HEALTH

FSA lobbying group calls on Congress: Make saving healthcare dollars for working Americans attractive again

BY Michael Johnsen

WASHINGTON Save Flexible Spending Plans — a national grassroots advocacy organization sponsored by the Employers Council on Flexible Compensation — on Thursday called on the new leaders in Congress to follow through on their campaign promises and fix problems with the healthcare-reform law, including the removal of to-be-imposed restrictions on employer-provided flexible spending accounts.

 

The two restrictions that are part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act that are of greatest concern, according to SFSP, are the Jan. 1, 2011, requirement that over-the-counter medicines be prescribed in order to be eligible for reimbursement from a flexible spending account and the Jan. 1, 2013, cap on FSA contributions of $2,500 per year.

 

 

“It was never a good idea to fund health reform on the backs of hardworking Americans who use flexible spending accounts to manage and contain health costs,” stated Joe Jackson, chairman of Save Flexible Spending Plans and CEO of WageWorks, a benefits provider based in San Mateo, Calif. “To improve and fix the health-reform law, Congress should quickly repeal the requirement starting Jan. 1, 2011, that a doctor’s prescription is needed for consumers to use their flex accounts to purchase over-the-counter medications, including Claritin, Zyrtec and Tylenol. This provision will not only drive up healthcare costs, but it [also] is an utter waste of consumers’ and physicians’ limited time.”

 

 

In addition, SFSP recommended that Congress preserve the usefulness of FSAs by removing the “use it or lose it” provision and actually increasing the contribution cap.

 

 

Today, FSA participants are required to spend their entire annual election before the end of the calendar year — or, in some cases, an extension deadline — or those funds are forfeited and returned to their employers. This “use it or lose it” rule often discourages individuals from utilizing FSAs to save on their healthcare expenses for fear that they will lose any remaining balance. Additionally, this forfeiture rule is no longer necessary now that an FSA contribution cap is set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013.

 

 

Rather than forcing consumers to forfeit or spend unused money at the end of a plan year, Congress should revise the rule to allow participants each year to roll over up to $500 or cash out unused FSA funds. With participants paying taxes on those funds or rolling over dollars into the next year, either solution would generate additional revenue for the federal government, SFSP proposed.

 

 

The future cap on FSA contributions will force approximately 7 million Americans who use their FSAs to pay for out-of-pocket healthcare expenses that exceed the $2,500 limit to pay higher taxes and healthcare costs. Americans with the highest out-of-pocket healthcare costs — those with chronic conditions or children with special needs — will be hit the hardest by this restriction. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, individuals and families with chronic illnesses incur annual out-of-pocket expenses that average $4,398 per year, which significantly exceeds the proposed $2,500 cap.

 

 

Amore appropriate response is for Congress to set a cap at $5,000, SFSP suggested.

 

 

“FSAs are a lifeline for working Americans, often making the difference between staying afloat and going into debt over healthcare needs — and sometimes between getting necessary treatment and avoiding it altogether because of the cost. They enable participants to play an active role in managing their health care and should be preserved,” Jackson added.

 

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HEALTH

Report: Cessation programs fall by the wayside

BY Michael Johnsen

NEW YORK According to a recently published Dow Jones report, state-funded tobacco-prevention programs quickly are becoming the latest casualty of constricting state budgets, prompting concern among public health groups around the nation’s progress toward getting adult smokers to quit.

 

The number of adults who smoke has remained relatively steady since 2004 — 20.6% of the population were smokers in 2009.

 

 

According to the report, the $517 million allocated by states for tobacco prevention and cessation in fiscal-year 2011 is down 9.2% from $569 million a year earlier and 28% less than states spent in 2008.

 

 

“There’s a risk of a setback," said CDC director Thomas Frieden, according to Dow Jones. "The data are very clear. The more we invest in tobacco control, the fewer people smoke, and that prevents illness, disability, deaths and healthcare costs."

 

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AMCC, Walgreens drive awareness around expired medicines in the home

BY Michael Johnsen

DEERFIELD, Ill. Walgreens on Wednesday released a survey that found 2-in-5 American households have at least one bottle of expired over-the-counter medicine in their medicine cabinets. In addition, when consumers dispose of medication, more than 60% of those surveyed said they disposed of medications in the household garbage.

The most common OTC medications that shoppers had on hand include pain relievers, cough-cold treatments and allergy relief.

Walgreens’ research is timely, especially considering the amount of awareness presently being raised around those medicine cabinets and proper medicine disposal. This Saturday, Nov. 13, the American Medicine Chest Challenge — a public health initiative to raise awareness about the dangers of prescription drug abuse — will be held in thousands of communities. And while AMCC’s primary focus is the prevention of teenage abuse of those medicines found in mom and dad’s medicine cabinet, the challenge still will prompt many of those parents to poke around, and thereby discover those expired medicines.

The initiative is asking parents to take a five-step challenge — take stock of those medicines in the home; secure the medicine chest; take medicine only as prescribed or according to the drug facts label; dispose of unused, unwanted and expired medicine; and talk to their children around the dangers of medicine. Partnering with AMCC around the initiative are the American College of Emergency Physicians, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, the Partnership at DrugFree.org and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

In September, Walgreens launched the first ongoing, nationwide Safe Medication Disposal Program, a safe and environmentally responsible alternative way to dispose of unused or expired medications. For $2.99, customers can purchase a specially designed envelope available at any Walgreens pharmacy counter that allows them to place, seal and mail prescription or over-the-counter medications they no longer use for safe, eco-friendly disposal. Outside of the recent Walgreens solution, information on where to dispose of medicines can be found on AmericanMedicineChest.com.

The Walgreens survey also found that 55% of consumers suggested they knowingly would use those expired drugs, especially if the expiration date was within a few months passed. And though most parents more frequently tend to check expiration dates, more than one-third said they have given their children medication that had expired in the previous six months.

“With cough-cold and flu season now well under way, consumers should check for medications on hand, note expiration dates and replace commonly used medications as needed to make sure they’re prepared to immediately meet their family’s needs in the event of an illness,” stated Walgreens chief medical officer Cheryl Pegus. “Coming down with an illness and not having an OTC pain reliever or cough-cold medication readily available only makes the situation worse,” Pegus said. “To ensure that you have safe medications at home, you should check your medicines for expiration dates with each change of season.”

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