Short-term ‘junk’ plans widely discriminate against those with pre-existing conditions, House probe finds

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/short-term-junk-plans-widely-discriminate-against-those-with-pre-existing/580556/

U.S. Rep. Castor's Statement Following a Federal Judge's Ruling on ...

Dive Brief:

  • A yearlong probe by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce into bare-bones insurance plans encouraged by the Trump administration found widespread discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions, even as a growing number are enrolled.
  • Top congressional Democrats investigated eight insurers selling short-term, limited duration plans, finding they all denied medical care claims if they found a consumer had a pre-existing condition. Some refused to pay for medical claims for no discernable reason, processing them only after consumers sued or complained to state regulators. Most rescinded coverage if they determined a member had a pre-existing condition or developed one later.
  • An HHS spokesperson defended the coverage as an affordable option to pricier Affordable Care Act plans, telling Healthcare Dive, “We’ve been abundantly clear that these plans aren’t for everyone.” America’s Health Insurance Plans made similar points, with spokesperson David Allen noting: “For Americans with pre-existing conditions, they may not be protected at all.”

 

Dive Insight:

The investigation looked at 14 companies that sell or market the plans, including eight insurers such as market giants Anthem and UnitedHealth Group, and six brokers.

It found insurers frequently turned down consumers with pre-existing conditions and discriminated against women, turning down applicants who were pregnant or planning to become pregnant and charging women more than men for the same coverage.

The plans had significant coverage limitations. Some excluded routine care like basic preventive visits and pelvic exams. Some plans had hard coverage cutoffs that left consumers with massive medical bills.

In one case, a consumer was billed a whopping $280,000 and lost coverage after being treated for an infection. The insurer said the patient previously had gotten an ultrasound that was “suspicious for deep venous thrombosis.”

AHIP spokesman Allen said it is not surprising given the plans are not intended to replace comprehensive coverage.

“They often do not cover the care and treatments that patients need throughout the year — preventive care, prescription drugs, mental health care or treatments for chronic health conditions — or if they do, they may limit or cap the benefits,” he acknowledged.

On average, short-term plans spend less than half of premium dollars collected from consumers on medical care: only 48%, the investigation found. That’s in stark contrast to plans in the ACA’s individual market, which are required to shell out at least 80% of all premium dollars on claims and benefits.

Short-term insurance represents a significant and growing share of the individual healthcare market. Roughly 3 million consumers bought the plans in 2019, a 27% growth from 2018, the investigation launched in March last year found.

The growth came after the Trump administration, in a controversial move, extended the maximum duration of the plans. The skimpy coverage, which isn’t required to cover the 10 essential benefits under the ACA, was originally designed as cheap safety net coverage for three months.

But in August 2018, HHS expanded the plans to 12 months, with a three year renewal period, and opened them up to all consumers, not just for those who can’t afford other coverage.

ACA supporters and patient advocates blasted the move, which sparked an ongoing legal challenge from safety net providers. Reports of consumers purchasing the coverage, believing it was comprehensive, then being shocked by balance bills prompted the House investigation.

The report also found brokers are paid up to 10 times more compensation for peddling short-term plans than ACA-compliant coverage. The average commission rate for short-term plans compared to ACA plans was 23% versus 2%, respectively.

Currently, 24 states ban or restrict the sale of short-term plans. Some states, including California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, prohibit their sale entirely, while others like Colorado, Connecticut, New Mexico and Rhode Island have such strict regulations that no plans are sold.

Democratic leaders unveiled a bill on Wednesday to bolster the ACA and rescind the administration’s expansion of the plans and expand subsidies, allowing more people to qualify for coverage.

The effort has zero chance of moving this year with Republicans in control of the Senate, but both it and the probe are likely to play into the looming 2020 presidential and congressional elections.

“The heavy-handed tactics uncovered in this investigation demonstrate why Congress must reverse the Trump Administration’s expansion of these junk plans,” E&C Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., Health Subcommittee Chairwoman Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Diana DeGette, D-Colo., wrote in a joint statement. “It also shows how dangerous a post-ACA world would be if Republican Attorneys General and the Trump Administration are successful in striking down the law and its protections.”

That lawsuit, led by 18 red states, argues the ACA, which expanded insurance to some 20 million people, is unconstitutional because a tax bill passed in 2017 zeroed out the penalty for its individual mandate. It’s currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

President Donald Trump and his health officials have repeatedly promised people with pre-existing conditions will be protected if the ACA is struck down, but neither the administration nor Republicans in Congress have said specifically how.

