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Updated: 16 hours 20 min ago

He Fell Ill on a Cruise. Before He Boarded the Rescue Boat, They Handed Him the Bill.

May 22, 2024

Vincent Wasney and his fiancée, Sarah Eberlein, had never visited the ocean. They’d never even been on a plane. But when they bought their first home in Saginaw, Michigan, in 2018, their real estate agent gifted them tickets for a Royal Caribbean cruise.

After two years of delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, they set sail in December 2022.

The couple chose a cruise destined for the Bahamas in part because it included a trip to CocoCay, a private island accessible to Royal Caribbean passengers that featured a water park, balloon rides, and an excursion swimming with pigs.

It was on that day on CocoCay when Wasney, 31, started feeling off, he said.

The next morning, as the couple made plans in their cabin for the last full day of the trip, Wasney made a pained noise. Eberlein saw him having a seizure in bed, with blood coming out of his mouth from biting his tongue. She opened their door to find help and happened upon another guest, who roused his wife, an emergency room physician.

Wasney was able to climb into a wheelchair brought by the ship’s medical crew to take him down to the medical facility, where he was given anticonvulsants and fluids and monitored before being released.

Wasney had had seizures in the past, starting about 10 years ago, but it had been a while since his last one. Imaging back then showed no tumors, and doctors concluded he was likely epileptic, he said. He took medicine initially, but after two years without another seizure, he said, his doctors took him off the medicine to avoid liver damage.

Wasney had a second seizure on the ship a few hours later, back in his cabin. This time he stopped breathing, and Eberlein remembered his lips being so purple, they almost looked black. Again, she ran to find help but, in her haste, locked herself out. By the time the ship’s medical team got into the cabin, Wasney was breathing again but had broken blood vessels along his chest and neck that he later said resembled tiger stripes.

Wasney was in the ship’s medical center when he had a third seizure — a grand mal, which typically causes a loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions. By then, the ship was close enough to port that Wasney could be evacuated by rescue boat. He was put on a stretcher to be lowered by ropes off the side of the ship, with Eberlein climbing down a rope ladder to join him.

But before they disembarked, the bill came.

The Patient: Vincent Wasney, 31, who was uninsured at the time.

Medical Services: General and enhanced observation, a blood test, anticonvulsant medicine, and a fee for services performed outside the medical facility.

Service Provider: Independence of the Seas Medical Center, the on-ship medical facility on the cruise ship operated by Royal Caribbean International.

Total Bill: $2,500.22.

What Gives: As part of Royal Caribbean’s guest terms, cruise passengers “agree to pay in full” all expenses incurred on board by the end of the cruise, including those related to medical care. In addition, Royal Caribbean does not accept “land-based” health insurance plans.

Wasney said he was surprised to learn that, along with other charges like wireless internet, Royal Caribbean required he pay his medical bills before exiting the ship — even though he was being evacuated urgently.

“Are we being held hostage at this point?” Eberlein remembered asking. “Because, obviously, if he’s had three seizures in 10 hours, it’s an issue.”

Wasney said he has little memory of being on the ship after his first seizure — seizures often leave victims groggy and disoriented for a few hours afterward.

But he certainly remembers being shown a bill, the bulk of which was the $2,500.22 in medical charges, while waiting for the rescue boat.

Still groggy, Wasney recalled saying he couldn’t afford that and a cruise employee responding: “How much can you pay?”

They drained their bank accounts, including money saved for their next house payment, and maxed out Wasney’s credit card but were still about $1,000 short, he said.

Ultimately, they were allowed to leave the ship. He later learned his card was overdrafted to cover the shortfall, he said.

Royal Caribbean International did not respond to multiple inquiries from KFF Health News.

Once on land, in Florida, Wasney was taken by ambulance to the emergency room at Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, where he incurred thousands of dollars more in medical expenses.

He still isn’t entirely sure what caused the seizures.

On the ship he was told it could have been extreme dehydration — and he said he does remember being extra thirsty on CocoCay. He also has mused whether trying escargot for the first time the night before could have played a role. Eberlein’s mother is convinced the episode was connected to swimming with pigs, he said. And not to be discounted, Eberlein accidentally broke a pocket mirror three days before their trip.

Wasney, who works in a stone shop, was uninsured when they set sail. He said that one month before they embarked on their voyage, he finally felt he could afford the health plan offered through his employer and signed up, but the plan didn’t start until January 2023, after their return.

They also lacked travel insurance. As inexperienced travelers, Wasney said, they thought it was for lost luggage and canceled trips, not unexpected medical expenses. And because the cruise was a gift, they were never prompted to buy coverage, which often happens when tickets are purchased.

The Resolution: Wasney said the couple returned to Saginaw with essentially no money in their bank account, several thousand dollars of medical debt, and no idea how they would cover their mortgage payment. Because he was uninsured at the time of the cruise, Wasney did not try to collect reimbursement for the cruise bill from his new health plan when his coverage began weeks later.

The couple set up payment plans to cover the medical bills for Wasney’s care after leaving the ship: one each with two doctors he saw at Broward Health, who billed separately from the hospital, and one with the ambulance company. He also made payments on a bill with Broward Health itself. Those plans do not charge interest.

But Broward Health said Wasney missed two payments to the hospital, and that bill was ultimately sent to collections.

In a statement, Broward Health spokesperson Nina Levine said Wasney’s bill was reduced by 73% because he was uninsured.

“We do everything in our power to provide the best care with the least financial impact, but also cannot stress enough the importance of taking advantage of private and Affordable Care Act health insurance plans, as well as travel insurance, to lower risks associated with unplanned medical issues,” she said.

The couple was able to make their house payment with $2,690 they raised through a GoFundMe campaign that Wasney set up. Wasney said a lot of that help came from family as well as friends he met playing disc golf, a sport he picked up during the pandemic.

