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Updated: 20 hours 34 min ago

Centene Agrees to Pay Massachusetts $14 Million Over Medicaid Prescription Claims

September 29, 2022

Massachusetts has become the latest state to settle with health insurance giant Centene Corp. over allegations that it overbilled the state’s Medicaid program for pharmacy services, KHN has learned.

Centene, the nation’s largest Medicaid managed-care insurer, will pay $14.2 million, according to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. An official announcement is expected later Thursday.

“This settlement is a significant result in our work to protect taxpayer dollars and the integrity of our MassHealth program,” Healey said in a statement. “We are pleased to secure these funds to help control Medicaid costs and ensure that state resources are directed to the best possible uses in our health care system.”

Centene on Wednesday denied wrongdoing in Massachusetts, as it has in previously announced settlements. KHN reported earlier this month that Centene agreed in July to pay Texas nearly $166 million.

“This no-fault agreement reflects the significance we place on addressing their concerns and our ongoing commitment to making the delivery of healthcare local, simple and transparent,” Centene said in a statement emailed to KHN. “Importantly, this allows us to continue our relentless focus on delivering high-quality outcomes to our members.”

Centene provides health insurance to 15.4 million Medicaid enrollees across the country by contracting with states to cover people who have disabilities or are in low-income families. The St. Louis-based insurer earns about two-thirds of its revenue from Medicaid, which is jointly funded by state and federal taxpayers.

In many states, insurance companies such as Centene also administer Medicaid enrollees’ prescription medications through what is called a pharmacy benefit manager. These benefit managers act as middlemen between drugmakers and health insurers and as intermediaries between health plans and pharmacies.

Centene’s CeltiCare subsidiary offered insurance to Massachusetts Medicaid enrollees until the state began to overhaul its program. Centene also administered pharmacy benefits for the state Medicaid program, MassHealth, according to the attorney general’s office.

A review by Healey’s office found “irregularities in the pricing and reporting of pharmacy benefits and services” by Centene’s pharmacy benefits manager, Envolve Pharmacy Solutions, its statement said.

Multiple states have settled with Centene’s pharmacy manager business over allegations that it overbilled their Medicaid programs for prescription drugs and pharmacy services. But the total number of states is not publicly known because many of the settlement negotiations are conducted behind closed doors. Some states, such as California, have been investigating the company, KHN first reported in April.

Before the Massachusetts agreement, Centene had settled with Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas, and Washington for a total of $475 million, according to news releases and settlement documents from attorneys general in those states. The Massachusetts settlement, which was signed Sept. 23, brings Centene’s pharmacy services settlement total to at least $489 million. Other states have also settled with Centene, but the settlement amounts — and the states themselves — have not been publicly disclosed.

Centene set aside $1.25 billion in 2021 to resolve the pharmacy benefit manager settlements in “affected states,” according to a July filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that did not specify how many states.

Florida and South Carolina have signed legal agreements with a Mississippi-based firm, Liston & Deas, that has represented other states in their pharmacy benefit inquiries into Centene.

Pharmacy benefit managers in general have drawn increasing scrutiny and criticism. The Federal Trade Commission announced in June that it was launching an investigation into the pharmacy benefit management industry and its impact on consumer access to prescription drugs and medication costs.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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Shattered Dreams and Bills in the Millions: Losing a Baby in America

September 23, 2022

The day after his 8-month-old baby died, Kingsley Raspe opened the mail and found he had been sent to collections for her care.

That notice involved a paltry sum, $26.50 — absurd really, given he’d previously been told he owed $2.5 million for treatment of his newborn’s congenital heart defect and other disorders.

Raspe and his wife, Maddie, had endured watching doctors crack open the chest of their pigtailed daughter, Sterling, whom they called “sweet Sterly gurl.” The health team performed so many other procedures. But it couldn’t keep her — or her parents’ dreams for her — alive.

The bills lived on for them, as they do for many other families of premature and very sick infants who don’t survive.

“What a lasting tribute to the entire experience,” Kingsley said angrily. “The process was just so heartless.”

