Stop the robocalls!

Classic

Here’s something we didn’t know we were waiting for: Sen. Jon Tester is co-sponsoring a new bill aimed at stopping the constant flow of robocalls (26 billion last year) at the source, and you can tell your Senators what a great idea you think that is.

Imagine: No more “that number looks familiar, should I pick it up?” moments. Or calls that identify as your favorite charity, but are really trying to sell you a timeshare.

Tester’s bipartisan Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRACED Act) will soon be up for a full vote on the Senate floor.

As consumer advocates, we like this bill a lot. So we’re asking you to contact your senators and show your support for Tester’s bill. (It’s bipartisan — no one is going to yell at you!) If passed and implemented, we will finally be able to know that when a number comes up on Caller ID, it’s actually who the ID says it is. And that’s a plus for those of us on the other end.

The bill is S. 151, but they should know which bill it is. Thanks!

New consumer watchdog chief may make consumer complaints private

It’s official: Senate approves Kathy Kraninger to serve as next CFPB director

Guess she’s not interested in transparency for consumers:

Speaking to Reuters in her first interview since taking office in December, Kathy Kraninger said the agency was discussing how the public complaints database, a key source of the bureau’s investigations, should operate.

“It is on the agenda this year to address what is the public kind of discussion about what the database should be,” she said on Wednesday.

The financial industry and consumer advocates have been watching closely to see whether Kraninger would continue with a number of controversial projects begun by Mick Mulvaney, formerly the agency’s interim director and now President Donald Trump’s chief of staff.

Kraninger acknowledged the database, which went public in 2012 to boost transparency of consumer issues, supported the bureau’s mission to protect borrowers, but did not rule out making it private.

CIGNA capping monthly insulin costs

nurses duties

But it doesn’t really solve the problem. Via Vox,

But there are several catches here. In order for Cigna patients to participate, their employers will have to opt into the change in plan, Stat reported. And Cigna is just one of many insurance companies out there, covering less than 1 percent of the 23 million living with diabetes in America.

“Any measure that helps only a portion of the population through opaque deals between the players responsible for this crisis is not a solution,” Elizabeth Pfiester, the founder and executive director of the patient group T1International, told Vox. “We need long-term assurance that manufacturers will be held accountable and prices will be affordable — not another Band-Aid.”

Most patients with diabetes are still going to be vulnerable to the whims of drug company pricing, since companies can still set whatever prices they wish. And no drug is better for understanding how that happened than insulin.

Why we’re taking on the Big Pharma lobby

In case you’ve never heard me talk about it, CUFF is all about standing up for consumers.

The idea on which we’re founded is that consumers are financially squeezed, often unfairly. Most of us aren’t getting good raises, and all the services we depend on — prescription medicine, cable TV, cells phones, etc.— are constantly increasing in price. The reason that happens? It can be complicated, but we suspect the biggest reason is that consumers are conditioned to take it. And take it, we do.

We happen to believe reasonable pricing is the least we can expect.

That’s why our first official email campaign urges Congress to take immediate action to help diabetics get affordable insulin. (Do you know how crazy that sounds to people in other countries? That’s because it is. This makes my blood boil.)

If you haven’t already signed the petition, please do it now.

I know email campaigns can be really annoying and often seem pointless. But your support on this and other issues will now be digitally transmitted to members of Congress, and it will make a difference. And emails help activist organizations grow! You know those “tip” buttons? That’s how a lot of good work gets funded.

I’ve always planned for CUFF to be funded by small contributions, because I’ve seen how activist groups can be hemmed in by their big donors. (That’s why magazines like Mother Jones don’t run ads.) We want to be an independent voice, and your tips make it possible for us to plan for taking on big issues without fear of losing funding. This group is truly people-powered, so if you haven’t already, please sign our petition.

If you’ve already signed the petition, thank you! Please consider forward it to friends and family. We have this crazy idea that we can build a powerful consumer voice that we can use to make politicians listen — and that will be good news for us all.

The new price of Eli Lilly’s generic insulin, Humalog, is $137.35, and sold for $35 per vial in 2001

Isn’t this insane? Only if we put up with it!

This month, Eli Lilly and Co. announced with some fanfare that it was manufacturing a generic version of its own best-selling insulin brand, Humalog, which it would sell for half off — $137.35 versus about $275.

David Ricks, the chief executive of Lilly, said the company was making this seemingly beneficent gesture because “many patients are struggling to afford their insulin.”

But they’re struggling, in large part, because since 2001 Lilly has raised the price of a vial of Humalog to about $275, from $35. Other insulin makers have raised prices similarly.

