The Affordable Care Act: Twelve Years and Nine Lives Later


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A new spring brings another anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. Twelve (sometimes tumultuous) years later, this remarkably resilient law is on firmer ground than ever before.

So what are some highlights?

The uninsured rate remained stable even in the face of a global pandemic. Congress leveraged parts of the ACA to quickly cover COVID-19 tests and vaccines without cost sharing.

The American Rescue Plan Act supercharged marketplace subsidies, leading to record-high marketplace enrollment.

And there are currently no existential legal threats to the law working their way through federal courts.

In some ways, this rosy report feels unremarkable. Why expect otherwise with the law now in place for more than a decade and baked into every part of the health care system?

But this outcome was far from inevitable.

Just five years ago, Congress tried to repeal as much of the law as possible. When those broader efforts failed, Congress eliminated the much-maligned individual mandate penalty. We appeared to have reached a stalemate: Democrats could not improve the law while Republicans could not repeal it.

Could this be the moment we moved on from ACA politics?!

Enter the courts. In early 2018, Republican attorneys general sued to invalidate the mandate and, with it, the rest of the law. That lawsuit—California v. Texas—was ultimately heard by a new Supreme Court one week after the 2020 election, and the ACA was upheld just last summer.

This marked the third time that the Supreme Court largely rebuffed what could have been a crippling legal challenge to the law. It feels like ancient history now, but it is worth remembering that we were still playing “will they or won’t they?” with the Supreme Court and ACA only one year ago.

In the meantime, the Trump administration tried to undermine access to coverage under the law—except when it didn’t. I won’t list all the relevant Trump-era policies, but they had an impact: the uninsured rate rose, and marketplace enrollment declined until the 2021 plan year.

Ironically, one policy meant to destabilize the market had the opposite effect: so-called “silver loading” led to more generous marketplace subsidies and likely helped stave off even greater coverage losses.

This is the recent history that is top of mind as I reflect on the year ahead—and the work left to do to achieve universal coverage. Here are just some of the major issues facing policymakers:

     • The clock is ticking to extend the American Rescue Plan Act subsidies. If Congress fails to do so, millions will face premium hikes next year and marketplace enrollment will likely drop.

     • More than 2 million low-income people remain stuck in the Medicaid coverage gap in the 12 states that have not yet expanded their Medicaid program.

     • Up to 15 million people, including nearly 6 million children, could lose Medicaid coverage at the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

     • There is increasingly an affordability and underinsurance crisis, including for those with job-based coverage: an estimated 87 million people were underinsured in 2018.

Congress and the White House are working to address these challenges, but much uncertainty remains.
“It feels like ancient history now, but it is worth remembering that we were still playing ‘will they or won’t they?’ with the Supreme Court and Affordable Care Act only one year ago.” – Katie Keith

Looking beyond Congress, 2022 will be an important year for regulatory changes. The Biden administration has proposed, but has not yet finalized, major marketplace changes. Other already-identified priorities include fixing the family glitch, limiting short-term limited duration insurance, and enhancing nondiscrimination protections. We could see movement on at least some of these rules soon.

While the Biden administration may be waiting out Congress before initiating some rulemaking, time is of the essence. New rules take many months to adopt and then take effect—followed by more time to deal with the legal challenges that typically follow.

Follow along as I dive deep on these issues and more in a new Health Affairs’ Health Reform newsletter.

We’ll highlight the latest health policy developments—from legislation to litigation—and explain what these changes mean for patients, payers, providers, and other key health care stakeholders.
It’s Your Birthday, Affordable Care Act!
In March 2020, Health Affairs published a theme issue to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. The issue contains many illuminating research articles on the landmark legislation, from its impact on “the cost curve” to Medicaid expansion.

Above is a datagraphic from the issue showing how the ACA affected insurance coverage.

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