The Uninsured Rate Held Steady
Last year, Trump administration officials declared Obamacare “dead,” pulled enrollment ads offline, distributed social media videos critical of the law and sent signals that the law’s requirement to buy health insurance was no longer in effect.
But the number of Americans with health insurance stayed largely unchanged. The results of a big, government survey on health insurance status were published Tuesday, and they show that the uninsured rate remained basically flat at 9.1 percent in the first year of the Trump presidency.
The new statistics come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which monitors the number of Americans with and without health insurance every quarter. Some smaller private surveys, from Gallup and the Commonwealth Fund had shown the uninsured rate rising last year. But the C.D.C. research includes a larger sample size, and is generally regarded as a more definitive study. Tuesday’s study contains data from the entire calendar year of 2017.
Among states that expanded their Medicaid programs under the Affordable Care Act, the uninsured rate actually fell last year. Among states that didn’t expand, it rose a little.
Overall, Obamacare has substantially reduced the number of Americans without insurance. According to the report, 19.3 million fewer people were living without health insurance in 2017 compared with 2010, when the Affordable Care Act passed Congress.
New health insurance options aren’t the only thing that has changed since the passage of the Affordable Care Act. A strengthening economy has nudged more Americans into the work force, increasing people’s access to health insurance at work.
Obamacare has shown other signs of hardiness. This year, the Trump administration slashed the program’s advertising budget by 90 percent, and withdrew key subsidies from insurance companies, leading to premium increases for some customers. But every market had at least one insurer that continued to offer plans on the Obamacare marketplaces, and sign-ups dipped only slightly.
That does not mean that the insurance trends will hold forever. There are several reasons the uninsured rate may rise in the future:
In the face of rising premiums, it is likely that some who do not qualify for federal subsidies have dropped coverage this year.
Several states are trying to set up work or other “community engagement” requirements for some Medicaid beneficiaries. A few will impose such rules this year. States requesting such changes estimate they will result in a declining number of residents covered by Medicaid.
The Trump administration is working on regulations to allow more loosely regulated insurance plans into the market. These plans could prove appealing to some people who are currently uninsured. But they could cause prices to rise for insurance plans with all of the Obamacare consumer protections, prompting other people to drop their coverage. According to an estimate from the Urban Institute, about 2.6 million fewer people may have comprehensive coverage next year.
The tax penalty for people who decline to obtain insurance will disappear entirely next year. That change alone is likely to cause several million fewer Americans to have insurance. Early filings by insurance carriers suggest the change will cause another round of big price increases. And economists at the Congressional Budget Office estimate that the policy’s disappearance will also cause fewer people eligible for government help from even investigating such options.
The combination of those changes is likely to mean some backsliding. But last year’s data suggest that Obamacare’s policies have helped create options that are appealing to many Americans who would have gone without insurance in the years before its passage.