In Germany, the list price of a vial of Humalog is about $55 — or $45 if you buy five at a time — and that includes some taxes and markup fees. Why not just reduce the price in the United States to address said suffering?

Instead, Lilly decided to come out with a new offering, a so-called authorized generic. This type of product is made by or under an agreement from the brand manufacturer. The medicines are exactly the same as the brand-name drug — often made in the same factory with the same equipment to the same formula. Only the name and the packaging are different.

PA’s attorney general filed suit against Verizon

Yet another reason to make sure you vote for pro-consumer attorneys general! Josh Shapiro stands up for the little guy:

That’s how Verizon began an email apologizing to customers after the Pennsylvania attorney general sued the communications giant for allegedly failing to deliver on marketing promises.

The email appears to be part of Verizon’s effort to make good on its promotional offers after Attorney General Josh Shapiro filed the lawsuit against the wireless company last week, claiming customers were unable to obtain promised Amazon Prime memberships and Echo devices.

“We’ve heard from some customers that they had trouble redeeming their Fios promotion,” Verizon wrote in an email on Feb. 14. “If you experienced any issues, we’re sorry about that. We want to let you know that your reward is ready and you’re just a few clicks away from redeeming.”

The cable scam

In other words, the business plan is to make the product worse for the people who actually use it. Via Ars Technica:

US cable Internet customers are using an average of 268.7GB per month, and 4.1 percent of households use at least 1TB, according to new research by the vendor OpenVault.

Households that use at least 1TB a month are at risk of paying overage fees because of the 1TB data caps imposed by Comcast and other ISPs. Terabyte users nearly doubled year over year, as just 2.1 percent of households hit the 1TB mark last year, according to OpenVault.

Cable Internet providers use OpenVault products to track “broadband data usage consumption levels for millions of subscribers,” the company says. This gives OpenVault visibility into how much data broadband customers use each month.

OpenVault found that households that face data caps use 8.5-percent less data than un-capped users, suggesting that cable customers limit their Internet usage when they face the prospect of overage fees. According to OpenVault, the caps can help cable companies avoid major network upgrades.

For cable Internet users, the need to limit usage to avoid overage fees isn’t a selling point. But for OpenVault’s cable industry customers, the ability to impose caps is a plus because it helps cable companies delay network upgrades.

Ads for short-term plans lacking ACA protections swamped consumer’s online searches

Consumers shopping for insurance online last fall — using search terms such as “Obamacare plans,” “ACA enroll” and “cheap health insurance” — were most often directed to websites that promote individual health plans that didn’t meet consumer protections of the Affordable Care Act, according to a new study.

They also failed to get adequate information about those plans’ limitations, according to the analysis by researchers at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms.

The study, provided to Kaiser Health News ahead of its publication online, probed online marketing practices in eight states.

“It was disturbing, but not unexpected, to find such a high proportion of misleading ads and come-ons,” said Sabrina Corlette, the lead author. “That raises the risk that consumers could be duped into buying health insurance that they think offers comprehensive and secure coverage, but does not.”

The study focused primarily on the marketing of short-term plans, which don’t have to meet most ACA provisions, such as the requirement to cover preexisting conditions. The researchers found that regardless of the search term used, companies promoting or selling only these kinds of plans dominated the results.

Insurance regulators from each of the states told Corlette’s team that tracking the marketing and sales of short-term plans is challenging, as is educating consumers about the risks of limited coverage.

Michael Conway, Colorado’s interim insurance commissioner, told Kaiser Health News in an interview that he has a “high level of concern” that the marketing tactics the study found could have drawn unsuspecting consumers into selections that do not meet their needs.

“We are on alert for complaints,” Conway said. “If we have to strengthen our regulations on marketing, we will.”

Eric Cioppa, Maine’s insurance superintendent, said in an interview that his office has no evidence that consumers unknowingly purchased short-term plans based on misleading online marketing.

“We’ll respond accordingly and aggressively if we find that took place,” Cioppa said.

But Corlette said the findings provide early evidence that after regulatory changes by the Trump administration, some insurers are aggressively marketing short-term plans as a replacement for traditional health insurance, without fully informing consumers of the limits of the skimpier coverage.

That could warrant stronger federal and state oversight, she said.

The study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, looked at online marketing in Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas and Virginia. Those states were selected to reflect diverse geography and regulatory approaches, according to the researchers. Of the eight, Colorado and Minnesota require short-term plans to adhere to a shorter contract duration than required by federal law.