“A bunch of people came through for us,” Wasney said, still moved to tears by the generosity. “But there’s still the hospital bill.”

The Takeaway: Billing practices differ by cruise line, but Joe Scott, chair of the cruise ship medicine section of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said medical charges are typically added to a cruise passenger’s onboard account, which must be paid before leaving the ship. Individuals can then submit receipts to their insurers for possible reimbursement.

More from Bill of the Month More from the series

He recommended that those planning to take a cruise purchase travel insurance that specifically covers their trips. “This will facilitate reimbursement if they do incur charges and potentially cover a costly medical evacuation if needed,” Scott said.

Royal Caribbean suggests that passengers who receive onboard care submit their paid bills to their health insurer for possible reimbursement. Many health plans do not cover medical services received on cruise ships, however. Medicare will sometimes cover medically necessary health care services on cruise ships, but not if the ship is more than six hours away from a U.S. port.

Travel insurance can be designed to address lots of out-of-town mishaps, like lost baggage or even transportation and lodging for a loved one to visit if a traveler is hospitalized.

Travel medical insurance, as well as plans that offer “emergency evacuation and repatriation,” are two types that can specifically assist with medical emergencies. Such plans can be purchased individually. Credit cards may offer travel medical insurance among their benefits, as well.

But travel insurance plans come with limitations. For instance, they may not cover care associated with preexisting conditions or what the plans consider “risky” activities, such as rock climbing. Some plans also require that travelers file first with their primary health insurance before seeking reimbursement from travel insurance.

As with other insurance, be sure to read the fine print and understand how reimbursement works.

Wasney said that’s what they plan to do before their next Royal Caribbean cruise. They’d like to go back to the Bahamas on basically the same trip, he said — there’s a lot about CocoCay they didn’t get to explore.

Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KFF Health News and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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Biden Leans Into Health Care, Asking Voters To Trust Him Over Trump

May 21, 2024

Angling to tap into strong support for the sweeping health law he helped pass 14 years ago, one of President Joe Biden’s latest reelection strategies is to remind voters that former President Donald Trump tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“Folks, he’s coming for your health care, and we’re not going to let it happen,” Biden says of Trump in a television and digital ad out this month, part of a $14 million investment in the handful of states expected to decide the presidency in November.

The new ad draws on the popularity of the ACA among independent voters and alludes to Biden’s edge over Trump on health issues, which the current president hopes will help propel him to victory.

Swaying even a tiny percentage of voters could make a difference for Biden, said Kenneth Miller, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

“It will be so close,” he said. “Any little thing can be a deciding factor.”

Political experts say Biden is wise to draw attention to the ACA, which ended long-standing insurance practices denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions or charging them more — a change that is “popular across the partisan divide” and benefits about half of U.S. households, said Ashley Kirzinger, KFF’s associate director of public opinion and survey research.

“Framing the ACA around those protections is a very smart move,” she said.

A new KFF survey found Biden has an edge with independent voters when it comes to health care issues.

Independents trust Biden more than Trump to ensure access to affordable health insurance (47% to 22%) and maintain protections for people with preexisting conditions (47% to 23%).

Biden holds a smaller advantage over Trump in whom independents trust more to address high health care costs (39% to 26%). The survey also found the issue isn’t a slam dunk for either candidate: About a third of independent voters said they trust neither Biden nor Trump to address costs.

Democrats are fighting to extend higher government subsidies for most people with ACA coverage, which were increased during the pandemic and are set to expire in 2025. They’re also banking on outrage over the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision striking down Roe v. Wade, and strict abortion bans that have followed in many Republican-led states, to juice Democratic turnout.

The stakes “could not be higher for Americans who rely on the Affordable Care Act,” Biden campaign spokesperson Michael Tyler told reporters on a call this month.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

At least one Democratic-aligned super PAC is also running health-related ads, including on Trump’s appointment of Supreme Court justices who helped overturn the constitutional right to an abortion.

Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said focusing on health care plays to Biden’s strengths.

“Biden has been mired by voter concerns about inflation and immigration, where Republicans are preferred,” he said. “Health care is more favorable territory where the Trump campaign does not have much of a defense to offer.”

Some recent polls have shown Trump leading in most battleground states, with voters expressing pessimism about the economy.

But Trump is vulnerable on health care, Miller said. He unsuccessfully tried to repeal the ACA as president and has alluded to trying again if he returns to the White House. In November, he declared “Obamacare Sucks!” on social media, and in March he said he wants to improve the law without saying how.

“These ads are an effort to shake up the agenda,” Miller said. “Biden needs more work reminding Democrat-leaning independent voters who probably voted for him in 2020 that he is the better choice.”

Biden’s ad also claims his health care policies have helped save Americans $800 a year. The Biden administration has said that’s how much 13 million people buying coverage on ACA insurance marketplaces saved in 2022.

The ad’s primary claim, that 100 million people would be harmed if Trump eliminated preexisting condition protections, is misleading, said Robert Speel, director of the Public Policy Initiative at Penn State Behrend. That’s because many would retain the protections under their coverage, particularly those on Medicare and employer-sponsored insurance.

“The ad looks too generic to have a significant impact on the outcome of the election, though it may get through to enough of the small universe of swing voters to have at least some potential impact on who wins Pennsylvania,” Speel said.

The KFF survey of 1,243 registered voters conducted April 23-May 1 had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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Medicaid ‘Unwinding’ Decried as Biased Against Disabled People

May 14, 2024

Jacqueline Saa has a genetic condition that leaves her unable to stand and walk on her own or hold a job. Every weekday for four years, Saa, 43, has relied on a home health aide to help her cook, bathe and dress, go to the doctor, pick up medications, and accomplish other daily tasks.

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She received coverage through Florida’s Medicaid program until it abruptly stopped at the end of March, she said.

