in addition to being enrolled in coverage.

In Massachusetts, almost 5,000 families with children and pregnant women accessed the state’s Emergency Assistance shelter program so far this year. On any given day last year, almost 10,000 high school aged children in public schools experienced homelessness. Additionally, 17 percent of children in Massachusetts struggle with hunger. Without secure housing or adequate nutritious meals, children are more likely to suffer from poor health. Furthermore, children at risk of homelessness or food insecurity are more likely to be members of low-income families and to lack access to essential services, like health care.

Armed with this understanding, HCFA has started a new initiative this fall to collectively address what we call the “three H’s”, the issues of health, homelessness and hunger, among children in Massachusetts. In early October, advocates representing nearly 40 organizations committed to improving the lives of Massachusetts’ children came together at the new initiative’s first convening. The energy that day was staggering. By the end of the meeting, group members committed to working together to draft omnibus legislation and build a unified budget slate that would help address the three H’s and help to ensure the wellbeing of Massachusetts children. We hope that this is just the beginning of breaking down silos between groups that work on different children’s issues and of comprehensively addressing children’s needs.

The next several months promise to be busy ones, with lots of work to be done to move the group forward, but there is hope that the effort will make a real impact on the lives of many children in Massachusetts. The coalition members are currently examining policy issues in each category of work, and drafting language that could be included in an omnibus piece of legislation to for the next legislative session.   

To learn more or to join the conversation about addressing health, homelessness and hunger among children in Massachusetts, please contact Matt Noyes at mnoyes@hcfa.org. To learn more about children’s health care, please visit www.hcfama.org and neach.communitycatalyst.org.

As Kevin Counihan takes the reigns as the “Obamacare CEO” of HealthCare.gov and as we all gear up for open enrollment, Community Catalyst hopes that the Federally-facilitated Marketplace, HealthCare.Gov, will run as smoothly this year as AccessHealthCT did under Counihan’s leadership. Connecticut achieved the 7th best enrollment in the nation, signing up more than 79,000 residents for private insurance last year. The key to this success largely was the Marketplace’s consumer-centric approach, which focused on some key principles: 

1. Prioritizing Consumer Assistance: Counihan knows from his experience in Connecticut and Massachusetts that once the website is open to the public for enrollment, his job will just be beginning. Responding to consumers’ experience on HealthCare.Gov and helping consumers navigate enrollment will be integral. Success in the first open enrollment period in Connecticut flowed from strong consumer assistance. For example, when the Call Center was overwhelmed by many more inquiries than initially expected, AccessHealthCT prioritized increasing the number of staff at the Call Centers to make sure consumers could readily access the enrollment assistance they needed, which contributed to enrollment numbers that far exceeded initial expectations.

2. Data matters: Collecting real-time data to support outreach and enrollment efforts allowed AccessHealthCT to monitor successes and failures, especially in ensuring that communities of color were gaining health coverage. Counihan also prioritized follow-up data collection, hiring a consultant to do a two-part telephone survey of  more than 6,000 enrollees to learn what went well and how to improve the consumer experience going forward. This data collection promoted health equity, an important state priority, by keeping track of coverage trends and consumer experiences for communities of color.

3. Ease of Use: Counihan prioritized making the site easy-to-use rather than rushing to incorporate overly advanced features. He explained to Sarah Kliff at Vox, “Whenever we would make a decision, we would ask ‘How does this impact consumers' ease and simplicity?’ If it added simplicity, it got accelerated. If it was something that didn't, it got cascaded down the list.”

4. Transparency: Throughout his career, Counihan has been committed to transparency. In running Connecticut’s Marketplace, he invited consumers’ voices into the policy discussions wherever possible. AccessHealthCT hosted regular “Healthy Chat” sessions across the state, where consumers could ask questions, voice concerns, and have a dialogue with Marketplace staff and board members. The Marketplace’s monthly board meetings were also open to the public and were broadcasted on Connecticut Television News, allowing consumers access to decision-making processes that would ultimately impact their enrollment experience and insurance options.

Kevin Counihan proved to be a successful health care leader by putting consumers first in many aspects of AccessHealthCT, and we ask that he does so again now with the HealthCare.Gov. As we enter the next open enrollment period, Community Catalyst looks forward to working with Counihan to make sure all consumers have the greatest level of transparency and choice in selecting high quality health coverage for themselves and their families.

