Supreme Court’s ACA ruling looms

Some States Make Obamacare Backup Plans, As Supreme Court Decision Looms :  Shots - Health News : NPR

The U.S. Supreme Court is heading into the last month of its current term with one major healthcare case, the move to invalidate the ACA, yet to be decided, The New York Times reported June 1. 

A coalition of Republican-leaning states, led by Texas, have asked the court to strike down the ACA, signed into law in 2010. The states argue that the entire ACA is invalid because, in December 2017, Congress eliminated the law’s tax penalty for failing to purchase health insurance. The states argue that the individual mandate requiring Americans to gain health insurance or pay a penalty is inseparable from the rest of the law and became unconstitutional when the tax penalty was eliminated.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in November, and at least five Supreme Court justices indicated support for not striking down the entire ACA.

The court is expected to rule on the matter before its nine-month term ends at the end of June, Reuters reported. 

Average benchmark premiums for ACA exchange plans decline again in 2021: report

Affordable Care Act

Average benchmark premiums for plans on the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges have fallen for the third straight year, according to a new analysis.

Researchers at the Urban Institute, a left-leaning think tank, found that the average benchmark premium on the exchanges fell by 1.7% for 2021. That follows decreases of 1.2% in 2019 and 3.2% in 2020.

By contrast, premiums for employer-sponsored plans increased by 4% in both 2019 and 2020, according to the report. Data for 2021 on the employer market are not yet available, the researchers said.

The national average benchmark premium was $443 per month for a 40-year-old nonsmoker, according to the report, before accounting for any tax credits.

The researchers found much significant variation in premium levels between states, though the difference in growth rates was smaller. Minnesota reported the lowest average benchmark premium at $292 per month, and the highest was in Wisconsin at $782 per month.

Average benchmark premiums topped $500 in 10 states, according to the report.

One of the key trends that’s slowing premium growth is increasing competition in the exchanges, as many insurers are expanding their offerings or returning to the marketplaces to offer plans, according to the report.

“New entrants included national and regional insurers, Medicaid insurers, and small start-up insurers,” the researchers wrote.

Medicaid insurers are those who operated exclusively in the Medicaid managed-care market before 2014; they have increased their participation in the Marketplaces over time. Medicaid insurers are experienced in establishing narrow, low-cost provider networks that allow them to offer lower premiums than other insurers.”

UnitedHealthcare, for example, participated in just four regions included in the study in 2017, but had upped its participation to 11 for 2021. Aetna participated in three regions included in the study in 2017 before fully exiting the exchanges; CVS Health CEO Karen Lynch told investors earlier this year that the insurer plans to return to the marketplaces in 2022.

Several states have also launched programs that aim to lower premiums, according to the report. These include reinsurance programs, which have been rolled out in 12 states as of this year. Some states have also expanded Medicaid in recent years, which leads to some low-income people with costly health needs switching to that program, the researchers said.

Missouri backtracks on Medicaid expansion

What You Need to Know About Medicaid Expansion in Missouri - Health Forward  Foundation

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced Thursday that his state would not expand Medicaid coverage to 275,000 residents who will become eligible on July 1st, despite a 2020 ballot initiative in which a majority of the state’s voters approved the expansion. Because the Missouri legislature has blocked funding for the expansion, Parson declared that the state’s Medicaid program, MO HealthNet, would run out of money if it moved forward.

The legislature’s decision to block funding was bolstered by an appeals court opinion last year, which challenged the expansion because the ballot initiative did not include a funding mechanism for widening coverage.

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the federal government would have picked up 90 percent of the cost of expanding Medicaid in the state, in addition to boosting funding for existing Medicaid enrollees by 5 percent, thanks to a measure in the recent American Rescue Plan Act. 

The governor’s decision leaves in place one of the strictest Medicaid eligibility standards in the nation: a family of three in Missouri must earn less than 21 percent of the federal poverty level—$5,400 per year—in order to qualify for coverage. The expansion measure would have opened the program to childless adults, and raised the eligibility limit to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

The Missouri Hospital Association called the decision an “affront” to voters, pointing out that the state is currently running a budget surplus, and could easily allocate funds for the expansion. The status of Medicaid expansion in Missouri, which would become the 38th state to undertake expansion since the ACA’s passage, will ultimately be decided by court ruling, according to observers.

