Controversy has emerged recently over federal payments to insurers under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) related to cost-sharing reductions for low-income enrollees in the ACA’s marketplaces.
The ACA requires insurers to offer plans with reduced patient cost-sharing (e.g., deductibles and copays) to marketplace enrollees with incomes 100-250% of the poverty level. The reduced cost-sharing is only available in silver-level plans, and the premiums are the same as standard silver plans.
To compensate for the added cost to insurers of the reduced cost-sharing, the federal governments makes payments directly to insurance companies. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the cost of these payments at $7 billion in fiscal year 2017, rising to $10 billion in 2018 and $16 billion by 2027.
The U.S. House of Representatives sued the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under the Obama Administration, challenging the legality of making the cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments without an explicit appropriation. A district court judge has ruled in favor of the House, but the ruling was appealed by the Secretary and the payments were permitted to continue pending the appeal. The case is currently in abeyance, with status reports required every three months, starting May 22, 2017.
If the CSR payments end – either through a court order or through a unilateral decision by the Trump Administration, assuming the payments are not explicitly authorized in an appropriation by Congress – insurers would face significant revenue shortfalls this year and next.
Many insurers might react to the end of subsidy payments by exiting the ACA marketplaces. If insurers choose to remain in the marketplaces, they would need to raise premiums to offset the loss of the payments.
We have previously estimated that insurers would need to raise silver premiums by about 19% on average to compensate for the loss of CSR payments. Our assumption is that insurers would only increase silver premiums (if allowed to do so by regulators), since those are the only plans where cost-sharing reductions are available. The premium increases would be higher in states that have not expanded Medicaid (and lower in states that have), since there are a large number of marketplace enrollees in those states with incomes 100-138% of poverty who qualify for the largest cost-sharing reductions.
There would be a significant amount of uncertainty for insurers in setting premiums to offset the cost of cost-sharing reductions. For example, they would need to anticipate what share of enrollees in silver plans would be receiving reduced cost-sharing and at what level. Under a worst case scenario – where only people eligible for sharing reductions enrolled in silver plans – the required premium increase would be higher than 19%, and many insurers might request bigger rate hikes.