 

 

 

 

 

White House set to ask Supreme Court this week to overturn ACA: 4 things to know

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/hospital-management-administration/white-house-to-ask-supreme-court-this-week-to-overturn-aca-4-things-to-know.html?utm_medium=email

New rules for Supreme Court justices as they plan their first-ever ...

The White House is expected to file legal briefs with the Supreme Court this week that will ask the justices to end the ACA, according to The New York Times

Four things to know:

1. The filings are in relation to Texas v. United States, the latest legal challenge to the ACA. Arguments around the case center on whether the ACA’s individual mandate was rendered unconstitutional when the penalty associated with it was erased by the 2017 tax law. Whether that decision invalidates the entire law or only certain parts of it is at question.

2. The White House is set to ask the Supreme Court June 25 to invalidate the law. The filings come at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs and their employer-based health coverage.

3. Republicans have said they want to “repeal and replace” the ACA, but there is no agreed upon alternative, according to The New York Times. Party strategists told the publication that Republicans will be in a tricky spot if they try to overturn the ACA ahead of the November elections and amid a pandemic. 

4. In addition to the filings, Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to reveal a bill this week that would boost the ACA. Proposals include more subsidies for healthcare premiums, expanding Medicaid coverage for uninsured pregnant women and offering states incentives to expand Medicaid.

Read the full report here

 

 

Insurers are refunding surplus revenues now, rather than later

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/insurers-are-refunding-surplus-revenues-now-rather-later?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTldabE9UTTFZbU16TkRneSIsInQiOiI1djBwUWV6SVpzNlJtRUJEdXBEcEM1UkdGZWtvYTZpdkZ5V1NkTHhpNVFnVFwvR2FJSGlDTVVDcE5lTGtmTDhHY0hWQ05XU1NQNWt3UjRRYUtCOVZtS1ZoNG9SN2wxNU1xYmJVT1k5YWptY2hYVVBObCszNVhiREVFSERNT1hxRkMifQ%3D%3D

Why Your Health Insurer May Owe You Money - Consumer Reports

Insurers will be issuing a total of about $2.7 billion in refunds, estimates the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s postponement of elective surgeries and regular care has created a surplus in revenue for insurers due to lower spending.

Health plans are mandated to spend at least 80% of their revenues on medical care. When they make more than that, they have to give money back to the purchasers.

Insurers are doing this now, rather than later, according to the Advisory Board’s practice manager Rachel Sokol, who spoke during the company’s weekly meeting on the impact of COVID-19 to payers.

Insurers want to create immediate value for members, instead of waiting for 2021, she said.

“That’s why we’re seeing the premium discounts now,” Sokol said.

Among those insurers refunding money, UnitedHealthcare said it would provide more than $1.5 billion in initial assistance, including customer premium credits, because its members have been unable to access routine or planned care due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

UnitedHealthcare has seen a lower volume of medical care being delivered than it anticipated when it set premiums.

Commercial fully insured individual and employer customers will get credits ranging from 5% to 20% – depending upon the specific plan – which will be applied to premium billings in June.

WHY THIS MATTERS

Insurers are mandated to provide refunds, but also they want to motivate members to return for regular care, to prevent more costly and complex outcomes later.

While hospitals have taken a financial hit from COVID-19, the major health insurers have shown minimal impact.

In fact, insurers could see a benefit to earnings in 2020 as medical services decline, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

THE LARGER TREND

Under the Affordable Care Act, insurers are required to rebate some premiums to their customers if medical claims fall short of expectations, based on a three-year average of medical costs.

The Medical Loss Ratio of the Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies that cover individuals and small businesses to spend at least 80% of their premium income on healthcare claims and quality improvement, leaving the remaining 20% for administration, marketing, and profit.

The MLR threshold is higher for large group insured plans, which must spend at least 85% of premium dollars on healthcare and quality improvement, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Insurers may either issue rebates in the form of a premium credit or a check payment and, in the case of people with employer coverage, the rebate may be shared between the employer and the employee, Kaiser said.

Using preliminary data reported by insurers to state regulators and compiled by Market Farrah Associates, Kaiser estimates that insurers will be issuing a total of about $2.7 billion across all markets – nearly doubling the previous record high of $1.4 billion last year.

