(Out of) Pocket Change

  • by: Peter Pitts |
  • 09/13/2018
When it comes to healthcare reform, a key goal is to reduce what patients pay for their medicines. And that means what comes out of their pocket. This is particularly important for seniors and timely, since Congress now has the opportunity to address the so-called “donut hole.”
Because of language in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (BBA), seniors in the Part D donut hole will soon pay five times more than insurers for the brand medicines they rely on. In 2020, the BBA will increase a patient’s cost-sharing costs by $1250, raising out-of-pocket costs for the most vulnerable seniors. Why? Well, among other things, when Congress passed the BBA in February, it made changes to Medicare Part D that threaten the program’s successful competitive structure -- and leaving seniors mired even deeper in the donut hole.
Now is the time to aggressively address this issue. When people say, “my drugs are too expensive,” what they mean is “my out-of-pocket costs are too high.” Congress can help. And they can help now.     
Congress has the opportunity to make two small fixes that will protect seniors in the Medicare Part D donut hole and save them money on out-of-pocket costs for their medicines.  These fixes would leave seniors with high drug spending better off while stabilizing the program for the long-term. Together these two policy fixes would reduce out-of-pocket costs for seniors with high drug spending them better off and, in 2020, saving them up to 7% on their out-of-pocket costs. 
While these changes closed the donut hole a year early, they went much further by lowering insurers’ payment responsibility to just five percent of costs in the donut hole for brand medications. This undermines Part D’s market-based structure by reducing insurance plans’ stake in the program and therefore reducing their incentive to manage program costs, while also creating a significant imbalance in payment responsibility. 
When Part D was created, it included a catastrophic phase of coverage where seniors’ out-of-pocket costs would be reduced once their total medicine costs reached a certain amount. Each year the amount of spending required to move into the catastrophic phase increases slightly. A measure originally included in the Affordable Care Act temporarily slowed the growth rate of this increase. But now that measure is set to expire at the end of 2019, reverting back to pre-ACA levels overnight. This will result in a sudden increase in out-of-pocket costs for seniors in the donut hole who will have to reach a much higher spending threshold to get into catastrophic coverage.
Congress should take this opportunity to fix the donut hole "cliff" by enacting legislative language that restores balance to payment responsibility. They can act right now to both protect seniors and save them money on out-of-pocket costs.

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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