Although the decision of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to allow attorneys general from 17 states and the District of Columbia to join the House v. Price cost-sharing reduction (CSR) litigation as parties complicates President Trump’s ability to simply stop the CSR payments, rumors continue that he is preparing to do so. The CSR payments are made monthly; the next installment is due on August 21, 2017. If the administration intends not to make the August payment, it must announce its decision soon.
Changes to qualified health plan (QHP) applications in the federally facilitated exchange (FFE) are due on August 16, 2017, as are final rates for single risk pool plans including QHPs. Final contracts with insurers for providing QHP coverage through the FFE must be signed by September 27. If the Trump administration is going to defund the CSRs, now is the time it will do it.
The back story on the CSR issue can be found in my post on July 31, while the intervention decision is analyzed in my post on August 1. This post focuses on issues that will need to be resolved going forward if the Trump administration decides to defund the CSRs.
The Choices Insurers Would Face If CSR Payments Were Ended
First, insurers would have to decide whether to continue to participate in the exchanges. Those in the FFE have a contractual right to drop participation for the rest of 2017, but how exactly they would do this would depend on state law, and would probably require 90 days notice. Insurers would also not be able to terminate the policies of individuals covered through the exchange, although once the insurers left the exchange premium tax credits would cease and many policyholders would drop coverage. Insurers that tried to leave immediately would likely suffer reputational damage, and those that could financially would likely try to hold on until the end of the year.
Some insurers might well decide that the government is an unreliable partner and give up on the exchanges for 2018. Indeed, some would conclude that the individual market is too risky to play in at all. The individual market makes up a small part of the business of large insurers; even though it has become more profitable in the recent past, some insurers might conclude that the premium increases that would be needed to make up for the loss of the CSRs would drive healthy enrollees out of the individual market. Rather than deal with a deteriorating risk pool, they might leave the individual market entirely (although they would probably have to give 180 days notice to do so.)
Insurers that decide to stay would have to charge rates that would allow them to survive without the $10 billion dollars the CSR payments would provide. They would need to raise premiums significantly to accomplish this. How they did so would depend on guidance that they got from their state department of insurance or possibly from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The California Experience
On August 1, 2017, Covered California announced its 2018 rates. The California state-based marketplace is an example of how the Affordable Care Act can work in a state that fully supports it and has a big enough market to form a balanced risk pool. For 2018, the average weighted rate increase in California is 12.5 percent, of which 2.8 percent is attributable to the end of the moratorium on the federal health insurance tax. Consumers can switch to plans that will limit their rate change to 3.3 percent in the same metal tier. All 11 health insurers in California are returning to the market for 2018 (although one insurer, Anthem, is leaving 16 of the 19 regions in which it participated for 2017) and 82 percent of consumers will be able to choose between three or more insurers. About 83 percent of hospitals in California participate in at least one plan.
Covered California instructed its insurers to file alternate rates that would go into effect if the Trump administration abandons the CSR payments. The insurers were instructed to load the extra cost onto their silver (70 percent actuarial value) plans, since the CSRs only apply to silver plans. The alternative rates filed by the insurers project that if the CSRs are not funded, they would have to essentially double their premium increases, hiking premiums by an additional 12.4 percent.
Virtually all of this increase would be absorbed by increased federal premium tax credits for those with incomes below 400 percent of the federal poverty level. As the premium of the benchmark second-lowest cost silver plan increased, so would the tax credits. A Covered California study concluded that the premium tax credit subsidy in California would increase by about a third if the CSR subsidies are defunded.
Bronze, gold, and platinum plan premiums would not be affected by the silver plan load. As the premium tax credits increased, many more enrollees might be able to get bronze plans for free, and gold plans would become competitive with silver plans in price. More people would likely be eligible for premium tax credits as people higher up the income scale found that premiums cost a higher percentage of their household income.
Consumers who are not eligible for premium tax credits would have to pay the full premium increase themselves. Covered California has suggested, however, that insurers load the premium increase only onto silver plans in the exchange, since CSRs are only available in the exchange. Insurers would likely encourage their enrollees who are in silver plans in the exchange to move to similar products off the exchange that are much more affordable. Bronze, gold, and platinum plans would cost more or less the same on or off the exchange.
Other States Would Likely Make Different Choices Than California’s
It is likely that not all states would follow California’s lead. If state departments of insurance do not allow insurers to increase their premiums, more insurers would leave the individual market. If state departments require insurers to load the CSR surcharge onto all metal-level plans, both on and off the exchange, bronze, gold, and platinum plans would be more expensive and individual insurance would become much more costly for all consumers who are not eligible for premium tax credits. If insurers leave the market or consumers drop coverage, more consumers would end up using care they cannot afford, increasing medical debt and the uncompensated care burden of providers, and of hospitals in particular.
Some insurers in other states have likely already loaded a substantial surcharge onto their 2018 premiums in anticipation of CSR defunding and of other problems, such as uncertainty about the Trump administration enforcing the individual mandate. If insurers in fact profit from excessive rates, consumers might eventually receive medical loss ratio rebates, but 2018 rebates would not be paid out until late in 2019, if the requirement is still on the books by then.
Other Ramifications Of Ending CSR Payments To Insurers
CSR defunding could have other effects as well. Insurers have been reimbursed each month for CSRs based on an estimation of what they are paying out to actually reduce cost sharing. Each year the insurers must reconcile the payments they have received with those they were actually due. Insurers were supposed to have filed their reconciliation data for 2016 by June 2, 2017, and were supposed to be paid any funds due them, or to refund overpayments, in August. Reconciliation payments may also be due in some situations for 2015. If the administration cuts off CSR payments, it could conceivably cut off reconciliation payments as well.
Finally, defunding of CSRs would likely have an effect on risk adjustment payments as well. The risk adjustment methodology has been set for 2018 in the 2018 payment rule. It would likely not be amended for 2018 in light of the CSR defunding. Defunding would increase the statewide average premium on which risk adjustment payments are based. This would generally exaggerate the effects that risk adjustment would otherwise have. In particular, insurers with heavy bronze plan enrollment would end up paying more in, while insurers with more gold or platinum plans might receive higher payments.
President Trump claims to see the CSR payments as a “bailout” to insurers, which surely they are not. They are a payment for services rendered, much like a Medicare payment to a Medicare Advantage plan. The effects of defunding would reverberate throughout out health care system, likely causing problems far beyond those identified in this post.
Fortunately, Senators Alexander (R-TN) and Murray (D-WA), the chair and ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, have announced that they will begin hearings on a bipartisan approach to health reform when the Senate returns in September, and funding of the CSR payments for at least a year seems to be at the top of their list. A bipartisan group of House members has also called for funding the CSRs. And pressure to fund the CSRs continues from the outside, with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners calling for it again last week. It is to be hoped that President Trump will not take steps that would sabotage the individual market and that a solution can quickly be found to the CSR issue that will bring stability to the market going forward.