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This week, I answered a grab bag of questions about drug copay coupons and primary care coverage on the health insurance marketplace.

Q: My doctor wants me to take Repatha for my high cholesterol, but my Medicare drug plan copayment for it is $618 a month. Why can’t I use a $5 drug copay coupon from the manufacturer? If I had commercial insurance, I could. I’m on a fixed income. How is this fair?

The explanation may offer you little comfort. Under the federal anti-kickback law, it’s illegal for drug manufacturers to offer people any type of payment that might persuade them to purchase something that federal health care programs like Medicare and Medicaid might pay for. The coupons can lead to unnecessary Medicare spending by inducing beneficiaries to choose drugs that are expensive.

“The law was intended to prevent fraud, but in this case it also has the effect of prohibiting Part D enrollees from using manufacturer copay coupons … because using the coupon would be steering Medicare’s business toward a particular entity,” said Juliette Cubanski, associate director of the Program on Medicare Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

The coupons typically offer patients with commercial insurance a break on their copayment for brand-name drugs, often reducing their out-of-pocket costs to what they would pay for inexpensive generic drugs. The coupons help make expensive specialty drugs more affordable for patients. They can also increase demand for the drugmaker’s products. If patients choose to use the coupons to buy a higher-cost drug over a generic, the insurer’s cost is likely to be more than what it would otherwise pay.

In addition, consumers should note that the copay cards often have annual maximums that leave patients on the hook for the entire copayment after a certain number of months, said Dr. Joseph Ross, associate professor of medicine and public health at Yale University who has studied copay coupons.

The coupons may discourage patients from considering appropriate lower-cost alternatives, including generics, said Leslie Fried, a senior director at the National Council on Aging.

According to a 2013 analysis co-authored by Ross and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 62 percent of 374 drug coupons were for brand-name drugs for which there were lower-cost alternatives available.

Q: Last year, my marketplace plan covered five primary care visits at no charge before I paid down my $2,200 deductible. This year, it doesn’t cover any appointments before the deductible, and I had to pay $80 out-of-pocket when I went to the doctor. Is that typical now? It makes me think twice about going.

Under the Affordable Care Act, marketplace plans are required to cover many preventive services, including an annual checkup, without charging consumers anything out-of-pocket. Beyond that, many marketplace plans cover services such as some primary care visits or generic drugs before you reach your deductible.

The likelihood of having a plan that offers some cost sharing for primary care before you reach your deductible (rather than requiring you to pay 100 percent of the cost until you hit that amount) varies significantly depending on whether you’re in a bronze, silver or gold plan, according to a recent analysis by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In 2018, 77 percent of silver-level plans offered some cost sharing for primary care visits before enrollees had paid off their typical deductible of $3,800, the analysis found. In most cases, that means people owe a copayment or coinsurance charge for each visit until they reach their deductible. A small number of plans offered a limited number of no-cost or low-cost visits first, and then people using more services either had to pay the full charge for each visit or owed cost sharing until the deductible was met.

Bronze plans were much stingier in what they offered for primary care before people reached their deductible, which was $6,400 or higher in half of plans. Only 38 percent of bronze plans offered any primary care coverage before the deductible, and generally patients still had to pay a copayment or coinsurace. A smaller percentage of bronze plans offered limited visits at no cost or low cost before the deductible.

The share of people who chose bronze plans grew from 23 percent in 2017 to 29 percent this year, said Katherine Hempstead, a senior policy adviser at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. While premiums are typically significantly lower in bronze plans than other “metal”-level plans, it can be worthwhile to check out how plans handle primary care services before the deductible, she said.

Please visit khn.org/columnists to send comments or ideas for future topics for the Insuring Your Health column.

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