“Every day the anxiety builds,” said Saa, who lost her home health aide for 11 days, starting April 1, despite being eligible. The state has since restored Saa’s home health aide service, but during the gap she leaned on her mother and her 23- and 15-year-old daughters, while struggling to regain her Medicaid benefits.

“It’s just so much to worry about,” she said. “This is a health care system that’s supposed to help.”

Medicaid’s home and community-based services are designed to help people like Saa, who have disabilities and need help with everyday activities, stay out of a nursing facility. But people are losing benefits with little or no notice, getting bad advice when they call for information, and facing major disruptions in care while they wait for the issue to get sorted out, according to attorneys and advocates who are hearing from patients.

In Colorado, Texas, and Washington, D.C., the National Health Law Program, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income and underserved people, has filed civil rights complaints with two federal agencies alleging discrimination against people with disabilities. The group has not filed a lawsuit in Florida, though its attorneys say they’ve heard of many of the same problems there.

Attorneys nationwide say the special needs of disabled people were not prioritized as states began to review eligibility for Medicaid enrollees after a pandemic-era mandate for coverage expired in March 2023.

“Instead of monitoring and ensuring that people with disabilities could make their way through the process, they sort of treated them like everyone else with Medicaid,” said Elizabeth Edwards, a senior attorney for the National Health Law Program. Federal law puts an “obligation on states to make sure people with disabilities don’t get missed.”

At least 21 million people nationwide have been disenrolled from Medicaid since states began eligibility redeterminations in spring 2023, according to a KFF analysis.

The unwinding, as it’s known, is an immense undertaking, Edwards said, and some states did not take extra steps to set up a special telephone line for those with disabilities, for example, so people could renew their coverage or contact a case manager.

As states prepared for the unwinding, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the federal agency that regulates Medicaid, advised states that they must give people with disabilities the help they need to benefit from the program, including specialized communications for people who are deaf or blind.

The Florida Department of Children and Families, which verifies eligibility for the state’s Medicaid program, has a specialized team that processes applications for home health services, said Mallory McManus, the department’s communications director.

People with disabilities disenrolled from Medicaid services were “properly noticed and either did not respond timely or no longer met financial eligibility requirements,” McManus said, noting that people “would have been contacted by us up to 13 times via phone, mail, email, and text before processing their disenrollment.”

Allison Pellegrin of Ormond Beach, Florida, who lives with her sister Rhea Whitaker, who is blind and cognitively disabled, said that never happened for her family.

“They just cut off the benefits without a call, without a letter or anything stating that the benefits would be terminating,” Pellegrin said. Her sister’s home health aide, whom she had used every day for nearly eight years, stopped service for 12 days. “If I’m getting everything else in the mail,” she said, “it seems weird that after 13 times I wouldn’t have received one of them.”

Pellegrin, 58, a sales manager who gets health insurance through her employer, took time off from work to care for Whitaker, 56, who was disabled by a severe brain injury in 2006.

Medicaid reviews have been complicated, in part, by the fact that eligibility works differently for home health services than for general coverage, based on federal regulations that give states more flexibility to determine financial eligibility. Income limits for home health services are higher, for instance, and assets are counted differently.

In Texas, a parent in a household of three would be limited to earning no more than $344 a month to qualify for Medicaid. And most adults with a disability can qualify without a dependent child and be eligible for Medicaid home health services with an income of up to $2,800 a month.

The state was not taking that into consideration, said Terry Anstee, a supervising attorney for community integration at Disability Rights Texas, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Even a brief lapse in Medicaid home health services can fracture relationships that took years to build.

“It may be very difficult for that person who lost that attendant to find another attendant,” Anstee said, because of workforce shortages for attendants and nurses and high demand.

Nearly all states have a waiting list for home health services. About 700,000 people were on waiting lists in 2023, most of them with intellectual and developmental disabilities, according to KFF data.

Daniel Tsai, a deputy administrator at CMS, said the agency is committed to ensuring that people with disabilities receiving home health services “can renew their Medicaid coverage with as little red tape as possible.”

CMS finalized a rule this year for states to monitor Medicaid home health services. For example, CMS will now track how long it takes for people who need home health care to receive the services and will require states to track how long people are on waitlists.

Staff turnover and vacancies at local Medicaid agencies have contributed to backlogs, according to complaints filed with two federal agencies focused on civil rights.

The District of Columbia’s Medicaid agency requires that case managers help people with disabilities complete renewals. However, a complaint says, case managers are the only ones who can help enrollees complete eligibility reviews and, sometimes, they don’t do their jobs.

Advocates for Medicaid enrollees have also complained to the Federal Trade Commission about faulty eligibility systems developed by Deloitte, a global consulting firm that contracts with about two dozen states to design, implement, or operate automated benefits systems.

KFF Health News found that multiple audits of Colorado’s eligibility system, managed by Deloitte, uncovered errors in notices sent to enrollees. A 2023 review by the Colorado Office of the State Auditor found that 90% of sampled notices contained problems, some of which violate the state’s Medicaid rules. The audit blamed “flaws in system design” for populating notices with incorrect dates.

Deloitte declined to comment on specific state issues.

In March, Colorado officials paused disenrollment for people on Medicaid who received home health services, which includes people with disabilities, after a “system update” led to wrongful terminations in February.

Another common problem is people being told to reapply, which immediately cuts off their benefits, instead of appealing the cancellation, which would ensure their coverage while the claim is investigated, said attorney Miriam Harmatz, founder of the Florida Health Justice Project.

“What they’re being advised to do is not appropriate. The best way to protect their legal rights,” Harmatz said, “is to file an appeal.”

But some disabled people are worried about having to repay the cost of their care.

Saa, who lives in Davie, Florida, received a letter shortly before her benefits were cut that said she “may be responsible to repay any benefits” if she lost her appeal.

