Insurance 101 for Dialysis Social Workers

This blog post was made by Beth Witten, MSW, ACSW, LSCSW on July 2, 2020.
Insurance 101 for Dialysis Social Workers

U.S. health plan choices are complex, with many confusing rules. If staff who educate patients about their health insurance options do not know all the rules, they may provide information that does not meet a patient’s needs. When federal agency staff tell patients something that is not true, there may be recourse through “equitable relief.” However, if dialysis or transplant staff tell patients something that isn’t true, the patient could be harmed—in some cases for months or years—and may have little or no recourse. I hope this post will reduce the chance of sharing inaccurate information with patients

Who can get Medicare?

Most U.S. citizens who have kidney failure can get Medicare if they have enough work credits. A spouse or dependent child of a person with enough work credits can get Medicare too. Some patients may only need 6 credits; others will need more based on their age and when they had kidney failure.1 Those over age 62 need 40 credits. The Social Security Administration (SSA) staff can tell patients if they have enough work credits. Legal immigrants with work credits who have lived in the U.S. for 5 continuous years when they apply can get Medicare too.2

Who can get a Medicare Advantage plan?

While patients who have an MA plan when they start dialysis can keep it, those on dialysis who did not have an MA plan will not be able to buy most plans until 1/1/2021. A few special needs plans accept people on dialysis in a few areas of the U.S. At certain times of the year, dialysis patients can switch to another plan sold by the same company—and those who have a successful transplant can buy any MA plan.3

Who cannot get or use Medicare?

Patients who are not in the U.S. legally or who came legally to the U.S. less than 5 years before applying cannot get Medicare. Prisoners can apply for and have Medicare while in prison. However, Medicare is suspended while they are incarcerated, will not pay for care, and a prisoner must still pay the premium to keep it. The prison system—not Medicare—pays for a prisoner’s dialysis or transplant care. 4

When can Medicare start?

Medicare always starts on the first day of a month, after a 3-month qualifying period if a patient does standard in-center hemodialysis (HD). Medicare can start on the first day of the first month of dialysis when a patient starts training for peritoneal dialysis, home HD, or in-center self-care HD before the end of the qualifying period. When planning home training, be aware that the 3-month clock starts when the patient gets his/her first regular dialysis treatment—no matter where the dialysis occurs.5

Medicare can start on the first day of the month of transplant. It can start sooner if a patient is admitted to a hospital for pre-transplant testing, as long as the transplant occurs that month or within the next 2 months.6 This doesn’t happen often.

When does Medicare end?

Medicare ends 12 months after dialysis stops. Patients can only live that long without dialysis if their natural kidney function has improved. Medicare ends 36 months post-transplant unless the patient also has Medicare due to age or disability as well as ESRD.7

Who pays first when a patient has work-based group insurance?

Medicare can be the primary or secondary payer for dialysis and transplant. Medicare is the primary payer when a patient:

  • Has an individual health plan

  • Is 65+ and has a retiree plan that was paying secondary to Medicare prior to ESRD8

Medicare pays second when a patient:

  • Is covered by a group health plan as a current or former worker or dependent

Currently group health plans—including COBRA—pay first for 30 months under the Medicare secondary payer (MSP) rule. The MSP clock starts when the patient could get Medicare even if s/he doesn’t enroll. It is essential to keep track of when the 30-months will end, to make sure the patient applies for Medicare in time for it take effect when the group plan switches to secondary. This is even more important if the patient took Part A without Part B because s/he can only enroll in Medicare Part B during the general enrollment period of January through March, and Part B won’t take effect until July 1.

Medicare as the primary payer

  • Part A covers inpatient care for a limited time after a deductible. There are copays for days after 60. Part A covers 100% transplant surgery for the patient and living donor.

  • Part B covers outpatient care at 80% after the Part B deductible is met. This includes dialysis, doctors and more. It also covers anti-rejection drugs if the patient had Part A the month of transplant and has Part B.