When the Kaiser Family Foundation released its new report about enrollment and spending trends in Medicaid earlier this week, the most reported on findings probably didn’t shock anyone: as a result of increased enrollment associated with the ACA, the rate of growth of overall Medicaid spending increased. We covered more people, and spending went up as a result – this isn’t a particularly interesting story. But the data actually tells a far more intriguing story, buried just a little deeper in the report.

To see it, you have to look beyond what happened to overall Medicaid spending, and dig into happened to state Medicaid spending. Remember: Medicaid is a jointly-financed program between the states and the federal government, with the federal government picking up the entire tab for newly-eligible Medicaid beneficiaries for the first three years. So while overall (federal plus state) Medicaid spending growth increased as a result of coverage gains associated with the ACA, state Medicaid spending growth didn’t, even in expansion-states. Indeed, state spending growth on Medicaid since the coverage expansions were implemented in 2014 is in line with growth levels from previous years.

An even more interesting story appears when you compare state Medicaid spending growth in states that closed the coverage gap with states that have not: in Fiscal Year (FY) 2014, states that closed the gap saw their state Medicaid spending grow at about the same rate (6.6%) as state Medicaid spending in states that didn’t close gap (6.1%). And in FY2015, states that closed the coverage gap are actually projecting less growth in state Medicaid spending (4.4%) than states refusing to close the gap (6.8%).

Let’s just review that one more time, because it’s a little counterintuitive: some states chose to accept federal dollars to provide coverage to more people. Not only did they see a significant drop in the number of uninsured residents as a result, but they also did not experience jump in their Medicaid spending growth – and, in fact, they are projecting slower growth for this coming year than states that didn’t close the coverage gap. Other states have refused to close the coverage gap. They have higher uninsured rates – causing harm to both their economies and the health of their families – and their Medicaid spending grew at about the same rate as states that did close the coverage gap. And next year these states are projecting even faster state Medicaid spending growth than states that closed the gap.

The numbers from the Kaiser report focus only on spending and savings in the Medicaid program itself. States that closed the coverage gap have reported savings elsewhere in their state budgets as a result of the drop in uninsured residents, such as reductions in mental health, correctional health, and state-funded programs for the uninsured and uncompensated care. These savings are not accounted for in the Kaiser report, which means this report underestimates the fiscal benefits of closing the coverage gap. Indeed, the Kaiser report just added more evidence to what we already knew: closing the coverage gap is a win-win proposition for states.

Prior to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), individuals with pre-existing conditions and chronic illnesses routinely faced discrimination in the individual market in the form of higher premiums or, even outright denials for coverage through a tactic known as medical underwriting. That meant that children with asthma or a woman in remission from breast cancer could be denied health insurance.  Thanks to the ACA, we now have limits on this industry practice which prohibit insurers from charging higher premiums or imposing coverage exclusions based on factors such as health status, use of health services, or gender. 

During our Consumer Voices for Coverage Annual Meeting in September, Community Catalyst facilitated a workshop on advocacy strategies to address discrimination in health plans.  In this blog we will focus on how stronger network adequacy standards can play a role in addressing discrimination concerns, and later in part 2 we will highlight how discrimination in health plans affects people living with HIV/AIDS, as one example. 

 

Picture from New York Times: After Surgery, Surprise $117,000 Medical Bill from Doctor He Didn’t Know

Part 1:  Narrow provider networks—keeping the sick and chronically ill out-of-network.  While narrow networks might be seen as an attempt to reduce premium rates, they can also create barriers to accessing care. People with chronic illnesses often face discrimination because their providers are more likely to be excluded from a network due to the high cost of treatment. We have seen cases where many cancer care centers and children’s hospitals are excluded from the provider networks of a significant number of health plans. When provider networks are inadequate, consumers may unexpectedly seek care outside their health plan’s network and potentially face a surprise charge of thousands of dollars due to a practice known as balance billing.