 

 

 

 

Insurers face uncertainty in setting 2021 premiums

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/insurers-face-uncertainty-setting-2021-premiums?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTldabE9UTTFZbU16TkRneSIsInQiOiI1djBwUWV6SVpzNlJtRUJEdXBEcEM1UkdGZWtvYTZpdkZ5V1NkTHhpNVFnVFwvR2FJSGlDTVVDcE5lTGtmTDhHY0hWQ05XU1NQNWt3UjRRYUtCOVZtS1ZoNG9SN2wxNU1xYmJVT1k5YWptY2hYVVBObCszNVhiREVFSERNT1hxRkMifQ%3D%3D

What To Do When Faced With Career Uncertainty

Insurers need to project the future cost of delayed elective procedures and total expenses of COVID-19 care.

While health insurers have saved money by the cancellation of elective surgeries and many are currently refunding excess revenue under the Medical Loss Ratio, premiums for the 2021 plan year are still in question.

There is a lot of uncertainty, America’s Health Insurance Plans said. Without comprehensive data, insurers are working to estimate 2021 healthcare costs and must base their rates on projected costs, AHIP explained in an infographic.

It is too soon to know what the real healthcare costs of COVID-19 will be. Also, delayed elective and non-urgent care will likely be delivered – and paid for – later.

That care could be more complex and costly because it was delayed, AHIP said.

WHY THIS MATTERS

Insurers are working to meet state deadlines to file 2021 premiums in the individual market.

THE LARGER TREND

Federal law requires insurers to spend 80-85 cents of every premium dollar on medical services and care. The rest, under the Medical Loss Ratio, may go towards administrative expenses, regulatory costs, federal and state taxes, customer service and other expenses.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s postponement of elective surgeries and regular care has created a surplus in revenue for insurers due to lower spending, which many are refunding now.

ON THE RECORD

“COVID-19 has had a very real impact on the economic, physical, and mental health of millions of Americans,” said Jeanette Thornton, senior vice president of Product, Employer, and Commercial Policy at AHIP.  “Our members are working through this uncertainty to strengthen access to affordable care as the fight against the coronavirus continues. COVID-19 dramatically changed the healthcare landscape–in 2020 and for years to come.

 

 

 

 

Insurers continue to pay rebates while providers struggle

https://mailchi.mp/f2774a4ad1ea/the-weekly-gist-may-22-2020?e=d1e747d2d8

Reform Brings More Health Insurance Rebates | Bankrate.com

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan became the latest health insurer to announce plans to refund money to its enrollees, as reimbursement for healthcare services dropped in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with many hospitals and physicians curtailing operations. The company will return $100M to enrollees, in the form of premium discounts and refunds, and said it might increase that amount later in the year depending on how quickly health spending picks up again.

UnitedHealthcare (UHC), Cigna, and Humana are among the other insurers who have recently announced similar plans, with UHC alone slated to give back $1.5B to purchasers. Under the Affordable Care Act, plans must spend between 80 and 85 percent of the premiums they collect on medical care, depending on the segment of the market they cover, and must return excess profits to purchasers if they do not. Insurers are getting ahead of this requirement by returning money now to their employer and individual-market customers.

Meanwhile, some industry observers have begun to question why insurers, who have weathered the pandemic in good financial shape, are not spending more to stabilize the operations of struggling hospitals and physicians in their networks. For instance, Harvard researchers Leemore Dafny and Michael McWilliams proposed this week that insurers extend a “primary care boost” of 50 percent to their payments to doctors through the end of this year. Getting plans to act in concert to support providers will prove to be challenging, of course, and the temptation to free-ride on others’ generosity and instead “spend” excess premium dollars to return cash to customers may prove too strong for its public relations and loyalty benefits.

Or perhaps there are more Machiavellian motives at play: allowing physician practices to suffer financially could result in lower practice valuations, as insurers set their sights on further “vertical integration” plays in the months to come.

 

 

 

Fighting for Coverage

https://www.managedhealthcareexecutive.com/news/fighting-coverage?rememberme=1&elq_mid=12155&elq_cid=876742&GUID=A13E56ED-9529-4BD1-98E9-318F5373C18F

Fighting for Coverage | Managed Healthcare Executive

One of the main goals of the ACA, sometimes referred to as Obamacare, was to provide affordable health insurance to every American.

