The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Physician Coverage under the ACA

By Elizabeth Guo

A recent study in JAMA by Dorner, Jacobs, and Sommers released some good and bad news about provider coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The study examined whether health plans offered on the federal marketplace in 34 states offered a sufficient number of physicians in nine specialties. For each plan, the authors searched for the number of providers covered under each specialty in each state’s most populous county. Plans without specialist physicians were labeled specialist-deficient plans. The good: roughly 90% of the plans covered more than five providers in each specialty. The bad: 19 plans were specialist-deficient and 9 of 34 states had at least one specialty deficient plan. Endocrinology, psychiatry, and rheumatology were the most commonly excluded specialties.

Here’s where it gets ugly.

Excluding certain specialists from coverage can be a way for insurers to discriminate against individuals with certain conditions by excluding them from their plans. By excluding rheumatologists, insurers may prevent enrolling individuals with rheumatoid arthritis; by excluding endocrinologists, insurers may prevent enrolling individuals with diabetes. Individuals with chronic conditions need to see specialists more frequently than healthier adults, and how easily a patient with chronic conditions can see a specialist can affect his health care outcomes.

The study adds to the growing body of empirical research showing that even after the ACA, insurers may be structuring their plans to potentially discriminate against individuals with significant chronic conditions. In January, Jacobs and Sommers published a study showing that some plans were discriminating against patients with HIV/AIDS through adverse tiering by placing all branded and generic HIV/AIDS drugs on the highest formulary tier. Another study found that 86% of plans place all medicines in at least one class on the highest cost-sharing tier. These studies show that despite being on a health plan, individuals with certain chronic conditions may still have trouble accessing essential treatments and services. Read More

HHS’ Proposed Anti-Discrimination Regulations: Protective But Not Protective Enough

By Elizabeth Guo

Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) released a proposed rule implementing section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Section 1557 applies the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to the ACA so that a covered entity cannot discriminate against an individual on the basis of a disability in any health program or activity. The proposed rule clarified how OCR intended to enforce and interpret section 1557’s nondiscrimination provision.

As Timothy Jost and other commentators have noted, the government’s proposed interpretation of section 1557 significantly expands the number of health entities that need to meet the Rehabilitation Act’s nondiscrimination requirements. The regulation proposes to encompass all entities that operate a health program or activity, any part of which receives federal financial assistance. The regulation then broadly interprets “federal financial assistance” to include “subsidies and contracts of insurance.” Thus, an insurer receiving premium tax credits or cost-sharing reduction payments through participating in a health insurance Marketplace would need to ensure that all its health plans meet the Rehabilitation Act’s nondiscrimination requirements, regardless of whether the plans are sold through the Marketplace, outside the Marketplace, or through an employee benefit plan. This broad interpretation means that the Rehabilitation Act’s nondiscrimination provisions will now apply to a number of previously excluded plans.

Expanding the number of plans needing to meet section 1557’s nondiscrimination requirements will provide greater protection to more individuals with disabilities. In the United States, the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Both acts protect disabled individuals, but courts have consistently interpreted only the Rehabilitation Act as prohibiting insurers from designing their health plans to discriminate against individuals with disabilities. On the other hand, courts have held that the ADA provides a safe harbor for insurers when designing their benefit plans. Thus, some insurers under the ADA may be able to exclude all drugs treating HIV/AIDS from their formulary or place all drugs treating HIV/AIDS on the highest cost-sharing tier, benefit designs that the Rehabilitation Act would likely prohibit. See also Kelsey Berry’s post on this topic.  Read More

The US 2020 HIV/AIDS Strategy and the Limits of ACA

By Leslie Francis

On July 30, the White House announced the updated 2020 HIV/AIDS strategy. The admirable vision of the strategy is that “The United States will become a place where new HIV infections are rare, and when they do occur, every person, regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or socio-economic circumstance, will have unfettered access to high quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination.”