New York – paving the way for stronger protections.  Recently, New York passed a law to end balance billing and protect consumers from surprise out-of-network medical bills, passing the strongest protections of its kind in the nation. This is a significant victory for New Yorkers (Click here for a complete list of the advocacy strategies.). The new law strengthens standards for network adequacy, requires transparent information about out-of-network providers and reimbursement levels, expands consumers’ appeal rights for treatment decisions, and creates an independent arbitration process when the health plan and provider can’t agree on cost. Elisabeth Benjamin, co-founder of the Health Care For All New York coalition (HCFANY), shared that it is important to work among allies to identify and quantify problems, choose the right solutions, as well as raise awareness through media.  Additionally, she offered that compelling stories are a key to winning legislators’ hearts.  

It took us three years to get the job done,” Elisabeth concluded, “but time is on [our] side and the cause is righteous!”

What can advocates do? Consumer advocates can play an important role in elevating consumer concerns and informing policy decisions to protect consumers, especially the sick and chronically ill, from out-of-network costs. There are several avenues of advocacy that we believe will help ensure that new insurance options provide adequate coverage for consumers.

  • Advocates can utilize their state’s legislative and regulatory process as well the Marketplace to either strengthen existing laws or enact new legislation to limit balance billing practices, enhance transparency in health plans, and improve provider directories.  Advocates should identify allies in the state who can use their influence to move reform forward.   
  • At the federal level, states can continue to push the administration to release guidance on important transparency and civil rights protections in the ACA (sections 1557 and 2715A).
  • The upcoming open enrollment presents an opportune time for navigators and enrollment assisters to collect stories from consumers who are returning to the marketplace for a second time.  Understanding firsthand how narrow networks are affecting consumers is vital to understanding the depth of the problem and supporting legislative and regulatory initiatives. 

 

If you have questions or ideas for future materials on network adequacy, please contact Quynh Chi Nguyen, Program & Policy Associate; Staff Lead, Health Equity at qnguyen@communitycatalyst.org.

Authors: Ashley Blackburn and Quynh Chi Nguyen

 

Since today is the last day of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we are celebrating the gains in health care coverage for Latinos since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) went into effect. According to a new report by the Commonwealth Institute, the uninsurance rate for Latinos, the racial and ethnic group that has had the least health care coverage, dropped from 36 to 23 percent. While we celebrate this progress, we also acknowledge the disproportionate impact of the Medicaid coverage gap on Latinos. Despite the impressive gains in coverage for Latinos nationally since the ACA went into effect, the uninsurance rate of Latinos has remained statistically unchanged in states that have not yet accepted federal dollars to raise their Medicaid eligibility levels.

The ACA’s new affordable health coverage options through Medicaid and the health insurance Marketplaces are two major cornerstones to closing the gap on the uninsured Latino population. Here are highlights from this report:

  • Latinos with incomes below 138% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) had the greatest uninsured rate decline of all groups, from 35% to 17%
  • Latinos were more likely than whites to find and enroll in an affordable plan on the marketplace
  • Most Latinos who enrolled in the marketplace were previously uninsured 
  • California, which has the largest Latino population, saw half of previously uninsured Latinos gain coverage through expanded coverage options

These successes are true strides in improving access to coverage and care for Latinos. However, these gains were only available in the 25 states, along with the District of Columbia, that accepted the federal dollars to provide coverage to individuals with incomes below 138% FPL. For states that did not accept federal funds to raise their Medicaid eligibility levels, the 33% uninsured rate among Latinos remains statistically static. We still have work to do.

The following graph from the report, illustrates the gains in health care coverage for Latinos as well as the differences between states with and without a coverage gap.

 

Policymakers in non-expansion states have an opportunity to put health care coverage within reach of the 22% uninsured (or 1.3 million) Latino adults who currently fall into the coverage gap. These states can accept federal funding to close the gap anytime. According to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report, doing so will yield great strides in reducing health disparities for Latinos and other communities of color.

Looking ahead, besides offering expanded health care options, the report illustrates other critical steps needed to lower the insurance rate for Latinos:

  • Ensuring marketplace website functionality and effective Spanish translation
  • Reaching the remaining uninsured, young and poor through effective outreach, enrollment and education
  • Raising awareness of the marketplaces among Latinos, especially those who primarily speak Spanish
     

In meeting these goals, we are hopeful that the coming enrollment period will yield even more reasons to celebrate at next year’s National Hispanic Heritage Month.

-Amber Ma, Policy Analyst