Q) How has the Affordable Care Act affected people living with multiple sclerosis—an Americans with Disabilities Act recognized disease?
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been a source of controversy since it became law in 2010. Perhaps some of the tension surrounding it stems from misunderstanding; however, it is clear that individual experiences and/or perceptions flavor the ongoing debate. Rather than perpetuate the contention, we’d simply like to outline some of the ways in which patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) have benefited from the ACA—and what we must do to ensure continued quality and affordability of care in the event of changes to the law.
Living with MS in the United States is costly. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, average annual costs—both direct and indirect (ie, lost wages)—are about $69,000. Health care costs account for more than half of this total (about $39,000). Total costs for all people in the US living with MS are estimated at $28 billion per year.1
In 2016, according to the US Census Bureau, almost 13% of Americans lived below the federal poverty level, and 6% of Americans reported “deep poverty”—defined as household income below 50% of the poverty threshold for that year.2 It has been reported that while at least 90% of people living with MS are insured, 70% are struggling to pay for health care. In fact, 30% put off seeking care because of costs; one consequence is delay in filling prescriptions.3
The burden of expense for our MS patients is considerable. Here’s how the ACA has impacted our patients by attempting to minimize the devastating cost.
Guaranteed Health Insurance Coverage for Pre-existing Conditions. When the ACA became law in March 2010, there were three main goals: making affordable health insurance available to more people, expanding the Medicaid program to cover all adults with income below 138% of the federal poverty level, and supporting innovative medical care delivery methods to lower the cost of health care.4
Following the ACA’s full implementation in 2014, private health insurance companies were prevented from refusing coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, such as MS. This was a game changer, since patients, regardless of their MS diagnosis, were now guaranteed individual insurance. Furthermore, they could not be charged increased premiums based on their prior medical history.5
Preventive Services Covered Without Cost-sharing. Under the ACA, health plans generally must provide preventive services, such as those rated A or B by the US Preventive Services Task Force. This includes routine immunizations for both adults and children, which represents a cost savings to patients living with MS. Another advantage is that women, including those living with MS, have access to sexually transmitted infection screenings, breastfeeding support and supplies, domestic violence screening, and contraceptives.6
Improved Coverage Through Medicare. The ACA mandated improvement in coverage with Medicare Part D benefits. In addition to the preventive care benefits noted above, which apply to Medicare recipients as well, the ACA reduced federal payments to Medicare Advantage plans over time and provided bonus payments to plans with high quality ratings.7
Further changes in Medicare spending included the creation of a 15-person, by-appointment board (known as the Independent Payment Advisory Board) tasked with identifying ways to “modify benefits, eligibility, premiums, or taxes,” which will hopefully continue to optimize the cost of care for patients living with MS and utilizing Medicare.7