This said, the strategy reflects continuing concerns about the numbers of people who do not know their HIV status, who do not have access to effective treatment, and who do not take advantage of preventive strategies. Demographic groups especially at risk include men having sex with men, African American men and women, Latino men and women, people who inject drugs, youth age 13-24, people in the Southern United States, and transgender women. The strategy emphasizes care coordination, coordination between health care and other social services such as housing, treatment as prevention, and pre-exposure prophylaxis. Notable initiatives since the 2010 HIV/AIDS strategy include interagency efforts to address the intersection of HIV and violence against women, a DOJ and CDC collaboration to publish a comprehensive examination and best practices guide on the intersection between HIV and criminal laws, and demonstration projects funded through the HHS Minority AIDS Initiative Fund. Read More

FDA’s Non-Response Response to My New York Times Op-Ed on Gay Blood Ban

On May 21, along with my frequent co-author Eli Adashi, I published an op-ed in the New York Times raising some questions about FDA’s proposed guidance recommending a ban on taking the blood on any man who has had sex with another man in the past year, or in other words imposing a one year celibacy requirement on gay men if they want to donate blood. This built on our critique last July in JAMA, wherein we argued that FDA’s then-lifetime ban on gay men and MSM donating blood was out of step with science and the practice of our peer countries, as well as potentially unconstitutional.

Thanks to our work, and a concerted effort by public health, medical, and gay rights groups, FDA has finally moved off of that prior policy and recognized that it was unjustified, and discriminatory.

Just to put this in context It took more than 30 years to convince FDA that it was problematic to ban blood donation for a lifetime any man who ever had sex with another man, even if both have repeatedly tested negative for HIV, while it imposed only a one year ban on people who had sex with individuals known to be HIV positive or a sex worker. FDA is appropriately a conservative agency, but on this issue of the lifetime ban its willingness to listen and reconsider has gone beyond conservatism to the point of lunacy. [By the way to be clear, I *love* FDA. I represented them while at the DOJ and have a new book coming out about FDA in the fall. You can think highly of an agency but think they have a bad track record on an issue. This is critique not hater-aide].

Well with that background, one should be not so quick to assume that a move to a one year ban — a de facto lifetime ban for any gay man who is sexually active, even one who is monogamously married with children — is the best policy. To put it bluntly, refusing to change a lifetime ban for such a long period makes me skeptical we should accept a “just trust us” line on their new restrictive policy.

The question we raised in our op-ed was whether FDA had adequately justified retaining a one year ban in light of the evidence from places like South Africa (with a much shorter time period ban), Italy (which does individualized risk assessment instead of stigmatizing all gay men as high risk for disease), etc.

Well FDA responded…sort of … through a NY TImes Letter To the Editor.

Here is what FDA said with my analysis in bold:

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A needle in a haystack – finding the elusive solution to Indiana’s HIV Outbreak

By Nicolas Wilhelm, JD

Scott County, Indiana, which only has a few thousand residents, has historically had an average of five HIV cases per year. Since December 2014, however, the county has seen an outbreak, with more than 140 newly diagnosed cases. Dr. Jonathan Mermin, the director of the National Center for HIV/AIDs, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) calls this “one of the worst documented outbreaks of HIV among IV users in the past two decades.” Dr. Joan Duwve, the chief medical consultant with the Indiana State Department of Health, explained that the abuse of the prescription drug Opana was one of the catalysts for the increase in HIV cases, with some residents injecting it as frequently as 10 times a day, and sharing syringes with other members of their community.

HIV is mainly spread either by sexual contact with another person with HIV, or by sharing needles or syringes with someone who has HIV. One way to reduce the spread of the disease is to implement syringe exchange programs (SEPs) that reduce the transmission of blood-borne pathogens like HIV by providing free sterile syringes and collecting used syringes from injection-drug users (IDUs).

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Faculty Director I. Glenn Cohen: New Blood-Donor Policy, Same Gay Stigma

Faculty Director I. Glenn Cohen has co-authored a new Op-Ed in the New York Times:

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration released highly anticipated draft recommendations that would allow gay men to donate blood after one year of celibacy. While an improvement from the current, highly criticized lifetime ban, the new policy, which was announced in December, still caters to fear and stigma rather than science. It should be reconsidered. […]

Read the full article here.

Grading the ACA as Equal Protection Statute

The Affordable Care Act is sprawling.  Some of its myriad provisions may (or may not!) reduce healthcare costs.  Think of accountable care organizations, the hospital readmission reduction program, or even the preventive services mandate.  And so, the Act’s success is often evaluated by asking whether it has helped reduce healthcare costs.  (See, e.g., David Cutler here.)

