How Did State-Run Health Insurance Marketplaces Fare in 2017?

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  • Issue: Sixteen states and the District of Columbia manage their own health insurance marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act. These states, which were broadly supportive of health reform, chose to run their marketplaces to exert greater control over their insurance markets and tailor the portals to suit local needs. Though federal policy changes and political uncertainty around the ACA in 2017 have posed challenges across the country, states that operate their own marketplaces had greater flexibility than others to respond.
  • Goal: To understand how states on the forefront of health reform perceived and responded to federal policy changes and political uncertainty in 2017.
  • Methods: Structured interviews with the leadership staff of 15 of the 17 state-run marketplaces.
  • Findings and Conclusions: Respondents unanimously suggested that federal administrative actions and repeal efforts have created confusion and uncertainty that have negatively affected their markets. The state-run marketplaces used their broader authority to reduce consumer confusion and promote stable insurer participation. However, their capacity to deal with federal uncertainty has limits and respondents stated that long-term stability requires a reliable federal partner.


The Affordable Care Act created health insurance marketplaces, also known as exchanges, in each state to help people who don’t have access to insurance through an employer or public program. The marketplaces act as a gateway to coverage for residents, providing a platform through which they can compare and purchase plans. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia are responsible for managing their own marketplaces; 34 states rely on the federal government to operate their exchange.

States that decided to manage their marketplaces wanted to retain control over their insurance markets and have the authority to tailor the portal to meet local needs.2 Compared with states using the federally run marketplace, nearly all these states have expanded their Medicaid programs and have been much more likely to adopt the ACA’s consumer protections into state law — potentially making it easier to enforce these reforms.3

Since President Trump’s election, the ACA and marketplaces have faced an uncertain future. The president has been openly hostile to the ACA and sought its repeal.4 At the same time, the administration has made regulatory and other implementation changes and reduced the funding that supports the marketplaces. These decisions have all affected how the law operates in practice and have had serious repercussions across the country.5 However, the impact has not been uniform. It has varied, in part, based on the choices state policymakers have made in implementing the ACA — including whether to run their own exchange.

We sought to understand how states that have been more actively engaged in reform have perceived federal policy changes and political uncertainty in 2017, and to explore whether these states were better able to promote stability within their markets. To do so, we interviewed the leadership staff of 15 of the 17 state-run marketplaces in September and October 2017.6 This brief explores key themes that emerged from those interviews. It identifies the major challenges facing the marketplaces as they went into the fifth open enrollment period, how states responded to those challenges, and the limits on states’ capacities to act.

Key Findings

Federal Actions Made It Harder for States to Manage Their Own Marketplaces

Marketplace respondents were unanimous in suggesting that actions taken by the Trump administration and ongoing efforts to repeal the ACA have created confusion and uncertainty that have negatively affected their markets. While these marketplaces had experienced ups and downs during their first three years of operation, many respondents were relatively optimistic in the fall of 2016 about future enrollment growth and stability in terms of plan participation and premiums — a view supported by independent analyses.7 But federal developments in 2017 made the challenges of the previous year “pale in comparison,” and respondents described a far more uncertain future.

Officials highlighted four federal-level developments during 2017 that jeopardized stability. First, respondents said that the administration’s repeated threats to end federal payments supporting the ACA’s cost-sharing reduction (CSR) plans caused protracted confusion and disruption and placed states in a “real jam.” These threats were eventually carried out, after months of uncertainty, in October 2017. But as deadlines for marketplace participation and rate setting for the upcoming year (2018) came and went with no clarity on whether the administration would continue to reimburse insurers for the cost of the CSR subsidies, marketplaces struggled to get insurers to commit to participate and to develop responses to the significantly higher premiums the insurers sought to offset the lost payments.8

Second, most respondents noted that actions taken by the administration to undermine the ACA’s individual mandate had the effect of undermining their marketplaces, as well. The requirement to maintain coverage, ultimately repealed on a prospective basis in December, was the law of the land throughout 2017 (and remains so in 2018). However, officials noted that an executive order, signed by the president on Inauguration Day, cast doubt on the enforcement of the mandate and caused insurers to be more cautious when setting rates.9 Many priced higher than they would have otherwise, fearing that a weakened mandate would lead to a sicker and more expensive risk pool.10 The president’s actions and words were also perceived to have caused widespread confusion among consumers about whether the requirement to maintain coverage was still the law.

In a related vein, officials repeatedly expressed frustration at “federal noise”: ongoing but thus far inconclusive discussions about repealing and replacing the ACA, and related rhetoric by administration officials and congressional allies asserting that the health law was “dead” or “collapsing.” Respondents said it was a challenge to ensure residents had accurate information. They reported many instances of consumer confusion about the marketplaces, the mandate, coverage options, and the status of the health law, in general.

Fourth, a majority of respondents predicted that the administration’s decision to reduce advertising spending for the federal marketplace by 90 percent would have negative side effects for the state-run exchanges. Officials in both big and small states explained that because the federal marketing campaign was national in scope and used television advertising — a medium too expensive for several state marketplaces — it was effective in reaching their residents and had complemented state messaging efforts in prior years. Several respondents also lamented the perceived political ramifications of the funding cut, suggesting that the administration’s action would cause enrollment through the federal exchange to diminish, putting the entire program at greater risk of repeal.


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