During the recent effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), some members of Congress and the Trump administration seemed to be experiencing a certain nostalgia for high-risk pools, which operated in 35 states before the ACA was enacted. At a CNN Town Hall Meeting in January, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan responded to a question about coverage for people with preexisting conditions by saying:
We believe that state high-risk pools are a smart way of guaranteeing coverage for people with preexisting conditions. We had a really good one in Wisconsin. Utah had a great one . . . . What I mean when I say this is, about 8 percent of all the people under 65 have that kind of preexisting condition . . . . So, by financing state high-risk pools to guarantee people get affordable coverage when they have a preexisting condition, what you’re doing is, you’re dramatically lowering the price of insurance for everybody else. So, if we say let’s just, as taxpayers—and I agree with this—finance the coverage for those 8 percent of Americans under 65 in a condition like yours, they don’t have to be covered or paid for by their small business or their insurer who is buying the rates for the rest of the people in their insured pool, and you’d dramatically lower the price for the other 92 percent of Americans.
As high-risk pools and other changes to the ACA continue to be debated, it is critical to deconstruct statements such as these and remind ourselves of how high-risk pools really worked and how unaffordable they were. It is important to remember that high rates of uninsurance and lack of affordability for all buyers in the individual market existed before the ACA, even in states with high-risk pools. In addition, policymakers seem to substantially underestimate the number of Americans with preexisting conditions who might be forced to purchase coverage through a high-risk pool if insurers are allowed to deny coverage in the marketplace.
The reality is that high-risk pool coverage was prohibitively expensive and there is little evidence to suggest that the existence of such pools made coverage less costly for others in the individual insurance market. Without substantially more federal funding than currently proposed, these facts are not likely to change. People with preexisting conditions may have “access” to coverage, but most will not be able to afford it and those who can will face limited benefits and extremely high deductibles and out-of-pocket payments.