Before private insurance market rules in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) took effect in 2014, health insurance sold in the individual market in most states was medically underwritten.1 That means insurers evaluated the health status, health history, and other risk factors of applicants to determine whether and under what terms to issue coverage. To what extent people with pre-existing health conditions are protected is likely to be a central issue in the debate over repealing and replacing the ACA.
This brief reviews medical underwriting practices by private insurers in the individual health insurance market prior to 2014, and estimates how many American adults could face difficulty obtaining private individual market insurance if the ACA were repealed or amended and such practices resumed. We examine data from two large government surveys: The National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), both of which can be used to estimate rates of various health conditions (NHIS at the national level and BRFSS at the state level). We consulted field underwriting manuals used in the individual market prior to passage of the ACA as a reference for commonly declinable conditions.
The Affordable Care Act guarantees access to health insurance in the individual market and ends other underwriting practices that left many people with pre-existing conditions uninsured or with limited coverage before the law. As discussions get underway to repeal and replace the ACA, this analysis quantifies the number of adults who would be at risk of being denied if they were to seek coverage in the individual market under pre-ACA rules. What types of protections are preserved for people with pre-existing conditions will be a key element in the debate over repealing and replacing the ACA.
We estimate that at least 52 million non-elderly adult Americans (27% of those under the age of 65) have a health condition that would leave them uninsurable under medical underwriting practices used in the vast majority of state individual markets prior to the ACA. Results vary from state-to-state, with rates ranging around 22 – 23% in some Northern and Western states to 33% or more in some southern states. Our estimates are conservative and do not account for a number of conditions that were often declinable (but for which data are not available), nor do our estimates account for declinable medications, declinable occupations, and conditions that could lead to other adverse underwriting practices (such as higher premiums or exclusions).
While most people with pre-existing conditions have employer or public coverage at any given time, many people seek individual market coverage at some point in their lives, such as when they are between jobs, retired, or self-employed.
There is bipartisan desire to protect people with pre-existing conditions, but the details of replacement plans have yet to be ironed out, and those details will shape how accessible insurance is for people when they have health conditions.