A health plan's fine print hardly makes for riveting reading. So most folks just focus on the monthly premium, make sure their doctor is covered, and ensure cost-sharing responsibilities are manageable.
But that fine print is important, especially when it comes to how insurers treat co-pay assistance, or financial help that drug companies offer to patients to assist them with prescription drug out-of-pocket costs.
Here are a few things to look out for.
First, make sure your insurance plan counts the value of a co-pay coupon toward your deductible and out-of-pocket obligations. If it doesn't, you may be in for an unexpected and costly surprise.
Consider a hypothetical cancer drug. Due to the drug's high cost, together with the insurance benefit design with a high deductible and high co-insurance, a family could be forced to pay annual out-of-pocket costs of $17,400. That is in addition to their monthly premiums.
The drug's manufacturer might offer coupons that cover most, or even all, of that out-of-pocket expense.
But more and more insurers are refusing to count those drug company coupons toward a patient's deductible or cost-sharing responsibility, leaving patients to face huge out-of-pocket costs. In fact, Kaiser Family Foundation recently reported that almost one in four large employers are now implementing these harmful policies.
Unable to afford such huge bills, many patients may not take the medicines they need. That's bad for their health and could lead to higher long-term costs for the insurer.
You would think something so costly and consequential would be clearly spelled out to a prospective beneficiary. Unfortunately, insurers are not transparent and sneak these policies into plan documents.
As you pore over the insurance documents, you may want to search for the following keywords: discount, coupon, accumulator, accumulation, copay card, and assistance. If any of them pop up, read the language carefully to see how the plan deals with co-pay assistance.
Alternatively, call the insurer directly to ask how they treat co-pay assistance.
If an insurance plan refuses to count them toward the deductible, it might be worth considering a different one.
Some people, like those with employer-sponsored coverage, may not have a choice of plans, and so may be stuck with one that does not count copay assistance. But fret not. It's possible to dispute the policy with an insurer or employer. And patients should do so.
Regardless, we need a national solution. A recently introduced bill in Congress would provide just that. Xavier Bacerra, our Secretary of Health and Human Services, can also issue a regulation to ban these cruel practices.
While your employer may set different dates, for most people on the private insurance market, open enrollment season continues through January 15. Parsing an insurance plan's fine print may not sound like the most enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. But the benefits of doing so can be enormous.
Carl Schmid is executive director of the HIV+Hepatitis Policy Institute.