More than 300,000 U.S. families have infants who require advanced medical attention in newborn intensive care units every year. Some babies stay for months, quickly generating astronomical fees for highly specialized surgeries and round-the-clock care. The services are delivered, and in U.S. health care, billing follows. But for the smaller fraction of families whose children die, the burden can be too much to bear.

A patchwork of convoluted Medicaid-qualification rules seek to defray these kinds of bills for very sick children. But policies differ in each state, and many parents — especially those, like the Raspes, who have commercial insurance — don’t know to apply or think they won’t qualify.

Also, because many crises that befall premature or very sick babies are in-the-moment emergencies, there may not be time for the preapprovals that insurers often require for expensive interventions. That leaves parents in crisis — or in mourning — tasked with fighting with insurers to have treatment covered.

Three families detailed for KHN how medical bills compounded their suffering during a time when they were just trying to process their loss.

Bennett Markow

As the hospital in Reno, Nevada, was converting a parking garage into a covid-19 unit in November 2020, Bennett Markow came into the world four months early. He weighed less than a pound. His care team loved to sing “Bennie and the Jets” to him as a nod to the jet ventilator keeping his tiny lungs working.

On Jan. 20, 2021, when Bennett was 2 months old, his parents were told he needed to go to UC Davis Children’s Hospital in Sacramento, California, for specialized care that could keep him from going blind. The transfer team would be there in an hour. And the Nevada care team said that because it was an emergency, the family needn’t worry about their insurance or the method of transportation.

Bennett’s eye problem ended up being less severe than the doctors had feared. And Crissa Markow and her husband, A.J., were billed for the plane ride from REACH Air Medical Services, which turned out to be out of network. Jason Sorrick, vice president of government relations for REACH’s parent company, Global Medical Response, said the ride happened during a “lapse” in Bennett’s Medicaid coverage.

The Markows said there was no lapse. They hadn’t applied yet because they thought they wouldn’t qualify — the family is middle-class, and Bennett was on Crissa’s insurance. They did not know they should until a social worker at UC Davis gave them more information — after the flight.

Crissa Markow said her heart dropped to her toes when she realized she was being billed over $71,000, more than she makes in a year as a social worker. (The No Surprises Act, which aims to eliminate surprise billing, could have prevented some of the family’s headaches — but Bennett was born before it went into effect this year.)

Although Crissa was used to working toward solutions, the billing quagmires she found herself in while juggling Bennett’s care, her job, her other son, and the travel logistics to stay with Bennett about 2½ hours away from her home were overwhelming. Crissa estimates she spent six to eight hours a week dealing with medical bills to keep them from being sent to collections — which still happened.

Bennett died last July after doctors said his lungs could not fight anymore. The Markows spent their bereavement leave battling with insurers and other billing agencies.

Finally, Crissa called REACH, the air transport company, and said: “Look, my son died. I just want to be able to grieve, I want to focus on that. Dealing with this bill is traumatic. It’s a reminder every day I shouldn’t have to be fighting this.”

By October, the Markows had settled the bill with REACH on the condition that they not disclose the terms. Sorrick said that the company reaches agreements based on the financial and personal situations of each patient and their family and that the company’s patient advocates had talked to Crissa Markow 17 times.

“If every settlement amount was disclosed publicly, then those rates become the expectation of all patients and insurance providers,” Sorrick said. “Ultimately, that would lead to all patients wanting to pay below cost, making our services unsustainable.”

Crissa Markow’s employer-provided insurance paid $6.5 million for Bennett’s care, not including what was covered by Medicaid. The Markows paid roughly $6,500 out-of-pocket to hospitals and doctors on top of their REACH settlement. But it was not those amounts — which the couple would have happily paid to save their son — but the endless harassment and the hours spent on the phone that haunt them.

“I just wanted to be with Bennett; that’s all I wanted to do,” Crissa Markow said. “And I just spent hours on these phone calls.”

Jack Shickel

Jack Shickel was born with stunning silver hair and hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Even though he was surrounded by wires and tubes, the nurses at UVA Children’s Hospital would whisper to Jessica and her husband, Isaac, that they had a truly “cute” baby.

