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.

Fewer than 40% of Americans could afford $1K unexpected medical bill

Man with empty pockets Acrylic Print by Blink Images

Fewer than four in every 10 American adults can afford a $1,000 surprise medical bill, according to survey results released Jan. 11 by finance company Bankrate.

Bankrate surveyed 1,003 Americans about their personal finances from Dec. 8 to 13, finding a 2 percent drop from the previous year in respondents who said they could comfortably cover a $1,000 expense. The study noted that credit card finance charges can often add up to hundreds of additional dollars when surprise expenses are not paid quickly.

However, some Americans have an optimistic outlook on their financial situation going forward, with 44 percent of respondents believing their personal finances will improve in 2021.

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.

Expect a Different Senate Healthcare Agenda if Dems Win Georgia Senate Races

A woman dropping her ballot into a ballot box decorated with the flag of Georgia

If Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both win Senate seats in Tuesday’s runoff election, and give the Democrats majority power in that chamber, it will change not only what type of healthcare policies are passed by the Senate but which healthcare bills get brought up in the first place.

“The big thing that it means is that [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) no longer controls what bills even get a vote” in the full chamber, said one policy advocate who asked to speak on background. “Last year, a bill on prescription drug pricing passed on a somewhat bipartisan basis out of the Senate Finance Committee,” with the blessing of committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), “and it never even got a vote. It certainly would have passed the House. So it’s not so much that you’re going to see a lot of partisan bills passed with [Vice President Kamala] Harris casting the tie-breaking vote … it’s that things will actually get voted on.”

Leadership of Senate committees also will change, noted Dan Mendelson, founder of Avalere Health, a consulting firm here. And because of that, “you’d see the Senate Finance Committee focused on coverage, and you’d see kind of an aggressive push to figure out how do we expand exchanges, expand Medicaid, and get more people covered in the U.S.”

One of the top priorities will be shoring up the Affordable Care Act (ACA), he continued. “There is no consensus on how to replace the law if it’s struck down by the Supreme Court. Legislation is necessary on an urgent basis.” Some other issues, such as drug costs, “are more likely to be addressed through regulatory approaches rather than legislative ones initially,” Mendelson said.

Marie Fishpaw, director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning think tank here, suggested that expanded federal control of healthcare would be under consideration. “Last Congress, a majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives and 15 Democratic senators have already signaled their support for Medicare for All, so we can expect the left will push for more government control of healthcare should they get more power in Congress,” she said in an email. “Whether that happens by expanding Obamacare with a public option or setting up Medicare for All, it all leads to the same outcome in which government officials in Washington have more decision-making power over the kind of healthcare that Americans receive.”

Joe Antos, PhD, scholar in healthcare and retirement policy at the American Enterprise Institute, another right-leaning think tank, said in an email that “with Harris as the tie breaker, Biden will need to avoid issues where Democrats are not solidly behind him (at least Democratic senators). Drug pricing limits and another COVID spending bill are the most likely to be enacted, perhaps fairly quickly.”

The COVID bill will include “another trillion or two,” Antos said, because “despite all the moaning on TV about lack of state funding, the problem isn’t money — it’s organization and the skilled people to wield the needle. I think there would be more money for states and public health.”

As for the ACA, Biden “might try to reinstate the individual mandate with a penalty/tax, but that would only be a political show since the mandate really hasn’t mattered much in increasing number with insurance (after the first 2 years of ACA enrollment),” said Antos. “Increasing access to the premium subsidy is a possibility, but the true left won’t like it.” On the regulatory side, Antos predicted that Biden will “rewrite Medicaid guidance and reject waiver projects that tighten Medicaid rules,” such as waivers seeking to add work requirements for Medicaid.

Like Mendelson, Antos expects to see Biden push for action to lower prescription drug prices — possibly legislatively. “He would even get some Republican votes for limiting what Medicare will pay for Part B drugs and maybe even Part D drugs,” he said. “This isn’t Medicare ‘negotiating’ drug prices — it’s just old-fashioned price setting, which Medicare has done for decades.” Such a thing would be easier to implement in Part B “since we are already in a price-setting regime.” And, because the price controls would only be in effect for Medicare, “prices paid by everyone else will likely rise,” Antos added.

Less likely to succeed is Biden’s proposal for an advisory board that would consider drugs’ therapeutic value in its recommendations on prices. That is “a complex version of the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which never got off the ground,” Antos said.