The law’s passage in 2010 made it possible for nearly 54 million Americans—previously denied coverage due to pre-existing medical conditions—to purchase coverage, as well as landmark provisions to protect those who developed an expensive medical condition while insured from being unexpectedly dropped by their health plan.

By all accounts, such provisions helped a record number of Americans procure medical insurance coverage—and, by extension, reduce healthcare costs and avoid medical bankruptcies.

Yet, with the elimination of the individual mandate penalty in 2017, and other policy changes that have forced up the cost of premiums, many Americans are looking for options off the healthcare exchange.

One such option is the short-term limited duration insurance (STLDI) plan, loosely defined as bare bones medical coverage that can last up to 12 months with the potential for renewal. Managed Healthcare Executive® Editorial Advisor Margaret Murray, chief executive officer of the Association for Community Affiliated Plans (ACAP), said such plans “are not really insurance,”—and refers to them as “junk insurance.” With a new 2018 HHS rule that dramatically expands access to this type of coverage, she worries that their availability will hurt consumers.

“Insurance brokers may offer these plans to consumers and those consumers may not realize that they largely reverse ACA protections regarding pre-existing conditions and coverage limits,” she says. “These plans don’t cover what you think they will cover, the insurance companies can cancel your policy at any time, and they can deny your access to maternity care and certain drugs. It’s not really major medical insurance and it’s not always easy for your average consumer to see that.”

Changing regulations

The Trump Administration contends, with rising insurance premiums, that such short-term plans make health insurance more affordable for the average American.

Cathryn Donaldson, a spokesperson for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a health insurance trade association, says such plans “can provide a temporary bridge for those who are going through a life transition or gap in coverage such as having a baby or changing jobs.”

Yet, Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, says STLDI plans embody the old adage about getting what you pay for. STLDI are not required to comply with many of the ACA’s most important protections, which means insurance companies can exclude coverage for pre-existing conditions, charge higher premiums based on health status, impose annual and/or lifetime caps, and opt out of coverage for things like maternity care or mental health treatment. They can also revoke coverage at will.

“Under the ACA, it used to be that short term and minimum essential coverage [MEC] policies had to have a prominent warning printed on the front place that said, if you buy this, you are not getting full coverage and may even owe a tax penalty,” she explains. “Those warnings are no longer there and that’s of concern.”

Furthermore, late last year, HHS put forth a final rule extending the duration of STLDI from a mere three months up to 364 days. In addition, insurers can offer renewals and extensions for up to three years. What is even more concerning, Murray says, is the current Administration is now actively promoting the use of private web broker sites to market STLDI. This can make it more difficult for consumers to understand which plans offer comprehensive medical coverage and which are the riskier STLDI plans.

“The current administration says such plans offer consumers more affordable options—and more choice,” Murray explains. “But the marketing for these plans is really disingenuous. It’s not just that they are just short-term. They don’t cover what people think they will cover. They are very profitable for insurance companies. But they can be very costly for consumers, who likely won’t realize they don’t have comprehensive coverage until they are sick or injured.”

The fall-out

Over the past few months, several high-profile publications like Consumer Reports and the Washington Post have printed stories about the dangers, and unexpected costs, of STLDI for consumers.

“It’s like you are in the market for a car and someone offers you a really affordable roller-skate,” says Pollitz. “But a roller-skate is not the same thing as a car. It’s not going to get you as far if you really need to travel. And it’s going to cost you more in the long run.”

Murray also cautions more widespread adoption of such plans can affect the entire insurance market, siphoning cost-conscious consumers from risk pools and driving up premium costs for everyone.

“There are always some young invincibles, who think they won’t get sick—and there are some invincibles, too—and they will be attracted by the lower premiums,” she says. “But in doing so, that will leave people who are sicker to pay higher rates by moving people out of the ACA marketplace.”

That’s one reason why ACAP, as well as six other health organizations, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on September 14, 2018 in order to roll back the new STLDI rule and stop the expansion of such plans. Murray said the HHS rule violates the ACA, “undercutting plans that comply” with the still active legislation. They argue the Trump Administration is using these new rules to try to overturn the ACA—which they have not yet been able to successfully repeal in Congress.

“We thought this was important enough that it was worth suing the federal government in order to try and stop it,” she says. “We had hoped to get a summary judgment last year because we wanted to stop the spread of STLDI plans for the 2020 open enrollment. Unfortunately, we didn’t get that. The judge ruled against us. But we are appealing it—and the hope is that we will have a decision to stop these things being sold in 2021.

