ACA plan enrollment for 2021 ticked up slightly

Healthcare.gov (ACA) 2021 Enrollment Information | Congressman Steve Cohen

Dive Brief:

  • Consumers choosing insurance via the federal Affordable Care Act exchanges reached 8.25 million over the 2021 open enrollment period, about the same number as the year before, CMS said Wednesday.
  • Because two fewer states are participating in the federal marketplace this year, adjusted year-over-year growth in plan selections was 7%, the agency said.
  • Of the total, 23% of consumers were new, down by 3.6%Renewing consumers who actively chose a new plan and those who were automatically re-enrolled both increased.

Dive Insight:

The figures are the last from the Trump administration, which has drastically reduced money toward navigators who help people use the Healthcare.gov website and find the best ACA plan for them. The administration has made no secret of its opposition to the law and after failing to overturn it in Congress has used executive actions to undermine it.

Still looming is the Trump administration’s lawsuit seeking to overturn the landmark law.

President-Elect Joe Biden and his pick for HHS chief, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, however, are eager supporters and are likely to take a number of actions to restore and burnish it. That could be increasing tax credits and subsidies, increasing navigator funding and building on protections like essential health benefits.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to make its ruling on the ACA case later this spring or summer, but the Biden administration could essentially make it moot by walking back the zeroing out of the individual mandate penalty that is the linchpin of the lawsuit against it.

The relatively steady enrollment could be increased through those actions and the possibility of a special enrollment period to account for needs during the coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis and the recession it has caused have kicked millions of people off their employer-sponsored insurance, and they could turn to the exchanges for coverage, especially with higher tax credits and subsidies.

New unemployment claims jump to nearly 1 million, the highest level since August

Unemployment rate remains at 6.7%, employers cut 140,000 jobs last month -  ABC News

The number of new unemployment claims filed last week jumped by 181,000 the week before to 965,000, the largest increase since the beginning of the pandemic.

It was the largest number of new unemployment claims since August.

An additional 284,000 claims were filed for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the insurance for gig and self-employed workers.

The weekly report is President Trump’s last before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20. Biden will inherit a labor market badly weakened by the coronavirus pandemic and an economic recovery that appears to have stalled: 140,000 people lost their jobs in December, the first decline in months, with the U.S. still down millions of jobs since February.

The dire numbers will serve as a backdrop for Biden as he formally unveils an ambitious stimulus package proposal on Thursday, which could top $1 trillion, and is expected include an expansion of the child tax credit, a $2,000 stimulus payment, and other assistance for the economy.

Democrats were already using the weak labor to argue about the necessity of more aid.

Economists say that the economy’s struggles could be explained, in part, by the delay Congress allowed between the summer, when many fiscal aid programs expired and December, when lawmakers finally agreed on a new package after months of stalemate.

The number of new jobless claims has come down since the earliest days of the pandemic, but remains at a extremely high level week in and week out.

The total number of continuing people in any of the unemployment programs at the end of the year was 18.4 million, although officials have cautioned that the number is inflated by accounting issues and duplicate claims.

The increase in claims is not entirely unexpected. As the aid package passed by Congress in December kicks in, including a $300 a week unemployment supplement, some economists expected that to result in more workers filing claims.

Economy loses 140K jobs in December, first losses since April

https://thehill.com/policy/finance/533242-december-jobs-report

57% of Unemployed Americans Blame COVID-19 for Job Loss - New Jersey  Business Magazine

The economy lost 140,000 jobs in December, the first reported losses since April, as the unemployment rate remained steady at 6.7 percent.

Economists expected a small jobs gain of nearly 50,000. The drop is the latest sign of a weakening economy amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. All in all, the economy remains about 10 million jobs below its pre-pandemic levels.

“There’s not much comfort to be taken from the stable unemployment rate, given that millions of Americans have left the labor force with nearly 11 million listed as officially out of work,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com.

“Between the human and economic tolls taken by the pandemic, these are some of the darkest hours of this soon-to-be yearlong tragedy.”

The biggest losses were concentrated in leisure and hospitality, a sector particularly vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, which lost an astonishing 498,000 jobs.

State and local government payrolls shed 51,000 jobs. Congress deferred passing state and local aid in its latest COVID-19 relief bill.