Each year Original Medicare sets an “allowed” amount—called a “bundle of services”—for dialysis, which includes certain dialysis-related drugs and lab tests. Dialysis clinics can bill Medicare and other insurance more—but they agree to “accept assignment” of Medicare benefits, which means they will take 100% of what Medicare allows as full payment. So, the most a patient can owe for dialysis or anti-rejection drugs if s/he has Original Medicare alone is 20% after the annual Part B deductible is met. If a patient can get a Medigap plan with Original Medicare s/he will need to pay the 20% coinsurance.9

Medicare as a secondary payer

Until 1981, Medicare always paid first for dialysis. In 1981, Medicare started paying secondary to group plans. At that time, the Medicare secondary payer (MSP) period was 12 months. But the MSP period was extended to 18 months in 1993, then to 30 months in 1997.10 Dialysis companies regularly lobby for the MSP period to be extended farther, arguing that private plans are better for patients than Medicare.11 However, DaVita reports that 10.5% of its patients who have private plans made up 33% of its revenue—and says it loses $21 per treatment on Medicare-only patients.12

Medicare may pay nothing as a secondary payer. But when a provider accepts Medicare assignment and a primary payer pays at least 100% of Medicare’s allowed charge, the provider must write off any billed amount over that: it cannot balance-bill. The savings to a patient from that write-off can be more than the Part B premium.

Ask your patients to keep a log of dates, SSA personnel, and what they say when they speak to someone. The Social Security Administration (SSA) advises staff to tell those with group health plans to enroll in Part A and B together or wait to enroll in both when the 30-month MSP period ends.13 A patient who is not given this advice can request “equitable relief” to try to get Part B sooner.14 Or, patients who are not getting cash benefits and whose Part A paid no claims to pay back may be able to ask SSA to withdraw their Medicare Part A application and enroll them in Parts A and B at the same time.15

What are pros and cons of Medicare Advantage plans?

MA plans may cover things Original Medicare doesn’t cover, such as some vision, dental, and even some rides. However, patients need to understand trade-offs.

  • They could get large surprise bills unless they always get in-network services. For example, out-of-network doctors may work at in-network hospitals. In-network dialysis clinics may not offer all dialysis options. Transplant hospitals may be limited.

  • They can pay more if dialysis, labs, and drugs are not bundled in an MA plan like they must be in Original Medicare.

  • Out-of-pocket costs in MA plans can be as much as $6700 a year for Part A and B costs. This does not include any MA plan premiums or Part D drugs. Medigap plans don’t work with MA plans and some state programs that help pay for drugs will not help those with MA plans.

Medicare Savings Programs

When a patient with low-income and assets has Medicare, s/he may be able to get help to pay Medicare premiums and/or out-of-pocket costs with a Medicare savings program.

  • The Qualified Medicare Beneficiary (QMB) program pays Part A and B premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

  • The Specified Low-Income Medicare Beneficiary (SLMB) and Qualified Individual (QI) programs both pay Part B premiums only.

Patients in one of these programs get “extra help” to pay Part D premiums and drug costs (see Part D below). Patients apply through their Medicaid agency.16

Medigap plans

Medigap plans work only with Original Medicare. Those who turn 65 can buy a Medigap plan during the first 6 months they have Part B without a waiting period. A Medigap plan helps to pay Medicare’s out-of-pocket costs.17 More than half of states require companies that sell Medigap plans for to those 65 and older to sell at least one plan to those with Medicare and ESRD who are under 65.18

Medicare Part D19

Insurance companies sell Medicare Part D plans. Patients with Medicare A and/or B who do not have drug coverage that is as good as Part D should apply for a Part D plan right away—or may face a premium penalty of 1% per month added to the national base Part D premium, which continues indefinitely. Those with low-income and assets can apply to get extra help through SSA to pay premiums and drug costs.20 Some drugs are included in Original Medicare’s payment for dialysis and must be provided by dialysis clinics.21


People who work for companies with 20+ employees may be eligible for COBRA if they have certain changes in their status, such as termination from the job (unless it was for gross misconduct) or a reduction in hours. A spouse or dependent child may be eligible for COBRA if the worker dies, there is a legal separation or divorce, or an employee gets Medicare. Some states offer continuation of coverage for those working in smaller companies. COBRA pays primary for 30 months of Medicare eligibility, just like other group health plans.

COBRA coverage for the eligible worker continues for 18 months and can be extended for another 11 months if a worker is disabled. A spouse or dependent child can keep COBRA for 36 months. COBRA premiums are costly because the employer pays nothing. An administrative fee can also be added to the premium, and if the worker wants the extra 11 months of COBRA coverage (total 29 months), the premium during that 11 months is 50% higher.

Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California)

Some state Medicaid programs are fee-for-service, while others are managed care, requiring patients to use certain providers. Medicaid covers dialysis, covered drugs, non-emergency medical transportation, and more. Financial guidelines vary from state-to-state.23 Many states let those the “medically needy” who have high healthcare costs use those bills to meet a spend down. Once spend down is met, Medicaid will pay bills for covered services that were not used to meet the spend down.24 Some states let working people pay a premium for Medicaid.25

As of June 2020, all but 14 states have expanded Medicaid to cover residents who are U.S. citizens. In most expansion states, income can be up to 138% of federal poverty. Some states allow higher income.26 What the state covers under expanded Medicaid may be different from under regular Medicaid and some states require people who get expanded Medicaid to work.

Qualified Health Plans (QHPs) under the Affordable Care Act (ACA)27

Patients may start dialysis with an ACA plan. The plan they have will be labeled with a “metal” levels. In general, plans with the lowest premiums have the highest out-of-pocket costs and vice versa.

  • Bronze – 60% of costs

  • Silver – 70% of costs

  • Gold – 80% of costs

  • Platinum – 90% of costs

Patients who meet financial guidelines can get subsidies to help pay out-of-pocket costs—if they choose a Silver plan. Those whose income is 400% of federal poverty or less can get a premium tax credit to reduce the monthly premium or a refund when taxes are filed. The premium tax credit works for any plan.28

Patients can enroll in Medicare when they have a QHP. If a patient’s QHP is through a job, (called “SHOP”), it pays 1st before Medicare for 30 months like any other job-based plan. Medicare does not coordinate benefits with an individual QHPs. Any help patients were getting before for out-of-pocket costs and premiums will end once they enroll in Medicare Part A. If a patient with a QHP can get Medicare but does not choose to enroll, s/he will pay a higher premium for Part B later.29

1 Social Security Administration Program Operations Manual System. R-HI Insured Status.

2 Social Security Administration Program Operations Manual System. Residence and Citizenship/Alien Status Requirements.

3 What if I have End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD).

4 Social Security Administration Program Operations Manual System. Illustrations.

5 Social Security Administration Program Operations Manual System. Date of Entitlement – Dialysis.

6 Social Security Administration Program Operations Manual System. Date of Entitlement – Transplant.

7 Social Security Administration Program Operations Manual System. Termination of R-HI.

8 Retiree Insurance.

9 How to compare Medigap policies.

10 Social Security Administration Program Operations Manual System. Medicare as Secondary Payer for ESRD Benefits.

11 Witten B. Pro: Dialysis Patients Dodged a Bullet When Medicare Secondary Payer was NOT Extended.

12 Hackethal M. Company charges private insurance quadruple. Medscape Med News. 2019.

13 Ibid. Social Security Administration Program Operations Manual System. Medicare as Secondary Payer for ESRD Benefits.

14 Social Security Administration Program Operations Manual System. Conditions for Providing Equitable Relief.

15 Social Security Administration Program Operations Manual System. Withdrawal of Application.

16 Medicare. Medicare Savings Programs.

17 Medicare. What’s Medicare Supplement Insurance (Medigap).

18 Medicare. When Can I Buy Medigap? See I'm under 65 and am eligible for Medicare because of a disability or End-Stage Renal Disease (ESRD).

19 Drug Coverage (Part D).

20 Social Security. Extra Help with Medicare Prescription Drug Plan Costs.

21 Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. CY 2020 ESRD PPS Consolidated Billing List.

22 United States Department of Labor. An Employee’s Guide to Health Benefits Under COBRA.

23 State Overviews.

24 National Council on Aging. Medicaid Spend-down/Medically Needy Program.

25 National Council on Aging. Medicaid Buy-in for Workers with Disabilities.

26 Kaiser Family Foundation. Status of State Action on Medicaid Expansion Decision.

27 Qualified Health Plan.

28 How to pick a health insurance plan. The ‘metal’ categories: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum.

29 Medicare and the Marketplace. (see the latest FAQs)


  • Beth Witten

    Jul 15, 2020 8:12 PM

    Thanks for your positive comment. I'm glad that you like the article. I have written an article on Social Security disability and SSA work incentive programs that help people on home dialysis who get SSI or SSDI return to work. You can find it here:
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  • Jenn

    Jul 15, 2020 4:00 PM

    This was a fantastic article....can we get something similar in regards to social security disability?
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