In a series of recent decisions, the Trump Administration is taking steps that will sharply raise insurance premiums for people aged 50 to 64, just before they become eligible for Medicare. While these steps are likely to make coverage less expensive for young, healthy consumers, they will inevitably raise costs for middle-aged people with chronic conditions. For many, insurance will become unaffordable. And that lack of coverage will eventually result in higher costs for Medicare.
Trump is taking three major steps that will affect the availability of Affordable Care Act health insurance for middle-aged consumers.
Repealing but not replacing
First, at the urging of the Trump Administration, Congress last year repealed the tax penalty that has to be paid by those without health insurance, effective for tax year 2019. The penalty is the ACA’s mechanism to push people to buy insurance. The logic: By broadening the pool of those with ACA insurance to include those less likely to incur significant medical costs, the individual mandate would keep premiums relatively low for everyone.
Then, early this month, the Trump Administration refused to defend the remaining provisions of the ACA in federal court. In the case Texas v. the federal Department of Health and Human Services, 20 red states argued that, absent the now-repealed individual mandate, the rest of the ACA will be unconstitutional. Thus, all its other provisions, including several important to those older consumers, also would be thrown out. They include premium limits for those 50-64, minimum benefit requirements, and the ban on insurance companies rejecting potential purchasers due to pre-existing conditions.
Prior to the ACA, in a practice known as age-rating, 60-year-olds could pay premiums that were 11 times higher than younger buyers. The ACA capped that ratio at 3:1. AARP estimates that bumping it up to 5:1 would raise annual premiums for a 60-year-old by more than $3,000, or 22%.
Similarly, allowing carriers to underwrite for pre-existing conditions would make insurance widely unavailable for people aged 50 to 64. AARP estimates that 25 million people, or 40% of those 50 to 64, have a condition that could disqualify them from non-group insurance.
The Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center estimates that tossing out the remaining provisions of the ACA would result in 17 million people losing commercial insurance and another 15 million losing Medicaid and children’s health care under the CHIP program.
By Urban colleagues project that even those remaining in the private individual insurance market “would likely have policies that cover fewer benefits and require more out-of-pocket spending for services.”
The Texas lawsuit, and the Administration’s refusal to defend the law in court, has generated an outpouring of opposition. It created a rare moment when consumer groups, hospitals, and doctors agreed on a health policy issue.
But the story doesn’t end there. This week, the Trump Administration took one more step towards dismantling the ACA in a way that will likely harm pre-Medicare consumers: The Department of Labor adopted new rules opening the door to low cost, low-benefit health plans. These will now be widely available to small businesses and, importantly, self-employed individuals.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 4 million people will buy these policies, sold by association health plans (AHPs). The consulting firm Avalere Health estimates that individual AHP premiums will be an average of $9,700 cheaper than ACA coverage, and that 1 million people will shift from marketplace plans to AHP policies. But it predicts premiums will rise by 3.5 percent for more comprehensive ACA insurance, largely because the remaining consumers will be older and sicker than AHP buyers.
President Trump promotes these plans as a less costly alternative to ACA coverage. This week he told the National Federation of Independent Business, “You’re going to save massive amounts of money and have much better health care. You’re going to save a fortune and you’re going to be able to give yourselves and your employees tremendous health care.”
Low cost, few benefits
But the plans do not include any minimum benefit requirements. Thus, they can exclude coverage for pregnancies, mental health issues, or drugs or hospital care. Carriers won’t be able to exclude buyers on the basis of pre-existing conditions but can adjust premiums based on age or sex. And, because they often exclude benefits important to those with chronic conditions, such as medications, they don’t need to underwrite: Those consumers simply won’t buy these policies.
Priced out of ACA coverage and uninterested in limited insurance that won’t cover their needs, it is easy to imagine many of those in their early 60s simply going without coverage (and care) until they become eligible for Medicare at age 65. That will not only put their health at risk, it will raise Medicare costs. Medicare spends about one-third more on medical care for those who join the program without having had insurance in the year before enrolling.
The result of all this: Trump is creating two separate individual health insurance markets, one for young and healthy people, and one for older and sick people. Some young people may buy low-cost policies that will serve them well—until they get sick. Many older people won’t buy insurance at all, risking their health and, very likely, raising costs to government.