The state should presume such people are still eligible and preserve their coverage, Harmatz said, because income and assets for most beneficiaries are not going to increase significantly and their conditions are not likely to improve.

The Florida Department of Children and Families would not say how many people with disabilities had lost Medicaid home health services.

But in Miami-Dade, Florida’s most populous county, the Alliance for Aging, a nonprofit that helps older and disabled people apply for Medicaid, saw requests for help jump from 58 in March to 146 in April, said Lisa Mele, the organization’s director of its Aging and Disability Resources Center.

“So many people are calling us,” she said.

States are not tracking the numbers, so “the impact is not clear,” Edwards said. “It’s a really complicated struggle.”

Saa filed an appeal March 29 after learning from her social worker that her benefits would expire at the end of the month. She went to the agency but couldn’t stand in a line that was 100 people deep. Calls to the state’s Medicaid eligibility review agency were fruitless, she said.

“When they finally connected me to a customer service representative, she was literally just reading the same explanation letter that I’ve read,” Saa said. “I did everything in my power.”

Saa canceled her home health aide. She lives on limited Social Security disability income and said she could not afford to pay for the care.

On April 10, she received a letter from the state saying her Medicaid had been reinstated, but she later learned that her plan did not cover home health care.

The following day, Saa said, advocates put her in touch with a point person at Florida’s Medicaid agency who restored her benefits. A home health aide showed up April 12. Saa said she’s thankful but feels anxious about the future.

“The toughest part of that period is knowing that that can happen at any time,” she said, “and not because of anything I did wrong.”

Have you or someone you know with disabilities unexpectedly lost Medicaid benefits since April 2023? Tell KFF Health News about it here.

KFF Health News correspondents Samantha Liss and Rachana Pradhan contributed to this report.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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California propone ampliar subsidios de seguros de salud a todos los inmigrantes adultos

May 06, 2024

Marisol Pantoja Toribio se encontró un bulto en el pecho a principios de enero. Sin seguro y viviendo en California sin papeles, y sin su familia, la normalmente despreocupada mujer de 43 años se dio cuenta pronto de lo limitadas que eran sus opciones.

“Yo dije, ¿Qué voy a hacer? …. “, recordó emocionada. Inmediatamente le preocupó que pudiera tener cáncer. “Iba y venía: tengo [cáncer], no tengo, sí tengo, no tengo”. Y si estaba enferma, agregó, no podría trabajar ni pagar el alquiler. Al no tener seguro de salud, Pantoja Toribio no podía pagar para averiguar si tenía una enfermedad grave.

A partir de este año, Medi-Cal, el programa de Medicaid de California, se amplió para incluir a los inmigrantes que no tienen residencia legal, algo que podría haber funcionado perfectamente para Pantoja Toribio, que ha vivido en la ciudad de Brentwood, en el Área de la Bahía, durante tres años. Pero su solicitud de Medi-Cal fue rechazada rápidamente porque, como trabajadora agrícola que gana $16 la hora, sus ingresos anuales de unos $24,000 eran demasiado altos para calificar para el programa.

California es el primer estado en ampliar Medicaid a todos los adultos que reúnan los requisitos, independientemente de su estatus migratorio, una medida celebrada por los activistas de la salud y por líderes políticos de todo el estado. Pero muchos inmigrantes sin estatus legal permanente, especialmente los que viven en zonas de California donde el costo de vida es más alto, ganan demasiado dinero como para calificar para Medi-Cal.

El estado paga la factura de la expansión de Medi-Cal, pero la ley federal prohíbe a los que llama “indocumentados” recibir subsidios de seguros u otros beneficios de la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio (ACA), dejando a muchos empleados, sin opciones viables médico.

Ahora, los mismos activistas de salud que lucharon por la expansión de Medi-Cal dicen que el siguiente paso para lograr la equidad en salud es ampliar Covered California, el mercado estatal de ACA, a todos los inmigrantes adultos mediante la aprobación de la AB 4.

“Hay personas en este estado que trabajan y son la columna vertebral de tantos sectores de nuestra economía y contribuyen con su trabajo e incluso con sus impuestos … pero están excluidos de nuestra red de seguridad social”, dijo Sarah Dar, directora del Centro de Política de Inmigración de California, una de las dos organizaciones que patrocinan el proyecto de ley, denominado #Health4All.

Para calificar para Medi-Cal, una persona no puede ganar más del 138% del nivel federal de pobreza, que actualmente es de cerca de $21,000 al año para un individuo. Una familia de tres miembros tendría que ganar menos de $35,632 al año.

Para las personas que superan esos umbrales, el mercado de Covered California ofrece varios planes de salud, a menudo con subsidios federales y estatales, con primas tan bajas como $10 al mes. La esperanza es crear lo que los activistas llaman un “mercado espejo” en el sitio web de Covered California para que a los inmigrantes, independientemente de su estatus, se les pueda ofrecer los mismos planes de salud que serían subvencionados sólo por el estado.

A pesar de la mayoría demócrata en la Legislatura, el proyecto de ley podría tener dificultades para ser aprobado, ya que el estado se enfrenta a un déficit presupuestario previsto para el próximo año de entre $38 mil millones y $73 mil millones. El gobernador Gavin Newsom y líderes legislativos anunciaron un paquete de $17 mil millones para empezar a reducir la brecha, pero parece inevitable que se produzcan recortes significativos en el gasto.

No está claro cuánto costaría extender Covered California a todos los inmigrantes, según el miembro de la Asamblea Joaquín Arambula, demócrata de Fresno que presentó el proyecto de ley.

El Centro de Política de Inmigración estima que la creación del mercado costaría al menos $15 millones. Si el proyecto de ley se aprueba, los patrocinadores tendrían que asegurar la financiación de los subsidios, que podrían ascender a miles de millones de dólares anuales.