But the overall loss would have been worse had it not been for gains in professional and business services, which added 161,000 jobs; retail trade, which added 120,500 jobs; and construction, which added 51,000.

Some demographic groups have been hit harder by the economic downturn.

The unemployment rate for Hispanics rose to 9.3 percent in December, while Black unemployment remained elevated at 9.9 percent. The rate for whites was 6 percent, and for Asians it was 5.9 percent.

Over a third of jobless people have been unemployed for over 27 weeks.

3 health care policy predictions now that Democrats have won control of the Senate

https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/22216716/georgia-senate-election-results-obamacare-vote

Health Care Reform - American Academy of Nursing Main Site

How Democratic wins in Georgia affect the odds on 3 health care policy proposals.

Democrats have won control of the Senate, and suddenly the possibilities for health care policy look a little wider than they did before the Georgia runoff elections.

Their Senate majority will be slim as can be, and their margin for error in the House is also quite small. So it’s not going to be easy to get anything done. But it seems likely that the Biden White House and a Democratic Congress will try to pass legislation to expand health coverage.

Regarding what Democrats’ health care agenda would look like if the party enjoyed full control of Congress and the White House, a senior party official told reporters this fall: “If we don’t take full advantage of this moment, we’ll be making a huge mistake.”

The question is how big they will go. A lengthy health care section will likely be part of any new Covid-19 relief and recovery bill. But will that be the end of it, or do Democrats want to try to pass another health care plan through budget reconciliation? Given Senate rules, that process is probably their best chance of passing a major bill.

Taking a cue from my Future Perfect colleagues and their 21 predictions for 2021, I thought I would lay out some of my expectations for the coming two years of health policy. These projections are based on my own reporting, but they are not meant to be definitive — and nothing is 100 percent guaranteed. It’s more like a list of issues I’ll be watching.

Democrats will expand eligibility for Obamacare subsidies: 85 percent chance

Democrats could attempt to take two bites at the health care apple: first as part of a Covid-19 relief bill, and second in a budget reconciliation package that can pass with a bare majority. I think there is a very strong chance both attempts would end up with provisions expanding eligibility for insurance tax subsidies.

The $2.4 trillion HEROES Act passed by the House, a likely starting point for Covid-19 negotiations between the House and the Senate, would have made anybody currently on unemployment insurance eligible for premium tax credits. That would help people who have lost their employer-sponsored coverage afford a new health care plan. A provision like that is likely to become part of whatever Covid-19 bill Congress comes up with.

A reconciliation bill could make that change permanent and universal. Back in spring 2020, Senate Democrats released a list of their health care priorities in response in response to Covid-19. At the top was a plan to raise the current cutoff for Obamacare subsidies, which stands at 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

Under current law, anybody with an annual income above that threshold, which is about $51,000 for an individual or $87,000 for a family of three, is ineligible for any assistance. Democrats have introduced plans to expand eligibility, either by doubling the income cap to 800 percent of the federal poverty level (like in this bill from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen) or by eliminating it entirely so that nobody pays more than a fixed percentage of their income on health insurance (as President-elect Joe Biden proposed). Democrats could also try to make low-income people in states that have not expanded Medicaid eligible for tax credits to buy private coverage.

The people squeezed under Obamacare have been the ones ineligible for the law’s financial aid. Expanding eligibility could insure up to 4 million people, and it seems like the bare minimum Democrats would want to do on health care with their new power.

The public option won’t be part of a Democratic health care bill: 75 percent chance

Much like the 2009 debate over Obamacare, a new government insurance plan would probably be the most hotly debated proposal if Democrats try to approve a major health care bill. Biden embraced the public option in his campaign, but passing it won’t be easy — in fact, I think it’s more likely than not that it doesn’t happen.

One problem for a public option is budget reconciliation. Unless Democrats are willing to eliminate the 60-vote legislative filibuster, they’ll have to use this special procedural tool in order to pass a bill with just 51 votes.

But budget reconciliation comes with limits on what provisions can be included, narrowly targeted to federal spending, and creating this new program may not qualify. Capital Alpha, a health care policy analysis group, thinks there is “virtually zero chance” a public option like that proposed by Biden during his campaign would be enacted because it likely doesn’t satisfy the reconciliation rules.

