ORLANDO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS)Despite recent, significant shifts in health care coverage thanks to the Affordable Care Act, many specialists are unaware of how patients pay for pricey prescriptions such as biologics.

One reason is that clinicians just haven’t been paying enough attention, according to Dr. Kim L. Isaacs, codirector of the multidiscipline treatment and research center for inflammatory bowel disease at the University of North Carolina.

“It gets complicated because we’re taking care of patients, so it’s hard to think about the financial end of things as well, and it lands on the patient’s lap,” Dr. Isaacs said in an interview after her presentation, “Navigating the Affordable Care Act,” at a conference on inflammatory bowel diseases sponsored by the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.

But not knowing how and if chronically ill patients can afford to pay for their medications can impact their compliance, and even their disease states.

Dr. Isaacs compared the histories of two patients. The first one purchased through the ACA’s health insurance marketplace provision, and regardless of her preexisting condition, she was able to receive and afford treatment for her Crohn’s disease for the first time in a decade. The second patient purchased ACA-sanctioned insurance but it still wasn’t enough to cover the costs of her care.

“She told me she had thought the Silver Plan would work for her, but that she still couldn’t afford her medications, and I was thinking, ‘What’s a Silver Plan?’ ” Dr. Isaacs said. “I didn’t have a clue.”

The discrepancy between the patients’ plans prompted Dr. Isaacs to investigate whether what she was prescribing was practical under her patients’ various levels of coverage. She discovered that under the ACA, the individual mandate requiring all Americans to purchase some form of health insurance means many have turned to a variety of state- and federally-sponsored health insurance marketplaces that offer coverage plans ranging from Bronze to Platinum.

“If you ask [most specialists] what the Gold Plan is, most of them won’t have heard of it, they don’t know,” she said.

But she said that physicians need to be aware of whether the drugs they are prescribing are on the formulary used by their patients’ respective plans since the different insurance providers that back the various plans often don’t cover the same medications.

In addition, the so-called “donut hole,” the annually adjusted gap in prescription drug coverage for Medicare patients, is not scheduled to close until 2020. While the gap exists, Medicare patients have a set amount of annual drug coverage after which the patient shares a substantial portion of the cost until the following year when the process begins again.

“For our IBD patients, this is very important because for some of our more expensive drugs, there may be a period of time [annually] when the drugs are not covered,” Dr. Isaacs said.

The same could be true for other specialties such as oncology, rheumatology, and neurology, where disease states require high-cost specialty drugs; however, some patient advocacy groups will assist patients in paying for their treatment, she said.

Patients who purchase their health plans through the government-sponsored insurance marketplaces are usually eligible for subsidies, depending on their income and where they fall in relation to the federally set poverty level, said Dr. Isaacs.

Another important, basic point, she added, is that providers need to ensure that they are on their patients’ chosen plans. “If you’re not, then you need to be sure there is someone else who is on the plan who can take care of your patient.”

Dr. Isaacs reported she has affiliations with AbbVie, Janssen, Millennium, Takeda, UCB, and others.

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