“Es un momento difícil para pedir nuevos gastos”, señaló Dar. “El costo de la puesta en marcha del mercado espejo es una cifra relativamente baja. Así que tenemos esperanzas de que aún esté dentro de lo posible”.

Arambula dijo que es optimista en cuanto a que el estado continuará liderando en la mejora del acceso a la salud para los inmigrantes que no tienen residencia legal.

“Creo que seguiremos adelante, ya que estamos trabajando para hacer de ésta una California para todos”, expresó.

El proyecto de ley fue aprobado por la Asamblea en julio pasado en una votación de 64-9 y ahora falta la acción del Comité de Asignaciones del Senado, según la oficina de Arambula.

Se calcula que unas 520,000 personas en California podrían optar por un plan de Covered California si tuvieran un estatus legal, según el centro de investigación laboral de la Universidad de California-Berkeley. Pantoja Toribio, que emigró sola desde México huyendo de una relación abusiva, dijo que tuvo suerte. Se enteró de las opciones alternativas de atención médica cuando hizo su visita semanal a un banco de alimentos en Hijas del Campo, una organización de defensa de los trabajadores agrícolas del condado de Contra Costa, donde le dijeron que podría calificar para un plan que ayuda a personas de bajos ingresos a través de Kaiser Permanente.

Pantoja Toribio aplicó, justo antes que se cerrara el plazo de inscripción a finales de enero. Gracias al plan, supo que el bulto que tenía en el pecho no era canceroso.

“Diosito me oyó”, exclamó. “Gracias a Dios”.

Esta historia fue producida por KFF Health News, que publica California Healthline, un servicio editorialmente independiente de la California Health Care Foundation.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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California Floats Extending Health Insurance Subsidies to All Adult Immigrants

May 03, 2024

Marisol Pantoja Toribio found a lump in her breast in early January. Uninsured and living in California without legal status and without her family, the usually happy-go-lucky 43-year-old quickly realized how limited her options were.

“I said, ‘What am I going to do?’” she said in Spanish, quickly getting emotional. She immediately worried she might have cancer. “I went back and forth — I have [cancer], I don’t have it, I have it, I don’t have it.” And if she was sick, she added, she wouldn’t be able to work or pay her rent. Without health insurance, Pantoja Toribio couldn’t afford to find out if she had a serious condition.

Beginning this year, Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program, expanded to include immigrants lacking legal residency, timing that could have worked out perfectly for Pantoja Toribio, who has lived in the Bay Area city of Brentwood for three years. But her application for Medi-Cal was quickly rejected: As a farmworker earning $16 an hour, her annual income of roughly $24,000 was too high to qualify for the program.

California is the first state to expand Medicaid to all qualifying adults regardless of immigration status, a move celebrated by health advocates and political leaders across the state. But many immigrants without permanent legal status, especially those who live in parts of California where the cost of living is highest, earn slightly too much money to qualify for Medi-Cal.

The state is footing the bill for the Medi-Cal expansion, but federal law bars those it calls “undocumented” from receiving insurance subsidies or other benefits from the Affordable Care Act, leaving many employed but without viable health insurance options.

Now, the same health advocates who fought for the Medi-Cal expansion say the next step in achieving health equity is expanding Covered California, the state’s ACA marketplace, to all immigrant adults by passing AB 4.

“There are people in this state who work and are the backbone of so many sectors of our economy and contribute their labor and even taxes … but they are locked out of our social safety net,” said Sarah Dar, policy director at the California Immigrant Policy Center, one of two organizations sponsoring the bill, dubbed #Health4All.

To qualify for Medi-Cal, an individual cannot earn more than 138% of the federal poverty level, which currently amounts to nearly $21,000 a year for a single person. A family of three would need to earn less than $35,632 a year.

For people above those thresholds, the Covered California marketplace offers various health plans, often with federal and state subsidies, yielding premiums as low as $10 a month. The hope is to create what advocates call a “mirror marketplace” on the Covered California website so that immigrants regardless of status can be offered the same health plans that would be subsidized only by the state.

Despite a Democratic supermajority in the legislature, the bill might struggle to pass, with the state facing a projected budget deficit for next year of anywhere from $38 billion to $73 billion. Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders announced a $17 billion package to start reducing the gap, but significant spending cuts appear inevitable.

It’s not clear how much it would cost to extend Covered California to all immigrants, according to Assembly member Joaquin Arambula, the Fresno Democrat who introduced the bill.

The immigrant policy center estimates that setting up the marketplace would cost at least $15 million. If the bill passes, sponsors would then need to secure funding for the subsidies, which could run into the billions of dollars annually.

“It is a tough time to be asking for new expenditures,” Dar said. “The mirror marketplace startup cost is a relatively very low number. So we’re hopeful that it’s still within the realm of possibility.”

Arambula said he’s optimistic the state will continue to lead in improving access to health care for immigrants who lack legal residency.

“I believe we will continue to stand up, as we are working to make this a California for all,” he said.

The bill passed the Assembly last July on a 64-9 vote and now awaits action by the Senate Appropriations Committee, Arambula’s office said.

An estimated 520,000 people in California would qualify for a Covered California plan if not for their lack of legal status, according to the labor research center at the University of California-Berkeley. Pantoja Toribio, who emigrated alone from Mexico after leaving an abusive relationship, said she was lucky. She learned about alternative health care options when she made her weekly visit to a food pantry at Hijas del Campo, a Contra Costa County farmworker advocacy organization, where they told her she might qualify for a plan for low-income people through Kaiser Permanente.

Pantoja Toribio applied just before open enrollment closed at the end of January. Through the plan, she learned that the lump in her breast was not cancerous.

“God heard me,” she said. “Thank God.”

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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AC, Power Banks, Mini Fridges: Oregon Equips Medicaid Patients for Climate Change

May 01, 2024

Oregon is shipping air conditioners, air purifiers, and power banks to some of its most vulnerable residents, a first-in-the-nation experiment to use Medicaid money to prevent the potentially deadly health effects of extreme heat, wildfire smoke, and other climate-related disasters.