But his congenital disorder meant the left side of his heart never fully developed. Each year in the U.S., over a thousand babies are born with the syndrome.

After two surgeries, Jack’s heart could not pump enough blood on its own. He made it 35 days.

Weeks after his death, when the Shickels were trying to muddle through life without him in Harrisonburg, Virginia, they called the hospital billing department about two confusing bills. They were then told the full cost of his care was $3.4 million.

“I laughed and then cried,” Jessica said. “He was worth every penny to us, but that’s basically $100,000 a day.”

Bills from out-of-network labs and other prior approval notifications continued to overwhelm their mailbox. Eventually, they figured out how to get Medicaid. The Shickels ended up paying only $470.26.

Jessica got the final bills in March, seven months after Jack’s death.

She noted that all of this was happening as the University of Virginia Health System said it was rolling back its aggressive billing practices after a KHN investigation found the prestigious university hospital was putting liens on people’s homes to recoup medical debt.

UVA Health spokesperson Eric Swensen expressed condolences to the Shickel family and added that the health system works to help patients navigate the “complex process” of evaluating financial assistance, including Medicaid coverage.

After KHN reached out for comment, the Shickels got a call from UVA saying that the hospital was refunding their payment.

The hospital care team had given the family a pamphlet about what to do when grieving, but a more useful one, Jessica said, would have been titled “How Do You Deal With Medical Bills After Your Child Has Died?”

Sterling Raspe

Kingsley Raspe likes to say Sterling was “one special little lady” — not only did she have the same congenital heart defect as Jack Shickel, but she was also diagnosed with Kabuki syndrome, a rare disorder that can severely affect development. Sterling also had hearing loss, spinal cord issues, and a compromised immune system.

An explanation of benefits from the Raspes’ commercial insurance indicated the couple would need to pay $2.5 million for Sterling’s care — an amount so large the numbers didn’t all fit in the column. Even Kingsley’s suspicion that the $2.5 million charge was likely erroneous — in large part or in whole — didn’t erase the sheer panic he felt when he saw the number.

A computer programmer making $90,000 a year, Kingsley had decent insurance. He frantically Googled “medical bankruptcy.”

Sterling had been denied Medicaid, which is available to children with complex medical problems in some states. Kingsley had filed an application for the government insurance, which had to be submitted by mail from the family home in Gary, Indiana. In doing so, he broke the strict protocols on covid exposure set early in the pandemic at the Ronald McDonald charity house near the Illinois hospital where Sterling was being treated and jeopardized his ability to stay there.

In rejecting the application, Indiana cited an income threshold and other technical reasons.

Everyone kept telling Kingsley and Maddie to get divorced so Sterling would qualify for Medicaid. But that wasn’t an option for Kingsley, a British citizen who is in the U.S. on a green card after meeting Maddie on Tinder.

Ultimately, Kingsley’s insurer revised the faulty notice that he owed $2.5 million. The family was told the mistake had occurred because Sterling’s initial hospital stay and surgeries had not been preapproved, although Kingsley said the heart defect was discovered halfway through the pregnancy, making surgery inevitable.

Throughout Sterling’s life, Kingsley did his programming job at his daughter’s bedside, in her hospital room. As a web developer, he created visualizations that break down Sterling’s expensive care — it helped him make sense of it all. But he cries when he remembers those days.

He hates that Sterling’s life can be reduced to a 2-inch stack of printed-out medical bills and the phone calls he still must endure from errant billers.

Despite receiving a plethora of other bills in the tens of thousands, he and his wife eventually paid their $4,000 deductible, along with a smattering of smaller charges and fees for equipment rentals that weren’t covered. In April, Maddie gave birth to a son, Wren, and Kingsley said he knows Sterling served as her brother’s guardian angel.

“My daughter passed away. I’m not unscathed, but I’m not in financial ruin. The same can’t be said for every family,” he said. “How lucky am I? I went through the worst thing imaginable, and I consider myself lucky — what kind of weird, messed-up logic is that?”

