Yesterday, House Republicans released an amendment to the American Health Care Act (AHCA), their proposed repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections of its effects on coverage and the federal budget are not yet available.
The amended version of the AHCA is still likely to significantly increase the numbers of uninsured Americans, raise the cost of insurance for many of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, and, as originally proposed in the AHCA, cut and reconfigure the Medicaid program. The new amendment specifically allows states to weaken consumer protections by, for example, permitting insurers to charge people with preexisting conditions higher premiums.
What the Amendment Leaves in Place
The amended proposed bill does little to change many provisions of the original AHCA including:
- a phase out of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion;
- capped federal payments to states for their Medicaid programs;
- flat premium tax credits for individual market coverage that adjust for age but not income or premiums;
- the option for insurers to charge older people as much as five times what they charge young people;
- replacement of the ACA’s individual mandate penalties with a premium surcharge for those who fail to maintain continuous coverage;
- repeal of taxes that helped fund the ACA’s coverage provisions;
- state funding for reinsurance or other programs to stabilize the individual market.
The CBO estimated in March that the combined effects of these provisions would increase the number of people without health insurance by 24 million by 2026. Older Americans would be particularly hard hit by the bill, experiencing much higher premiums relative to the ACA and the greatest coverage losses.
What the Amendment Changes
The amendment offers states the option to apply for waivers to reduce ACA consumer protections that have enabled people with health problems to buy private health insurance. Beginning in 2019, states could waive the ban on charging people with preexisting conditions higher premiums, as long as states set up special programs to help people with conditions like cancer or heart disease who could no longer afford coverage. States could also change the ACA’s required minimum package of health benefits for health plans sold in the individual and small-group markets.
Despite the fact the federal ban on preexisting condition exclusions would remain under the AHCA, as Tim Jost points out, insurers could reach the same end by not covering services like chemotherapy that sick people need, or by charging very high premiums for individuals with expensive, preexisting problems. In addition, waiving the ACA’s essential benefit requirement could weaken other consumer protections like bans on lifetime and annual benefit limits and caps on out-of-pocket costs.
States that allowed higher premiums for people with health problems would be required to set up programs such as high-risk pools or reinsurance for high claims costs. Or under an AHCA amendment proposed earlier in the month, states could also participate in an “invisible risk-sharing” program, a hybrid between a high-risk pool and reinsurance for high claims costs. But while reinsurance options might protect insurers from high claims costs, giving them the ability to charge premiums based on health status would result in many people with preexisting conditions facing unaffordable premiums. As for high-risk pools, prior research has found that such pools operated by states before the ACA were expensive both for states and for people enrolled in them, and covered only a small fraction of the individuals who would have benefited.
States that had these programs in place could also let insurers charge premiums based on health for people who had not maintained continuous coverage in the prior year.
Setting aside the amended AHCA’s potential effects on the health and health care of Americans, many questions and uncertainties remain about the bill’s timing and fate. First, the rush to introduce and pass it quickly seems likely to run afoul of Congress’ need to pass a spending bill this week that will keep the federal government funded beyond April 28. So it could be weeks before an amended AHCA gets serious consideration in the House. An important benefit of delay would be to give the CBO time to analyze the impact of the amendments.
Second, the fate of the amended AHCA in the Senate remains uncertain. Some possible provisions – affecting essential health benefits, premium increases based on health, and other features – may not withstand scrutiny by the Senate parliamentarian as she evaluates whether they are appropriate parts of a budget reconciliation bill, and thus exempt from filibuster. Furthermore, many moderate Senate Republicans reportedly have concerns about the Medicaid provisions of the AHCA.
Third, the complex legislative maneuvering around the AHCA should not detract attention from the fundamental facts. Health insurance saves lives and protects Americans from crippling medical debt and even bankruptcy. Changes to existing legislation that result in fewer insured Americans will undermine the health and quality of life of millions of people, as well as increase economic inequality in this country.