The take-home message

Donaldson says it is vital the healthcare community educate consumers about the risks of STLDI plans and make sure they are better aware of what sort of comprehensive plans are available on the Healthcare.gov marketplace.

“While alternative plans such as association health plans and STLDI may present more affordable premiums, they are not a replacement for comprehensive coverage and may not cover the treatments or prescriptions an individual may need throughout the year,” she says.

Pollitz agrees.

“We understand that life happens and there may be all manner of reasons why you are separated from coverage,” she says. “But it is becoming harder and harder to distinguish these plans from real coverage especially now that they are now being aggressively marketed to people all over the country. And it’s vital that people understand that 90% of consumers will play less than the listed price on Healthcare.gov marketplace because they qualify for subsidies. It really does pay to take the time to look before you sign up for one of these short-term plans.”

 

 

 

 

Molina readies for ‘significant’ Medicaid member bump as more lose jobs

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/molina-readies-for-significant-medicaid-member-bump-as-more-lose-jobs/577191/

Molina Healthcare's purchase of Medicaid managed care provider ...

Dive Brief:

  • Molina executives said it will likely experience a “significant” increase of Medicaid and exchange members as the pandemic continues to wash over the country and forces more out of work and job-based coverage, according to comments made during Friday’s first quarter earnings call.   
  • The company reaffirmed its 2020 earnings outlook with “enhanced confidence” given the “net-positive” effects likely to stem from the impact of novel coronavirus, as executives noted a steep decline in elective procedures and utilization very late in March and the limited impact COVID-19 has had on costs so far.
  • Overall for the first quarter, Molina beat Wall Street expectations on earnings per share and revenue which increased to $4.5 billion. Yet, it was only one of two managed care organizations to miss on medical loss ratio targets, which increased to 86.3% due to higher costs in its marketplace business. 

Dive Insight:

Another 3.8 million Americans filed for unemployment last week, bringing the total of out-of-work Americans to more than 30 million since the outbreak unfolded.

That presents an opportunity for insurers like Molina that are primarily positioned in Medicaid and Affordable Care Act exchange lines of business. Medicaid coverage is based on income and reserved for low-income Americans and the marketplace, or exchanges, tie coverage to income and financial help for those with incomes below a certain threshold.

Although its membership is likely to swell due to current economic conditions, Molina CEO Joe Zubretsky cautioned investors Friday by saying, “by how much we do not yet know.”

Zubretsky said Medicaid has proven it’s a stress-tested model that works in both robust economies and those in a recession.

So far, through April 27, 950 of Molina’s members have been hospitalized with COVID-19, a small fraction of Molina’s 3.4 million membership base. The average length of stay was about 10 days for these members, but they have not been able to assess the costs per episode yet, executives said Friday.

Its plans in Washington, California and Michigan were most affected. However, its Michigan plans have experienced the highest number of cases. 

By business line, Medicare members have experienced the highest percentage of COVID-19 diagnoses followed by Medicaid and marketplace members, in line with reports of the disease disproportionately affecting older Americans.

Molina also said it had entered into a definitive agreement to acquire Magellan Complete Care for $820 million in cash. The deal is expected to close in the first quarter of 2021. The deal gives Molina about 155,000 more members. Last year, Magellan generated more than $2.7 billion in revenue, according to Molina.

Magellan operates in six states, three of which would be new for Molina, including Arizona, Virginia and Massachusetts. 

 

 

 

 

Health insurers stable, M&A seen diminishing in 2020: Fitch

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/health-insurers-stable-ma-seen-diminishing-in-2020-fitch/568859/

Dive Brief:

  • The outlook for the health insurance sector remains stable heading into 2020, Fitch Ratings reports.
  • The ratings agency maintains a stable outlook on the “vast majority” of the companies it rates within the U.S. health insurance industry, which includes UnitedHealth Group and Aetna.
  • The insurance sector continues to benefit from “low unemployment, manageable medical cost trend and solid growth in government-funded business,” Brad Ellis, senior director for Fitch, said in the report.

Dive Insight:

Even anticipating an increase in the growth of U.S. health expenditures, Fitch expects insurers to deliver solid operating results, including improved medical loss ratios, for 2020.