The equipment, which started going out in March, expands a Biden administration strategy to move Medicaid beyond traditional medical care and into the realm of social services.

At least 20 states, including California, Massachusetts, and Washington, already direct billions of Medicaid dollars into programs such as helping homeless people get housing and preparing healthy meals for people with diabetes, according to KFF. Oregon is the first to use Medicaid money explicitly for climate-related costs, part of its five-year, $1.1 billion effort to address social needs, which also includes housing and nutrition benefits.

State and federal health officials hope to show that taxpayer money and lives can be saved when investments are made before disaster strikes.

“Climate change is a health care issue,” so helping Oregon’s poorest and sickest residents prepare for potentially dangerous heat, drought, and other extreme weather makes sense, said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra on a visit to Sacramento, California, in early April.

Becerra said the Biden administration wants states to experiment with how best to improve patient health, whether by keeping someone housed instead of homeless, or reducing their exposure to heat with an air conditioner.

But Medicaid’s expansion into social services may duplicate existing housing and nutrition programs offered by other federal agencies, while some needy Americans can’t get essential medical care, said Gary Alexander, director of the Medicaid and Health Safety Net Reform Initiative at the Paragon Health Institute.

“There are 600,000 or 700,000 intellectually disabled people in the United States waiting for Medicaid services. They’re on a waitlist,” said Alexander, who oversaw state health agencies in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. “Meanwhile Medicaid has money for housing and food and air conditioners for recipients. Seems to me that we should serve the intellectually disabled first before we get into all of these new areas.”

Scientists and public health officials say climate change poses a growing health risk. More frequent and intense floods, droughts, wildfires, extreme temperatures, and storms cause more deaths, cardiovascular disease from poor air quality, and other problems, according to the federal government’s Fifth National Climate Assessment.

The mounting health effects disproportionately hit low-income Americans and people of color, who are often covered by Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for low-income people.

Most of the 102 Oregonians who died during the deadly heat dome that settled over the Pacific Northwest in 2021 “were elderly, isolated and living with low incomes,” according to a report by the Oregon Health Authority, which administers the state’s Medicaid program, with about 1.4 million enrollees. The OHA’s analysis of urgent care and emergency room use from May through September of 2021 and 2022 found that 60% of heat-related illness visits were from residents of areas with a median household income below $50,000.

“In the last 10-plus years, the amount of fires and smoke events and excessive heat events that we’ve had has shown the disproportionate impact of those events on those with lower incomes,” said Dave Baden, the OHA’s deputy director for programs and policy.

And, because dangerously high temperatures aren’t common in Oregon, many residents don’t have air conditioning in their homes.

Traditionally, states hit by natural disasters and public health emergencies have asked the federal government for permission to spend Medicaid dollars on back-up power, air filters, and other equipment to help victims recover. But those requests came after the fact, following federal emergency declarations.

Oregon wants to be proactive and pay for equipment that will help an estimated 200,000 residents manage their health at home before extreme weather or climate-related disaster hits, Baden said. In addition to air conditioning units, the program will pay for mini fridges to keep medications cold, portable power supplies to run ventilators and other medical devices during outages, space heaters for winter, and air filters to improve air quality during wildfire season.

In March, the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s Medicaid program, began asking health insurers to find patients who might need help coping with extreme weather. Recipients must meet federal guidelines that categorize them as “facing certain life transitions,” a stringent set of requirements that disqualify most enrollees. For example, a person with an underlying medical condition that could worsen during a heat wave, and who is also at risk for homelessness or has been released from prison in the past year, could receive an air conditioner. But someone with stable housing might not qualify.

“You could be in a housing complex, and your neighbor qualified for an air conditioner and you didn’t,” Baden said.

At the offices of insurer AllCare Health in Grants Pass, Oregon, air conditioners, air filters, and mini fridges were piled in three rooms in mid-April, ready to be handed over to Medicaid patients. The health plan provided equipment to 19 households in March. The idea is to get the supplies into people’s homes before the summer fire season engulfs the valley in smoke.

Health plans don’t want to find themselves “fighting the masses” at Home Depot when the skies are already smoky or the heat is unbearable, said Josh Balloch, AllCare’s vice president of health policy.

“We’re competing against everybody else, and you can’t find a fan on a hot day,” he said.

Oregon and some other states have already used Medicaid money to buy air conditioners, air purifiers, and other goods for enrollees, but not under the category of climate change. For example, California offers air purifiers to help asthma patients and New York just won federal approval to provide air conditioners to asthma patients.

Baden said Oregon health officials will evaluate whether sending air conditioners and other equipment to patients saves money by looking at their claim records in the coming years.

If Oregon can help enrollees avoid a costly trip to the doctor or the ER after extreme weather, other state Medicaid programs may ask the federal government if they can adopt the benefit. Many states haven’t yet used Medicaid money for climate change because it affects people and regions differently, said Paul Shattuck, a senior fellow at Mathematica, a research organization that has surveyed state Medicaid directors on the issue.

“The health risks of climate change are everywhere, but the nature of risk exposure is completely different in every state,” Shattuck said. “It’s been challenging for Medicaid to get momentum because each state is left to their own devices to figure out what to do.”

A California state lawmaker last year introduced legislation that would have required Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program, to add a climate benefit under its existing social services expansion. The program would have been similar to Oregon’s, but AB 586, by Assembly member Lisa Calderon, died in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which questioned in a staff analysis whether “climate change remediation supports can be defined as cost-effective.”

The cost savings are clear to Kaiser Permanente. After the 2021 heat wave, it sent air conditioners to 81 patients in Oregon and southwest Washington whose health conditions might get worse in extreme heat, said Catherine Potter, community health consultant at the health system. The following year, Kaiser Permanente estimated it had prevented $42,000 in heat-related ER visits and $400,000 in hospital admissions, she said.