Progressives will push Democratic leadership to be as aggressive in pursuing a public option as possible, including in how they handle those procedural limits. But the moderate Senate Democrats who will ultimately dictate what the final package will look like have sounded ambivalent about the public option, and Democrats are wary of the party getting dragged into a messy health care fight.

Support for a public option would be substantial — about 70 percent of Americans say they’re for it, polls show — but so would the opposition. The health care industry will surely mobilize against the plan if Democrats look serious about pursuing it.

I suspect that, either because the moderates rule it out from the start or Democratic leaders balk at a drawn-out health care debate, politics will take the policy off the table.

Democrats will approve Medicare negotiations for prescription drugs: 55 percent chance

Democrats have campaigned for several election cycles now on a promise to give Medicare more power to negotiate drug prices with pharma companies. This promise was a part of the drug pricing bill that House Democrats passed in the last Congress, a plan that was estimated to cut federal spending by $456 billion over 10 years.

Savings are the reason the policy could be handy for Democrats in crafting a budget reconciliation plan. Democrats will need to include provisions that save the government money to help pay for the new provisions that cost money, like expanding eligibility for tax subsidies.

“We have long believed that pharma faces the greatest risk of drug pricing reforms in conjunction with Democrats’ efforts to expand coverage,” Capital Alpha wrote in a recent analysis.

Those twin incentives — delivering on a campaign promise and finding offsets — could help overcome what would surely be fierce industry opposition.

But the politics of drug pricing have shifted during the Covid-19 pandemic, which is why I think there’s only a slightly better than even chance that Congress will approve Medicare negotiations. Pharma has delivered the Covid-19 vaccines in record time, improving the industry’s relationship with the public in the process. This, in turn, has lowered expectations among the experts for how aggressive Democrats will be on drug prices.

“I think now you don’t have all those stories about insulin and EpiPen, plus you have positive stories about vaccines and other drugs,” Walid Gellad, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing at the University of Pittsburgh, told me in December. “You don’t have as fertile an environment for more extreme drug measures.”

Thus, my feeling that the odds for Medicare negotiations are closer to 50/50.

Unemployment claims rose sharply last week as economic crisis grinds on

U.S. Unemployment Claims Rise Amid Coronavirus Surge - WSJ

Applications for jobless benefits resumed their upward march last week as the worsening pandemic continued to take a toll on the economy.

More than 947,000 workers filed new claims for state unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department said Thursday. That was up nearly 229,000 from the week before, reversing a one-week dip that many economists attributed to the Thanksgiving holiday. Applications have now risen three times in the last four weeks, and are up nearly a quarter-million since the first week of November.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, the week’s figure was 853,000, an increase of 137,000.

Nearly 428,000 applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program that covers freelancers, self-employed workers and others who don’t qualify for regular state benefits.

Unemployment filings have fallen greatly since last spring, when as many as six million people a week applied for state benefits. But progress had stalled even before the recent increases, and with Covid-19 cases soaring and states reimposing restrictions on consumers and businesses, economists fear that layoffs could surge again.

“It’s very clear the third wave of the pandemic is causing businesses to have to lay people off and consumers to cut back spending,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist for the career site Glassdoor. “It seems like we’re in for a rough winter economically.”

Jobless claims rose in nearly every state last week. In California, where the state has imposed strict new limits on many businesses, applications jumped by 47,000, more than reversing the state’s Thanksgiving-week decline.

The monthly jobs report released on Friday showed that hiring slowed sharply in early November and that some of the sectors most exposed to the pandemic, like restaurants and retailers, cut jobs for the first time since the spring. More up-to-date data from private sources suggests that the slowdown has continued or deepened since the November survey was conducted.

Every month, we’re just seeing the pace of the recovery get slower and slower,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist with the job site Indeed. Now, she said, the question is, “Are we actually going to see it slide backward?”

Many economists say the recovery will continue to slow if the government does not provide more aid to households and businesses. After months of gridlock in Washington, prospects for a new round of federal help have grown in recent days, with congressional leaders from both parties signaling their openness to a compromise and the White House proposing its own $916 billion spending plan on Tuesday. But the two sides remain far apart on key issues.

The stakes are particularly high for jobless workers depending on federal programs that have expanded and extended unemployment benefits during the pandemic. Those programs expire later this month, potentially leaving millions of families with no income during what epidemiologists warn could be some of the pandemic’s worst months.