Other of the ACA’s provisions are intended to promote financial security in the face of illness.  The Act’s most litigated provisions, requiring that people buy insurance, expanding Medicaid, and creating exchanges, can be understood primarily in this light.  And so, the Act’s success is also often evaluated by asking whether it has truly promoted financial security.  (See today’s New York Times piece from Margoret Sangor-Katz on the subject of underinsurance post-ACA, or Aaron E. Carroll’s take from December.)

A third way of understanding the ACA’s reforms–and evaluating its success or failure–too often gets left out (as it was by the NY Times here): The ACA can perhaps most coherently be thought of as an equal protection statute.

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Discrimination, by what yardstick?

By Kelsey Berry

It’s time to talk about discrimination again — this time, in insurance benefit design.

A recent study in NEJM by Jacobs and Sommers has coined the term “adverse tiering” to describe the use of drug formularies by insurers “not to influence enrollees’ drug utilization but rather to deter certain people from enrolling [in the plan] in the first place.” [emphasis mine] Evidence of adverse tiering includes the placement of all drugs for certain condition in the highest cost-sharing tiers of drug formularies. This practice, it turns out, occurs fairly frequently – at least when it comes to a common HIV medication, nucleoside reverse-transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs). Jacobs and Sommers analyzed the placement of NRTIs on formularies for 48 plans in 12 states using the federally facilitated insurance marketplaces, and found evidence of adverse tiering in 25% of plans. Their conclusion? Many insurers may be using benefit design to dissuade sicker people from enrolling in their plans. This raises concerns about adverse selection, as well as discrimination on the basis of health status – a practice the ACA was meant to address via community rating and guaranteed issue requirements, among others.

The study provides an important data point as we continue to assess whether the ACA is living up to our goals for health care reform. I believe we’ll see several more studies of this nature coming down the line, drawing attention to insurer practices that fail to comply with regulations, that are creative interpretations of vague requirements, or that aren’t addressed in existing regulations and may require new scrutiny. As we digest these, I’ll raise two important points for consideration:

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Global Health Impact and Access to Essential Medicines

By Nicole Hassoun, The Global Health Impact Project

Ebola is ravaging parts of Africa, yet it is not the worst health problem facing people in the region. Millions more are infected with and die every year from diseases like malaria, TB, and HIV/AIDS because they cannot access the essential medicines they need. To change this, we need to understand where we are succeeding in combating these diseases, and where we need to focus our efforts. Until now, this information has been sorely lacking.

Fortunately, the beta for a new Global Health Impact index has just launched that can help us address the access to medicines problem (check out: global-health-impact.org). Using the index, you can see the impact of the drugs for HIV, malaria, and TB in each country in the world. You can also get a sense for the overall impact we are having on the different diseases in the model. Finally, one can see drugs’ impacts by originator company. Read More

The Constitutional Implications of Ebola: Civil Liberties and Civil Rights In Times of Health Crises

Join us for an important public forum:

Constitutional Implications of Ebola:
Civil Liberties & Civil Rights In Times of Health Crises

This public forum addresses the constitutional and public health implications of Ebola response in the United States.  According to state and federal laws, patient information is deemed private and is to be held in strict confidentiality.  However, in the wake of Ebola, well-established protocols to guard patient privacy have been neglected or suspended without public debate.  At this forum, a panel of experts raise questions not only about how to contain the disease, but also to what extent Americans value their healthcare privacy, civil liberties, and civil rights.  To what extent are Americans’ Ebola fears influenced by the origins of the disease?  What liberties are Americans willing to sacrifice to calm their fears?  How to balance the concern for public welfare with legal and ethical privacy principles?

Speakers: Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.;  Michele Goodwin, Chancellor’s Chair, UC Irvine School of Law;  Professor Andrew Noymer, UC Irvine School of Public Health; and Dr. George Woods, American Psychiatric Association.

This Forum intervenes in the current national and international discourse on Ebola by probing law’s role in addressing public health crises.  This forum is free and open to the public.

WHEN: Wednesday, November 19, 2014, 3.30pm-5.30pm

WHERE: University of California Irvine, School of Law; ROOM EDU 1111, 401 E Peltason Dr, Irvine, CA 92612