- Issue: The United States has made historic progress on insurance coverage since the Affordable Care Act became law in 2010, with 20 million fewer people uninsured. However, we must also measure progress by assessing how well people who have insurance from all coverage sources are protected from high health care costs.
- Goals: To estimate the number and share of U.S. insured adults who are “underinsured” or have out-of-pocket costs and deductibles that are high relative to their incomes.
- Method: Analysis of the Commonwealth Fund Biennial Health Insurance Surveys, 2003–2016.
- Findings: As of late 2016, 28 percent of U.S. adults ages 19 to 64 who were insured all year were underinsured — or an estimated 41 million people. This is more than double the rate in 2003 when the measure was first introduced in the survey, and is up significantly from 23 percent, or 31 million people, in 2014. Rates climbed across most coverage sources, and, among privately insured, were highest among people with individual market coverage, most of whom have plans through the marketplaces. Half (52%) of underinsured adults reported problems with medical bills or debt and more than two of five (45%) reported not getting needed care because of cost.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has transformed the health insurance market, allowing Americans who lack job-based health benefits access to affordable health insurance options. The law’s coverage expansions and protections have reduced the number of uninsured adults by more than 20 million.
Congress intended for the ACA to do more than expand access to insurance; it aimed for the new coverage to allow people to get needed health care at an affordable cost. Accordingly, for marketplace plans, the law includes requirements toward that end: an essential health benefit package, cost-sharing reductions for lower- income families, and out-of-pocket cost limits.1For those covered by the law’s Medicaid expansion, there is little or no cost-sharing in most states.2
For people covered by employer-based insurance — which includes more than half of Americans under age 65, or more than 150 million people3 — plans were historically far more comprehensive and cost-protective than individual market coverage.4 However, over the past decade, premium cost pressures have led companies to share increasing amounts of health costs with workers, particularly in the form of higher deductibles.5 At the same time, income growth has been sluggish, leaving families increasingly pinched by health care costs.
In this issue brief, we focus on how well health insurance protects people from medical costs, using a measure of “underinsurance” from the Commonwealth Fund’s Biennial Health Insurance Survey to examine trends from 2003 to 2016. Adults in the survey are defined as underinsured if they had health insurance continuously for the preceding 12 months but still had out-of-pocket costs or deductibles that were high relative to their incomes (see Box). The survey was conducted between July 12 and November 20, 2016. We examined underinsured rates across all coverage sources, including private (employer and individual market) and public (Medicaid and Medicare). It is the first time in this survey series that we are able to estimate underinsurance in the ACA’s marketplace plans.
Who Is Underinsured?
In this analysis, we use a measure of underinsurance that takes into account an insured adult’s reported out-of-pocket costs over the course of a year, not including premiums, and his or her health plan deductible. The measure was first used in the Commonwealth Fund’s 2003 Biennial Health Insurance Survey. These actual expenditures and the potential risk of expenditures, as represented by the deductible, are then compared with household income. Specifically, a person who is insured all year is underinsured if:
- out-of-pocket costs, excluding premiums, over the prior 12 months are equal to 10 percent or more of household income; or
- out-of-pocket costs, excluding premiums, over the prior 12 months are equal to 5 percent or more of household income if income is under 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($23,760 for an individual and $48,600 for a family of four); or
- deductible is 5 percent or more of household income.
The out-of-pocket cost component of the measure is only triggered if a person uses his or her plan. The deductible component provides an indicator of the financial protection the plan offers and the risk of incurring costs before a person gets health care. The definition does not include people who are at risk of incurring high costs because of other design elements, such as exclusion of certain covered benefits and copayments. It therefore provides a conservative measure of underinsurance in the United States.