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Changes In Short-Term Plan Rules 

The ACA bars insurers from denying coverage to people who have health problems or charging them higher premiums. The law also mandates a minimum set of health benefits and requires plans to cap enrollees’ out-of-pocket expenses.

By comparison, short-term plans can deny coverage to applicants who have a preexisting condition and often exclude or limit coverage of maternity care, mental health treatment and prescription drugs.

As a result, short-term plans cost significantly less — typically about half to a third of an ACA plan if the deductible is the same. They are sold outside the ACA exchanges. And people who buy them don’t qualify for the government’s premium subsidies.

These plans are not new. They predate the ACA and allow people to buy coverage between jobs, for example.

The Obama administration put a 90-day limit on such coverage in 2017 because of concerns that the less expensive plans would attract younger and healthier people. Losing such customers could undermine the stability of the ACA marketplaces because they would be left with older and sicker enrollees.

Beginning this year, however, the Trump administration lengthened the potential duration of short-term plans to 364 days and allowed customers to renew the plans.

Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services that oversees the ACA insurance exchanges, said those changes offer more affordable coverage that can be “a lifeline to people priced out of the ACA market.”

“These plans are different, and consumers do need to know what they are purchasing, which is why we now require more robust warnings about the limits of these plans than before,” she said. “Fundamentally, we believe in giving consumers more options and leaving it up to them to decide what is right for them and their families.”

The study evaluated online ads in the weeks just before and during the latest open enrollment for ACA coverage, which in most states began Nov. 1 and ended Dec. 15. The researchers analyzed 256 search results and 65 websites and interviewed state regulators in all eight states.

They found that Google searches were most often topped by paid “lead-generating” websites. Such sites don’t sell insurance but ask shoppers for contact and demographic information. Insurers and brokers can buy that information and contact prospective customers. Or, call centers affiliated with the lead-generating sites phone consumers and direct them to a seller.

The researchers also created a profile of a 29-year-old consumer seeking insurance who was in good health and with an income of $20,000 so she was eligible for premium subsidies for ACA-compliant coverage. They entered this consumer’s information into several lead-generating websites and fielded six phone pitches from brokers selling short-term and other non-ACA plans.

Among their findings:

During ACA open enrollment, only 19 percent of the searches using the common search terms yielded sites offering solely ACA-compliant plans. Before open enrollment, the return was less than 1 percent.
Lead-generating sites promoting short-term plans or other non-ACA compliant insurance products were the most common search result in every state, representing more than half of all search results before and during open enrollment.
The six brokers who encouraged the purchase of coverage over the phone provided minimal plan information. Most refused to provide written materials or discontinued the call when asked for such materials.
State officials lack full information about which insurers are marketing short-term plans to their residents, with one official calling it “one of our biggest blind spots.” Most said they plan to start monitoring the insurers’ practices more closely this year.

‘Necessary Niche’ 

An estimated 600,000 to 750,000 people bought short-term plans in 2017. The Trump administration projected last year that about 200,000 ACA customers would switch to this coverage in 2019 due to its rule change. A second government forecast predicted that the new policy would boost short-term coverage enrollment to about 2 million people by 2022.

Insurers who specialize in short-term plans vigorously defend them.

“This is a small and necessary niche in the [individual insurance] marketplace,” said Jeff Smedsrud, CEO of Pivot Health, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and one of the firms whose website the study analyzed. “If people need temporary coverage, we are there for them. We don’t want people who qualify for a government subsidy to buy our short-term plans. They should get coverage under the ACA.”

Shaun Greene, head of business operations at AgileHealthInsurance.com, said short-term plans offer a more affordable option to people who don’t qualify for a government subsidy under the ACA.

But Matthew Fiedler, a health insurance specialist at the Brookings Institution who was not affiliated with the study, said the longer-duration short-term plans may befuddle some customers. The study, he said, “strongly suggests that some consumers are going to be confused and end up with plans that cover less than they expected.”

We can’t understand consumer contracts — but they’re still binding

Read the entire piece from The Conversation:

We accept standard form contracts when using social media, booking flights, opening a bank account, subscribing to a gym or renting a car. In all these cases, companies offer pre-drafted standardised agreements that are not negotiable.

At the same time, consumers are legally assumed to read the terms and conditions of their contracts. Because of this “duty to read”, consumers are held responsible for the written terms of their agreements, regardless of whether they read them or not.

While consumers have the legal burden to read their contracts, companies do not have a general duty to offer readable ones. As our research shows, most of them are incomprehensible.