Biden chooses Xavier Becerra to lead HHS

National

President-elect Joe Biden has chosen California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to be the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Biden transition team announced this morning and the New York Times first reported last night.

Why it matters: If confirmed, Becerra would be the first Latino to lead the department. He’s also been at the forefront of health care legal battles, most prominently over the future of the Affordable Care Act.

  • Becerra has led the effort by a group of 20 states and the District of Columbia in defending the ACA against a GOP lawsuit aiming to strike down the law. The case was argued in front of the Supreme Court last month.
  • Biden plans to announce several other top health care advisors, people familiar with the rollout told NYT.

Between the lines: Whoever leads HHS will immediately be in charge of addressing what will likely still be an out-of-control pandemic, including the government’s efforts to distribute coronavirus vaccines.

  • The virus has disproportionately affected people of color, and Becerra’s selection follows increasing pressure on Biden from the Latino community and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to diversity his cabinet, per NYT.
  • On the other hand, Becerra has little experience managing a large bureaucracy or in public health, per Politico.

The big picture: If a global pandemic and the future of the ACA weren’t enough, the HHS secretary could end up in charge of executing most of Biden’s health agenda, particularly if the Senate remains in Republican hands.

  • Becerra’s legal background could prove useful in enacting a lawsuit-proof regulatory agenda.

BonusBiden has selected Rochelle Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School, to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Politico reported last night.

November jobs report: US economy adds 245,000 jobs, unemployment rate falls to 6.7%

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/november-2020-jobs-report-labor-market-coronavirus-pandemic-unemployment-183714326.html

The 245,000 new jobs added last month is smallest since U.S. recovery began  in May - MarketWatch

The U.S. economy added back the smallest number of jobs in seven months in November, as the labor market endured mounting pressure from the coronavirus pandemic while businesses wait for a vaccine to be distributed next year.

The U.S. Department of Labor released its monthly jobs report Friday morning at 8:30 a.m. ET. Here were the main results from the report, compared to Bloomberg consensus data as of Friday morning:

  • Change in non-farm payrolls: +245,000 vs. +460,000 expected and a revised +610,000 in October
  • Unemployment rate: 6.7% vs. 6.7% expected and 6.9% in October
  • Average Hourly Earnings month-over-month: 0.3% vs. +0.1% expected and +0.1% in October
  • Average Hourly Earnings year-over-year: 4.4% vs. +4.2% expected and a revised +4.4% in October

During November, a plethora of new stay-in-place measures and curfews swept the nation as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths swelled to record levels. These renewed restrictions weighed on the rate of the recovery in the labor market, which had already been slowing after a record surge in rehiring followed the initial wave of lockdowns in the spring.

To that end, job gains in November sharply missed expectations. Non-farm payrolls grew by just 245,000 during the month for the smallest number since April’s record, virus-induced decline. October’s payroll gain was downwardly revised to 610,000 from the 638,000 reported earlier, while September’s gain was raised to 711,000 from 672,000.

A third straight month of declining government employment served as a drag on the headline payrolls figure, as another 93,000 temporary workers hired for the 2020 Census were let go.

In the private sector, retail trade industries shed nearly 35,000 jobs following a gain of 95,000 in October. Leisure and hospitality employers added just 31,000 jobs during November, declining by nearly 90% from October. And in goods-producing industries, manufacturing jobs rose by only 27,000 for the month, falling short of the 40,000 expected.

But a handful of other industries added more jobs in November from October: Transportation and warehousing jobs grew by 145,000 to more than double October’s advance, and growth in wholesale trade positions also doubled to 10,400.

November’s unemployment rate also improved just marginally to 6.7% from the 6.9% reported in October. While down from a pandemic-era high of 14.7% in April, the jobless rate remains nearly double that from before the pandemic.

Other employment reports this week underscored the decelerating trend. Private-sector hiring fell to the lowest level in four months in November, according to data tracked by ADP. New weekly jobless claims began rising again around the 12th of the month, when the Labor Department conducts its surveys for its monthly jobs report. And in the Federal Reserve’s November Beige Book, the central bank noted that nearly all districts reported rising employment, “but for most, the pace was slow, at best, and the recovery remained incomplete.”