Conclusion and Policy Implications
Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, the nation has experienced gains in coverage, as well as improvements on key indicators of access and medical bill problems.15 These improvements reflect coverage gains — fewer people are exposed to the full cost of health care — as well as more comprehensive health plans with greater cost protection. This is especially true for low-income people covered by Medicaid and marketplace plans. But, as this analysis shows, the United States has not eliminated cost-related barriers to timely health care or protected people from medical debt. While these problems continue to be most apparent in the individual insurance market, they are increasing in the employer group market. Even public insurance programs like Medicare, which covers seniors and disabled people under age 65, leave many struggling to pay for health care.16
The latest Republican-led effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act would have significantly increased the cost of health care for many Americans. After that effort failed in September, the Trump administration took two major actions in October, which could also have the effect of increasing costs. The first was an executive order to federal agencies to write new regulations that would allow the sale of insurance products that skirt the ACA’s consumer protections and cost-sharing standards.17 In the second action, the administration ended the federal payments for the ACA’s cost-sharing reductions.18 At the other end of the political spectrum, Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced legislation that would phase out the ACA and eliminate most cost-sharing in a Medicare-for-All framework. Seeking middle ground, Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray held hearings on stabilizing the marketplaces in September, which included an appropriation for the cost-sharing reductions. To reduce the number of underinsured people in our health system, we also suggest the following policy options:
For people in individual market and marketplace plans
- Increase the cost coverage of health plans. The law’s cost-sharing reductions (CSRs) increase the actuarial value (the percentage of medical costs covered on average by a health plan) of the marketplace’s silver level plans from 70 percent to as high as 94 percent for people with incomes under 250 percent of poverty ($30,150 for an individual and $61,500 for a family of four). The Commonwealth Fund has found that these reductions have been effective in lowering deductibles for those eligible to levels in employer plans.19 To counteract the administration’s executive order, Congress can immediately reinstate the cost-sharing reduction payments by making an appropriation. Since the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has already assumed the cost of the CSRs in the federal budget baseline, the appropriation is a formality: it would not increase the federal deficit. To make health care more affordable for middle-class families, Congress could then consider extending the CSRs higher up the income distribution.
- Increase the number of services excluded from the deductible. Most plans sold in the individual market nationwide exclude certain services from the deductible, such as primary care visits and certain prescriptions.20 In 2016, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provided a standardized plan option for insurers that excluded eight services from the deductible at the silver and gold level. These include primary and specialty care visits, urgent care visits, mental health and substance-use disorder outpatient visits, and all prescription drugs. HHS or Congress could make these exceptions mandatory for all plans. Covered California, the California marketplace, requires all health plans sold in the marketplace to exclude all physician visits and outpatient services from the deductible.
- Simplify the metal tiers and increase premium tax credits. As an alternative to extending cost-sharing reductions to people above 250 percent of poverty, Congress could lower the number of metal tiers in the individual market from four to two at higher actuarial values. For example, insurers could be required to sell just gold and platinum plans, which have actuarial values of 87 percent and 94 percent and much lower deductibles and copayments than silver and bronze plans. Tax credits would adjust to reflect the plans’ higher premium costs. This avoids the circuitous route of covering insurers’ costs through the cost-sharing reductions. Premium tax credits could be increased and extended to people earning more than 400 percent of poverty.21
For people in employer plans
- Set a standard actuarial value for employer plans. Currently under the ACA, people in employer plans may become eligible for marketplace tax credits if the actuarial value of their plan is less than 60 percent. Congress could increase this level to 70 percent (the level of silver plans) or higher.
- Set standards for deductible exclusions in employer plans. Most employer plans exclude at least some services from their deductibles.22 Congress could set a minimum set of exclusions that could resemble the current standard plan option for the marketplaces.
Addressing the Key Driver of Insurance Costs: Health Care Cost Growth
Health care costs are the single largest factor in the growth of private insurance premiums in the United States. Insurers and employers have tried to manage premium growth by making consumers increasingly responsible through higher deductibles and other cost-sharing vehicles. Advocates of this approach argue that with more skin in the game, consumers will help to slow cost growth by choosing more-efficient providers and being more selective in the services they use. But years of experience with high-deductible health plans in the U.S. has yielded scant evidence that such a strategy is effective. Instead, as the survey findings indicate, many consumers have responded to higher deductibles by avoiding needed health care and skipping their medications.
Innovations under way in the delivery system, some of which stem from the ACA, have helped slow the rate of growth in health care costs in the past few years. But moving the nation closer to the performance of other countries on both cost and health outcomes will require considerably more work.23 While targeted consumer cost-sharing may help to reduce use of low-value health services, this approach is unlikely to be successful unless consumers are better informed on prices and the value of alternative approaches to their health care problems. Such information is largely unavailable. Evidence suggests that consumers cannot do the heavy lifting required to reduce the rate of growth in medical costs in the United States.