Navigating the NICU

Contact your insurance company to talk through your NICU stay costs, including what is covered and what is not. If your baby’s not already on your plan, make sure to add them.

Speak to a social worker immediately about applying for Medicaid or the Supplemental Security Income program, known as SSI. If your child qualifies, it can dramatically reduce your personal cost for a child with extensive medical bills.

The March of Dimes offers a “My NICU Baby” app designed to help you wade through the overwhelming experience. The nonprofit says the app can help you learn about caring for your baby in the NICU and at home, as well as monitor your baby’s progress, manage your own health, and keep track of your to-do list and questions.

If particular insurers or bills are confusing, reach out to your state insurance office. All states offer consumer support, and some states have dedicated advocates who can help you.

Kingsley Raspe also compiled advice for other families navigating neonatal intensive care unit stays for their babies.

Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KHN 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!

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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This story can be republished for free (details).

‘It’s Becoming Too Expensive to Live’: Anxious Older Adults Try to Cope With Limited Budgets

September 07, 2022

Economic insecurity is upending the lives of millions of older adults as soaring housing costs and inflation diminish the value of fixed incomes.

Across the country, seniors who until recently successfully managed limited budgets are growing more anxious and distressed. Some lost work during the covid-19 pandemic. Others are encountering unaffordable rent increases and the prospect of losing their homes. Still others are suffering significant sticker shock at grocery stores.

Dozens of older adults struggling with these challenges — none poor by government standards — wrote to me after I featured the Elder Index, a measure of the cost of aging, in a recent column. That tool, developed by researchers at the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, suggests that 54% of older women who live alone have incomes below what’s needed to pay for essential expenses. For single men, the figure is 45%.

To learn more, I spoke at length to three women who reached out to me and were willing to share highly personal details of their lives. Their stories illustrate how unexpected circumstances — the pandemic and its economic aftereffects, natural disasters, and domestic abuse — can result in unanticipated precarity in later life, even for people who worked hard for decades.

Bettye Cohen

“After 33 years living in my apartment, I will have to move since the new owners of the building are renovating all apartments and charging rents of over $1,800 to 2,500/month which I cannot afford.”

Cohen, 79, has been distraught since learning that the owners of her Towson, Maryland, apartment complex are raising rents precipitously as they upgrade units. She pays $989 monthly for a one-bedroom apartment with a terrace. A similar apartment that has been redone recently went on the market for $1,900.

This is a national trend affecting all age groups: As landlords respond to high demand, rent hikes this year have reached 9.2%.

Cohen has been told that her lease will be canceled at the end of January and that she’ll be charged $1,200 a month until it’s time for her apartment to be refurbished and for her to vacate the premises.

“The devastation, I cannot tell you,” she said during a phone conversation. “Thirty-three years of living in one place lets you know I’m a very boring person, but I’m also a very practical, stable person. I never in a million years would have thought something like this would happen to me.”

During a long career, Cohen worked as a risk manager for department stores and as an insurance agent. She retired in 2007. Today, her monthly income is $2,426: $1,851 from Social Security after payments for Medicare Part B coverage are taken out, $308 from an individual retirement account, and $267 from a small pension.

In addition to rent, Cohen estimates she spends $200 to $240 a month on food, $165 on phone and internet, $25 on Medicare Advantage premiums, $20 on dental care, $22 for gas, and $100 or more for incidentals such as cleaning products and toiletries.

That doesn’t include non-routine expenses, such as new partial dentures that Cohen needs (she guesses they’ll cost $1,200) or hearing aids that she purchased several years ago for $3,400, drawing on a small savings account. If forced to relocate, Cohen estimates moving costs will top $1,000.

Cohen has looked for apartments in her area, but many are in smaller buildings, without elevators, and not readily accessible to someone with severe arthritis, which she has. One-bedroom units are renting for $1,200 and up, not including utilities, which might be an additional $200 or more. Waiting lists for senior housing top two years.

“I’m miserable,” Cohen told me. “I’m waking up in the middle of the night a lot of times because my brain won’t shut off. Everything is so overwhelming.”

Carrie England

“It’s becoming too expensive to be alive. I’ve lost everything and break down on a daily basis because I do not know how I can continue to survive with the cost of living.”