The U.S. economy still has a ways to go before fully making up for the drop in payrolls induced by the pandemic. Even with a seventh straight month of net job gains, the economy remains about 9.8 million jobs short of its pre-pandemic level in February. The U.S. economy lost more than 22 million jobs between March and April.

And worryingly, the number of the long-term unemployed has kept climbing. Those classified as “permanent job losers” totaled 3.7 million in November, eclipsing the number of individuals on temporary layoff for the second time since the start of the pandemic. Permanent job losers have increased by 2.5 million since February, before the pandemic meaningfully hit the U.S. economy.

In Washington, congressional lawmakers have for months been at a stalemate over the size and scope of another stimulus package, which could help provide funds for businesses to help keep workers employed, and offer extended unemployment benefits for those the pandemic has kept out of work. Federal unemployment programs authorized under the CARES Act in the spring are poised to expire at the end of the month. These include the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance programs, which together provide benefits for more than 13 million Americans.

“The only thing that matters about today’s NFP [non-farm payrolls] report is whether it increases the likelihood of a stimulus deal getting done during the lame duck session,” Peter Tchir, head of macro strategy for Academy Securities, said in an email Friday morning. “While the unemployment rate shrunk and wages ticked up nicely, the headline number dropped significantly, was well below average expectations, and included some downward revisions to last month (and upward revisions to 2 months ago)all of which point to a less robust job market.”

Aliera ordered to pay $1 million for selling illegal health insurance

https://www.insurance.wa.gov/news/aliera-ordered-pay-1-million-selling-illegal-health-insurance

Aliera Ordered To Pay $1 Million for Selling Illegal Health Insurance -  Dailyfly.com Lewis-Clark Valley Community - colleent

Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler’s action against Aliera Healthcare, Inc. (Aliera) ordering the company to stop selling health insurance illegally was upheld on Nov. 13 after the company appealed.  Today, Aliera was ordered to pay a $1 million fine. It has 90 days to appeal. 

Kreidler took action against Aliera and its partner, Trinity Healthshare, Inc. (Trinity) in May 2019 after an investigation revealed that since August 2018, the companies sold 3,058 policies to Washington consumers and collected $3.8 million in premium. Trinity agreed to Kreidler’s order. 

“Aliera and Trinity promised to provide people with coverage when they needed it only to leave consumers with huge medical bills,” said Kreidler. “I’m taking action today to send a message to all scam artists – if you harm our consumers, you will pay heavily.

“Shopping for health insurance can be very stressful – especially if you have to worry about being ripped off. True insurance companies have to meet rigorous standards before they can sell coverage to consumers. These companies are hiding behind a federal and state exemption that exists for legitimate health care sharing ministries and using it to rake in profit across the country on the backs of vulnerable consumers.”

Aliera, an unlicensed insurance producer in Washington, administered and marketed health coverage on behalf of Trinity HealthShare. Trinity represents itself as a health care sharing ministry. Such ministries are exempt from state insurance regulation only if they meet statutory requirements.  If so, they do not have to meet the same consumer protections guaranteed under the Affordable Care Act. This includes providing coverage for anyone with a pre-existing medical condition.  

A legal health care sharing ministry is a nonprofit organization whose members share a common set of ethical or religious beliefs and share medical expenses consistent with those beliefs. 

Kreidler’s office has received more than 20 complaints from consumers. Some believed they were buying health insurance without knowing they had joined a health care sharing ministry. Many discovered this when the company denied their claims because their medical conditions were considered pre-existing under the plan.

“Real health care sharing ministries can offer a valuable service to their members,” Kreidler said. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing players out there trying to use the exemptions for legitimate ministries to skirt insurance regulation and mislead trusting consumers. I want these outfits to know we’re on to them and we will hold them accountable.”

Kreidler’s investigation found Aliera:

  • Sold insurance without a Washington insurance producer license. 
  • Represented an unauthorized insurer, Trinity.  
  • Operated an unlicensed discount plan organization. 

Kreidler’s investigation into Trinity found that it failed to meet key federal and state requirements:

Trinity was formed on June 27, 2018, without any members.  Federal and state laws require that health care sharing ministries be formed before Dec. 31, 1999, and their members to have been actively sharing medical costs.