There is even a chance for insurers to garner positive ratings outlooks as many look to continue to execute on merger integration and deleveraging, according to Fitch.

Thanks in part to the return of the health insurance fee, Fitch expects medical loss ratios to drop to 82.5% in 2020. A decrease from the expected 83.9% for the full year of 2019 for the nation’s eight largest publicly traded insurers, which cover about 165 million people, according to Fitch.

MLR is an important measure, showing the amount an insurer spends on medical claims as a percentage of premiums. Lower MLRs leave more room for covering administration costs and garnering profit.

Even an upcoming election year and a slate of Democratic presidential hopefuls touting support to expand Medicare, the agency does not expect seismic changes to the system.

“Healthcare will certainly continue to be one of the most prevalent discussion topics among candidates for the U.S. presidency in 2020, but Fitch does not anticipate significant change in the structure of the U.S. healthcare system over the next couple of years,” the report said.

The agency also said it expects major mergers to slow significantly in 2020. The insurance sector has experienced significant M&A activity over the last few years, including CVS Health’s buy of Aetna and Cigna’s acquisition of Express ScriptsCentene is near closing on its purchase of rival WellCare.

Fitch expects consolidation activity next year to focus more on “modest build-out of care delivery opportunities in various regions or care management and technology initiatives.”

 

 

 

Health insurers eat higher medical costs

https://www.axios.com/newsletters/axios-vitals-b6a8b813-d93a-43d6-9080-bc9ee9606440.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosvitals&stream=top

Image result for 2. Health insurers eat higher medical costs

Almost all of the major health insurance companies are spending more on medical care this year than they have in the past, Axios’ Bob Herman reports.

The big picture: Rising prices and more services for some sicker patients are among the many reasons why this is happening. That uptick in spending has freaked out Wall Street, even though insurers are still quite profitable.

Driving the news: Almost all of the eight major publicly traded insurers have shown their medical loss ratio — the percentage of premium revenues they’re spending on medical claims — is rising this year.

  • UnitedHealth Group, the largest insurer in the country, said its loss ratio was 82.4% in the third quarter this year compared with 81% in the same period a year ago.
  • But these companies are handling billions of premium dollars, so any increase in medical claims equates to hundreds of millions of dollars in additional spending, which they don’t want.

Between the lines: Medical loss ratios are often higher for health plans that cover more older adults, the disabled and the poor, because those groups typically need more care or are in the hospital more frequently.

But costs have been climbing in some commercial markets, too.

  • Anthem executives admitted on their earnings call that the company is dumping some employers with workers who had medical needs and costs that were too high.
  • CVS Health, which now owns Aetna, previously said some middle-market clients had employees that it thought were getting too many services and drugs.
  • CVS “intensified our medical management in those geographies,” an executive said on the earnings call.

The bottom line: Health insurance companies closely track their medical loss ratios and aim to hit those targets most often by charging higher premiums, denying care, forcing people to use lower-priced providers or declining to cover people they deem to be too expensive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Pending Decision on Obamacare Could Upend 2020 Campaign

Supporters of expanding Medicare at a town hall meeting this summer in Forked River, N.J.  Health care registers as a top priority for voters in poll after poll.

A federal appeals court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act could be a huge headache for the president and take Democrats’ focus off Medicare for all.

 A federal appeals court in New Orleans is preparing a ruling on the Affordable Care Act that could put the law’s future front and center in the presidential race, overwhelming the current Democratic debate over Medicare for all and reigniting the health care-driven worries that helped Democrats win back the House last year.

Three judges on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals are weighing whether to uphold a Texas judge’s ruling that the law’s requirement for most Americans to have health insurance is unconstitutional, and that the rest of the sprawling law cannot function without it. It is hard to imagine a thornier domestic issue for President Trump, whose administration not only refused to defend the law in the case filed by Texas and 19 other states but sided with the plaintiffs, asking the court to invalidate it.

A ruling against Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement as president, which provides health coverage for about 24 million Americans, would almost certainly be stayed pending further appeal.

But if it comes in the next few weeks, it could create significant confusion during open enrollment for the Obamacare plans offered through the law’s online marketplaces. And it would open a huge vulnerability for Mr. Trump, whose health care platform largely consists of attacking as socialism Democratic plans to expand government health care, either through Medicare for all or a government-run health care option that would be offered through the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces.