England, 61, thought she’d grow old in a three-bedroom home in Winchester, Virginia, that she said she purchased with her partner in 1999. But that dream exploded in January 2021.

Around that time, England learned to her surprise that her name was not on the deed of the house she’d been living in. She had thought that had been arranged, and she contacted a legal aid lawyer, hoping to recover money she’d put into the property. Without proof of ownership, the lawyer told her, she didn’t have a leg to stand on.

“My nest was the house. It’s gone. It was my investment. My peace of mind,” England told me.

England’s story is complicated. She and her partner ended their longtime romantic relationship in 2009 but continued living together as friends, she told me. That changed during the pandemic, when he stopped working and England’s work as a caterer and hospitality specialist abruptly ended.

“His personality changed a lot,” she said, and “I started encountering emotional abuse.”

Trying to cope, England enrolled in Medicaid and arranged for eight sessions with a therapist specializing in domestic abuse. Those ended in November 2021, and she hasn’t been able to find another therapist since. “If I wasn’t so worried about my housing situation, I think I could process and work through all the things that have happened,” she told me.

After moving out of her home early in 2021, England relocated to Ashburn, Virginia, where she rents an apartment for $1,511 a month. (She thought, wrongly, that she would qualify for assistance from Loudoun County.) With utilities and trash removal included, the monthly total exceeds $1,700.

On an income of about $2,000 a month, which she scrambles to maintain by picking up gig work whenever she can, England has less than $300 available for everything else. She has no savings. “I do not have a life. I don’t do anything other than try to find work, go to work, and go home,” she said.

England knows her housing costs are unsustainable, and she has put her name on more than a dozen waiting lists for affordable housing or public housing. But there’s little chance she’ll see progress on that front anytime soon.

“If I were a younger person, I think I would be able to rebound from all the difficulties I’m having,” she told me. “I just never foresaw myself being in this situation at the age I am now.”

Elaine Ross

“Please help! I just turned 65 and [am] disabled on disability. My husband is on Social Security and we cannot even afford to buy groceries. This is not what I had in mind for the golden years.”

When asked about her troubles, Ross, 65, talks about a tornado that swept through central Florida on Groundhog Day in 2007, destroying her home. Too late, she learned her insurance coverage wasn’t adequate and wouldn’t replace most of her belongings.

To make ends meet, Ross started working two jobs: as a hairdresser and a customer service representative at a convenience store. With her new husband, Douglas Ross, a machinist, she purchased a new home. Recovery seemed possible.

Then, Elaine Ross fell twice over several years, breaking her leg, and ended up having three hip replacements. Trying to manage diabetes and beset by pain, Ross quit working in 2016 and applied for Social Security Disability Insurance, which now pays her $919 a month.

She doesn’t have a pension. Douglas stopped working in 2019, no longer able to handle the demands of his job because of a bad back. He, too, doesn’t have a pension. With Douglas’ Social Security payment of $1,051 a month, the couple live on just over $23,600 annually. Their meager savings evaporated with various emergency expenditures, and they sold their home.

Their rent in Empire, Alabama, where they now live, is $540 a month. Other regular expenses include $200 a month for their truck and gas, $340 for Medicare Part B premiums, $200 for electricity, $100 for medications, $70 for phone, and hundreds of dollars — Ross didn’t offer a precise estimate — for food.

“All this inflation, it’s just killing us,” she said. Nationally, the price of food consumed at home is expected to rise 10% to 11% this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

To cut costs, Ross has been turning off her air conditioning during peak hours for electricity rates, 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., despite summer temperatures in the 90s or higher. “I sweat like a bullet and try to wear the least amount of clothes possible,” she said.

“It’s awful,” she continued. “I know I’m not the only old person in this situation, but it pains me that I lived my whole life doing all the right things to be in the situation I’m in.”

We’re eager to hear from readers about questions you’d like answered, problems you’ve been having with your care, and advice you need in dealing with the health care system. Visit khn.org/columnists to submit your requests or tips.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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This story can be republished for free (details).