Biden also may try to ease rules related to funding of reproductive healthcare organizations like Planned Parenthood that provide abortions, but legislative action in that regard would be a tough slog, Antos said, even with a nominally Democrat-controlled Senate. But Biden “could do something administratively” as the Trump administration has done in the other direction.

Senate confirmations of Cabinet members, such as California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as Secretary of Health and Human Services, would also be smoother under a majority-Democratic Senate, said Mendelson.

And what if the Republicans retain the Georgia Senate seats — and their majority? “The primary strategy the Republican leadership has pushed is to slow things down and to kill major legislation, and that goal gets facilitated if there’s a Republican majority,” he added. With McConnell keeping control of the Senate’s agenda, “things will run much more slowly and there will be a mentality of not doing things.”

But it could go the other way as well, Mendelson noted. “The optimistic scenario is that Senate Republicans feel like they have something lose in the midterms in 2022, and they need to build some sort of record of legislative accomplishments.” In that case, premium support for ACA marketplace enrollees and bringing down costs in the small-group insurance market might be in play, he said.

Lawsuit accuses Aetna of systematically denying coverage for cancer treatment

Alliance for Proton Therapy Access - Home | Facebook

A Florida man filed a class-action lawsuit against Aetna Life Insurance Co., claiming it systematically denied coverage for a cancer treatment called proton beam radiation therapy, according to court documents.

The lawsuit, which has been moved to the District Court for the Middle District of Florida, was filed by Scott Lake. Mr. Lake claims Aetna wrongfully denied coverage for proton beam radiation therapy to treat his prostate cancer. The denial, which deemed the treatment experimental, came despite recommendations from oncologists, he claims. 

While some insurers have begun covering proton beam radiation therapy for certain cancers — for example, Medicare generally covers the treatment — it is not uniform across the commercial insurance industry. In 2019, UnitedHealthcare found itself in court over its denial of coverage to one of its members who also sought the treatment for prostate cancer. 

Aetna’s proton beam radiotherapy policy, last updated in November, outlines when the insurer considers the treatment medically necessary. In the bulletin, Aetna said it considers proton beam radiotherapy “experimental and investigational” for prostate cancer in adults over age 21 “because its effectiveness for these indications has not been established.”

Becker’s reached out to Aetna for comment on this lawsuit. This article will be updated as more information becomes available. 

Jobless claims remain high

An estimated 803,000 people applied for unemployment aid for the first time last week, the Labor Department said Wednesday, showing the economy’s persistent weakness as new drama swirls over Washington’s response to the crisis. The figure was a slight decrease from the previous week but still much higher than normal.

The new Labor Department data show how weak the economy is, particularly the labor market. The surge in new coronavirus cases and deaths in the past few months has cooled the partial economic recovery from the summer.

Retail sales have weakened, and hiring has slowed markedly. The travel and tourism industries have not recovered much of the business lost since March, and thousands of companies — particularly restaurants and bars — have closed. U.S. household spending slipped in November, marking the first drop since April.

After months of stop-and-start negotiations, the bipartisan stimulus package finally offered some hope for households and businesses fighting to make it through the winter.

If Trump does not sign the bill, up to 14 million Americans would lose unemployment aid after Christmas. An eviction moratorium will expire at the end of the year, and $25 billion in emergency rental assistance will not get out the door. Billions of dollars for nutrition assistance, aid for small businesses, child care, transportation services and more will be in jeopardy, and the government will shut down on Dec. 29.

Trump did not play much of a role in the economic relief talks that resulted in Congress passing the $900 billion stimulus package. In the video Trump posted Tuesday night, his main complaint was that he wanted the $600 stimulus checks in the package to be increased to $2,000. This would add $370 billion to the measure.

Democrats quickly rallied around Trump’s demand, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) plans to try to hold a vote on it as soon as Thursday. But it could be virtually impossible to pass such a measure through Congress with unanimous support, leaving the entire bill’s future uncertain.

The stimulus package would extend unemployment benefits of up to $300 per week, beginning as soon as Dec. 27 and run at least through mid-March. The measure also would extend Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — which targets part-time and gig workers who did not qualify for state unemployment insurance benefits — for 11 weeks.

Wednesday’s data showed nearly 400,000 new claims for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.