A ruling against the health law would probably reframe the Democratic conversation on health policy away from moving beyond the Affordable Care Act toward Republican efforts to take health care away. That message, a driving force in the 2018 midterm campaigns, could resonate more broadly than the party’s current arguments over expanding coverage.

“Democrats will do better talking about what Trump can take away than about their new policy visions,” said Chris Jennings, a longtime Democratic adviser on health care. “The Texas case may reframe discourse around health policy more toward that type of discussion, which of course Republicans will hate.”

The law’s most popular provision is protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions, but it includes much more, such as health insurance exchanges where people can buy private coverage with subsidies, an expansion of Medicaid and requirements for what insurance must cover, from emergency services to prescription drugs.

The appeals court panel could decide to partly reverse Judge Reed O’Connor of the Federal District Court in Fort Worth, affirming that the mandate that most Americans have health insurance is unconstitutional but rejecting Judge O’Connor’s ruling that the rest of the law cannot stand without it. That would cause barely a ripple, because the tax penalty for not having insurance was reduced to zero in the 2017 tax overhaul and the effects have been negligible.

But a ruling that upheld his decision in full, or even one that said the mandate and pre-existing condition protections had to go, would send shock waves through the health care and political systems. Either outcome would probably play into Democratic hands, especially in contests against vulnerable Republicans like Senators Martha McSally of Arizona, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Susan Collins of Maine and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

Republicans are not conceding that possibility. Asked how a ruling against the law might affect members of the party seeking re-election, the spokesman for the House Republican campaign arm, Chris Pack, said: “Both Democrats and Republicans oppose Obamacare. The only difference is that Democrats want to replace it with socialized single-payer health care that makes private health insurance illegal.”

In fact, most Democrats would welcome a renewed debate over the Affordable Care Act. Many Democrats in Congress have resisted Medicare for all; instead they have sought to shore up the existing health law and trap Republicans on pre-existing conditions. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, intends to force a floor vote as soon as next week on a resolution to overturn a Trump rule that lets states promote skimpy-but-inexpensive insurance plans that do not meet the law’s coverage standards.

The vote, Mr. Schumer said Tuesday on the Senate floor, “will present our Republican colleagues with a choice: whether to protect Americans with pre-existing conditions or not to protect them.”

Mr. Trump is in a box on health care, the issue that registers as a top priority for voters in poll after poll. He wants deals on ending surprise medical bills and lowering prescription drug prices, but the Senate and House are far apart on what drug price legislation they would agree to, and impeachment proceedings could derail any chance of bipartisan measures.

Public support for the health law remains high, driven in part by swing voters. And few Americans believe Mr. Trump will offer details of a new health care plan before the end of the year, according to a Kaiser poll released this week. They also doubt any plan he releases would offer “better care at lower costs,” as he has promised.

Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, has repeatedly played down the importance of expanding coverage to the remaining uninsured; instead, he has said, Mr. Trump wants to improve the health care system for all Americans. His efforts thus far have mostly been directed at discrete groups of patients: a plan to reduce new H.I.V. infections by 75 percent over five years, for example, and another to move people with advanced kidney disease to home-based, instead of clinic-based, dialysis.

At oral arguments before the appeals court panel in July, a lawyer from the Justice Department indicated the Trump administration would seek a stay if the panel upheld Judge O’Connor’s decision. The losing side could appeal directly to the Supreme Court, increasing the chances of a ruling or at least oral arguments before that court in the final months of the presidential campaign. Alternatively, it could first ask for a hearing by the full appeals court, which would slow down the process.

The appeals panel could also send the case back to Judge O’Connor to reconsider, an option that August Flentje, a lawyer for the Justice Department, embraced during oral arguments. That would also draw out the court fight.

When the six-week open enrollment period starts next month, there will be more insurers offering plans through the Affordable Care Act markets. Premiums have stabilized, too, after a few years of price increases. But it will be a much lower-profile effort than in past years; the Trump administration has cut the budget for both advertising and enrollment help. As a result, a court ruling against the law would paralyze open enrollment if people assume there is no use buying or renewing coverage under a law that was ruled unconstitutional, and if no effort is mounted to counter that misunderstanding.

“It will require a doubling down, a dramatic increase in education — which is exactly the opposite of what this administration has done,” said Leslie Dach, executive director of Protect Our Care, a consumer advocacy group aligned with Democrats. “Someone will need to educate people that low-cost, quality health insurance is still available to them.”