“We didn’t used to have extreme heat like this, and we do now,” said Potter, who has lived in the temperate Portland area for 30 years. “If we can prevent these adverse impacts, we should be preventing them especially for people that are going to be most affected.”

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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Sign Here? Financial Agreements May Leave Doctors in the Driver’s Seat

April 30, 2024

Cass Smith-Collins jumped through hoops to get the surgery that would match his chest to his gender.

Living in Las Vegas and then 50, he finally felt safe enough to come out as a transgender man. He had his wife’s support and a doctor’s letter showing he had a long history of gender dysphoria, the psychological distress felt when one’s sex assigned at birth and gender identity don’t match.

Although in-network providers were available, Smith-Collins selected Florida-based surgeon Charles Garramone, who markets himself as an early developer of female-to-male top surgery and says that he does not contract with insurance. Smith-Collins said he was willing to pay more to go out-of-network.

“I had one shot to get the chest that I should have been born with, and I wasn’t going to chance it to someone who was not an expert at his craft,” he said.

Smith-Collins arranged to spend a week in Florida and contacted friends there who could help him recover from the outpatient procedure, he said.

Garramone’s practice required that the patient agree to its financial policies, according to documents shared by Smith-Collins. One document stated that “full payment” of Garramone’s surgical fees is required four weeks in advance of surgery and that all payments to the practice are “non-refundable.”

Smith-Collins said he and his wife dipped into their retirement savings to cover the approximately $14,000 upfront. With prior authorization from his insurer in hand saying the procedure would be “covered,” he thought his insurance would reimburse anything he paid beyond his out-of-pocket maximum for out-of-network care: $6,900.

The day before surgery, Smith-Collins signed another agreement from the surgeon’s practice, outlining how it would file an out-of-network claim with his insurance. Any insurance payment would be received by the doctor, it said.

The procedure went well. Smith-Collins went home happy and relieved.

Then the bill came. Or in this case: The reimbursement didn’t.

The Patient: Cass Smith-Collins, now 52, who has employer-based coverage through UnitedHealthcare.

Medical Services: Double-incision top surgery with nipple grafts, plus lab work.

Service Provider: Aesthetic Plastic Surgery Institute, doing business as The Garramone Center, which is owned by Garramone, according to Florida public records.

Total Bill: The surgeon’s practice billed the patient and insurance a total of $120,987 for his work. It charged the patient about $14,000 upfront — which included $300 for lab work and a $1,000 reservation fee — and then billed the patient’s insurer an additional $106,687.

The surgeon later wrote the patient that the upfront fee was for the “cosmetic” portion of the surgery, while the insurance charge was for the “reconstructive” part. Initially, the insurer paid $2,193.54 toward the surgeon’s claim, and the patient received no reimbursement.

After KFF Health News began reporting this story, the insurer reprocessed the surgeon’s claim and increased its payment to the practice to $97,738.46. Smith-Collins then received a reimbursement from Garramone of $7,245.

What Gives: Many patients write to Bill of the Month each year with their own tangled billing question. In many cases — including this one — the short answer is that the patient misunderstood their insurance coverage.

Smith-Collins was in a confusing situation. UnitedHealthcare said his out-of-network surgery would be “covered,” then it later told Smith-Collins it didn’t owe the reimbursement he had counted on. Then, after KFF Health News began reporting, he received a reimbursement.

Adding to the confusion were the practice’s financial polices, which set a pre-surgery payment deadline, gave the doctor control of any insurance payment, and left the patient vulnerable to more bills (though, fortunately, he received none).

Agreeing to an out-of-network provider’s own financial policy — which generally protects its ability to get paid and may be littered with confusing insurance and legal jargon — can create a binding contract that leaves a patient owing. In short, it can put the doctor in the driver’s seat, steering the money.

The agreement Smith-Collins signed the day before surgery says that the patient understands he is receiving out-of-network care and “may be responsible for additional costs for all services provided” by the out-of-network practice.

Federal billing protections shield patients from big, out-of-network bills — but not in cases in which the patient knowingly chose out-of-network care. Smith-Collins could have been on the hook for the difference between what his out-of-network doctor and insurer said the procedure should cost: nearly $102,000.

Emails show Smith-Collins had a couple of weeks to review a version of the practice’s out-of-network agreement before he signed it. But he said he likely hadn’t read the entire document because he was focused on his surgery and willing to agree to just about anything to get it.

“Surgery is an emotional experience for anyone, and that’s not an ideal time for anyone to sign a complex legal agreement,” said Marianne Udow-Phillips, a health policy instructor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Udow-Phillips, who reviewed the agreement, said it includes complicated terms that could confuse consumers.

Another provision in the agreement says the surgeon’s upfront charges are “a separate fee that is not related to charges made to your insurance.”

Months after his procedure, having received no reimbursement, Smith-Collins contacted his surgeon, he said. Garramone replied to him in an email, explaining that UnitedHealthcare had paid for the “reconstructive aspect of the surgery” — while the thousands of dollars Smith-Collins paid upfront was for the “cosmetic portion.”

Filing an insurance claim had initially led to a payment for Garramone, but no refund for Smith-Collins.

Garramone did not respond to questions from KFF Health News for this article or to repeated requests for an interview.

Smith-Collins had miscalculated how much his insurance would pay for an out-of-network surgeon.

Documents show that before the procedure Smith-Collins received a receipt from Garramone’s practice marked “final payment” with a zero balance due, as well as prior authorization from UnitedHealthcare stating that the surgery performed by Garramone would be “covered.”

More from Bill of the Month Read more

But out-of-network providers aren’t limited in what they can charge, and insurers don’t have a minimum they must pay.

An explanation of benefits, or EOB, statement shows Garramone submitted a claim to UnitedHealthcare for more than $106,000. Of that, UnitedHealthcare determined the maximum it would pay — known as the “allowed amount” — was about $4,400. A UnitedHealthcare representative later told Smith-Collins in an email that the total was based on what Medicare would have paid for the procedure.

Smith-Collins’ upfront charges of roughly $14,000 went well beyond the price the insurer deemed fair, and UnitedHealthcare wasn’t going to pay the difference. By UnitedHealthcare’s math, Smith-Collins’ share of its allowed amount was about $2,200, which is what counted toward his out-of-pocket costs. That meant, in the insurer’s eyes, Smith-Collins still hadn’t reached his $6,900 maximum for the year, so no refund.

Neither UnitedHealthcare nor the surgeon provided KFF Health News with billing codes, making it difficult to compare the surgeon’s charges to cost estimates for the procedure.

Garramone’s website says his fee varies depending on the size and difficulty of the procedure. The site says his prices reflect his experience and adds that “cheaper” may lead to “very poor results.”

Though he spent more than he expected, Smith-Collins said he’ll never regret the procedure. He said he had lived with thoughts of suicide since youth, having realized at a young age that his body didn’t match his identity and feared others would target him for being trans.

“It was a lifesaving thing,” he said. “I jumped through whatever hoops they wanted me to go through so I could get that surgery, so that I could finally be who I was.”

The Resolution: Smith-Collins submitted two appeals with his insurer, asking UnitedHealthcare to reimburse him for what he spent beyond his out-of-pocket maximum. The insurer denied both appeals, finding its payments were correct based on the terms of his plan, and said his case was not eligible for a third, outside review.

But after being contacted by KFF Health News, UnitedHealthcare reprocessed Garramone’s roughly $106,000 claim and increased its payment to the practice to $97,738.46.

Maria Gordon Shydlo, a UnitedHealthcare spokesperson, told KFF Health News the company’s initial determination was correct, but that it had reprocessed the claim so that Smith-Collins is “only” responsible for his patient share: $6,755.

“We are disappointed that this non-contracted provider elected to charge the member so much,” she said.

After that new payment, Garramone gave Smith-Collins a $7,245 refund in mid-April.

The Takeaway: Udow-Phillips, who worked in health insurance for decades and led provider services for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, said she had never seen a provider agreement like the one Smith-Collins signed.

Patients should consult a lawyer before signing any out-of-network agreements, she said, and they should make sure they understand prior authorization letters from insurers.

The prior authorization Smith-Collins received “doesn’t say covered in full, and it doesn’t say covered at what rate,” Udow-Phillips said, adding later, “I am sure [Smith-Collins] thought the prior authorization was for the cost of the procedure.”

Patients can seek in-network care to feel more secure about what insurance will cover and what their doctors might charge.

But for those who have a specific out-of-network doctor in mind, there are ways to try to avoid sticker shock, said Sabrina Corlette, a research professor and co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University:

  • Patients should always ask insurers to define what “covered” means, specifically whether that means payment in full and for what expenses. And before making an upfront payment, patients should ask their insurer how much of that total it would reimburse.
  • Patients also can ask their provider to agree in advance to accept any insurance reimbursement as payment in full, though there’s no requirement that they do so.
  • And patients can try asking their insurer to provide an exact dollar estimate for their out-of-pocket costs and ask if they are refundable should insurance pick up the tab.

Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KFF Health News and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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Whatever Happened to Biden’s Public Option?

April 26, 2024

In the 2020 elections, then-candidate Joe Biden and many of his congressional colleagues loudly advocated for a federal “public option” health insurance plan. It was framed, at the time, as part of his incoming administration’s response to the pandemic.

“Low-income Americans will be automatically enrolled in the public option at zero cost to them, though they may choose to opt out at any time,” Democrats promised in their party platform.

But since Biden entered office, it’s been crickets. The president hasn’t uttered the phrase “public option” since December 2020, according to factba.se, which tracks his public remarks.

Why the disappearing act? In a word: politics.

“Out of the gate you’d have a huge powerful lobby against the public option — the hospitals — since providers have the most to lose: lots of money,” said Matthew Fiedler, an economist at the Brookings Institution who has studied payment disparities between insurance plans. The health-care industry is the largest lobbying sector in Washington, with more than $132 million spent annually just by hospitals and nursing homes, according to OpenSecrets.

For those who’ve forgotten, the idea was to create a government-sponsored insurance plan to compete with commercial insurers under the Affordable Care Act. The concept, previously backed by President Barack Obama, didn’t make it into the final version of the ACA due to opposition from pretty much everyone in health care.

In theory, a public option structured like Medicare, Medicaid or the military’s Tricare program could save billions in health-care spending by both the federal government and consumers because (like the existing federal plans) it would pay health providers less than commercial insurers. Fiedler said the public option could possibly save money, relative to commercial insurance, even if it paid as much as double Medicare’s rates.

And without having to earn a profit, such a plan could spend more money on patient care.

Unsurprisingly, insurers opposed the public option, but Fiedler said it’s hospital opposition that keeps it shelved.

As an example, Fiedler points to Medicare drug price negotiation, another long shot Democratic priority. Biden got that across the finish line as part of his 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.

“Congress didn’t want to pick a fight with hospitals, but they’re willing to take on drug companies,” Fiedler said.

Biden’s party hasn’t yet put together its official platform for the 2024 election, so perhaps the public option will reappear on his agenda. Spokespeople for his reelection campaign and the White House didn’t respond to emailed questions about it.

The idea still has many fans: Led by Colorado, some states have sought to create their own versions, though their plans rely on commercial insurers to administer the coverage. Insurers were able to tank public option proposals in Connecticut, and they’ve complained that they would lose money under Colorado’s proposal.

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KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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