Meanwhile, like other states (mostly in the Southeast) that have resisted Medicaid expansion, Missouri will continue to see tax dollars flow out of the state to fund benefits in states that have expanded eligibility—despite the express will of voters. Given ample evidence that Medicaid expansion boosts access to care, health status, and health system sustainability, it’s nearly unfathomable that the politics of “Obamacare” continue to complicate the extension of this critical safety-net program.

Cartoon – On the Front Lines

Letters: Herd immunity vs. herd mentality; Now that you may have time read  some good legislation; more responses (3/31/20) – The Denver Post

A Texas-sized showdown on Medicaid expansion

https://mailchi.mp/da8db2c9bc41/the-weekly-gist-april-23-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Medicaid expansion could give insurance to over one million Texans |  Progress Texas

The showdown between the Biden administration and the state of Texas over Medicaid expansion continued to escalate this week. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said he planned to place a hold on the confirmation of Chiquita Brooks-LaSure to become Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), until his concerns over the agency’s move last week to rescind a waiver extension previously granted by the Trump administration were addressed.

The so-called “1115 waiver”—worth more than $11B annually—would have extended by a decade Texas’ ability to use Medicaid funds to cover hospital costs for uninsured residents, rather than expanding Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In rescinding the waiver extension, the Biden administration cited the lack of a public notice process before the waiver was granted, and said that the state’s existing waiver would instead expire next year, as previously scheduled.

Sources inside the administration told the Washington Post last week that the move was intended to force Texas’ hand on Medicaid expansion; the state is one of 12 that have not expanded Medicaid, leaving it with the largest share of uninsured residents of any state, with eligibility currently limited to pregnant women, children, people with disabilities, and families with monthly incomes under $300 per month, or 13.6 percent of the federal poverty level.
 
Enticing the dozen remaining holdout states to expand Medicaid is an important policy priority for the new administration. A key component of the recently passed American Rescue Plan Act is a package of enhanced incentives for those states to expand eligibility, offering an extended 90 percent federal match, in addition to increased funding for existing Medicaid populations.

Although none of the non-expansion states have budged yet, there has been renewed focus among state lawmakers on Medicaid expansion, including in Texas, where the idea had garnered bipartisan support. However, on Thursday, the Texas legislature voted down a proposal aimed at pushing the state toward expanding coverage for the uninsured, by an 80-68 margin. Meanwhile, the rescission of Texas’ waiver has angered the state’s Republican leadership, along with the Texas Hospital Association, whose members have benefited from the waiver’s use of funds to reimburse them for delivering uncompensated care.

While Cornyn’s hold will not ultimately stop the confirmation of the new CMS leader, the escalation on both sides over the past several days surely makes finding a compromise solution less likely. The Biden health policy team is said to be developing a new proposal, as part of an upcoming legislative package, to use the ACA marketplace to offer coverage to people in non-expansion states who might otherwise be eligible for Medicaid—yet another attempt to address one of the longest-standing points of contention stemming from the 2010 health reform law.

The Medicaid showdown is far from over.

Expanding health coverage is good. But we also need to fix stingy plans.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/expanding-health-coverage-is-good-but-we-also-need-to-fix-stingy-plans/2021/03/05/5f92b206-7c7d-11eb-a976-c028a4215c78_story.html?

Underinsurance remains a significant barrier to health care, new survey  finds

President Biden promised on the campaign trail to expand the Affordable Care Act to cover more of the roughly 29 million nonelderly Americans (about 11 percent of that population) who remain uninsured. He also said he’d strengthen the law by, for instance, providing an accessible and affordable public option and increasing tax credits to make it easier for people who buy insurance on their own to afford monthly premiums. Once in office, Biden immediately moved to reopen the period when people could enroll in the ACA marketplaces.

Unfortunately, the administration is paying little heed to a problem that is in many ways just as insidious as lack of insurance: underinsurance. That’s when people get too little from the insurance plans that they do have.

After passage of the ACA, the number of Americans lacking any insurance fell by 20 million, dropping to 26.7 million in 2016 — a historic low as a percentage of population. The figure began to creep up again during the Trump administration, reaching 28.9 million in 2019. That’s the problem that the current administration wants to address, and it certainly needs attention.

But according to research by the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation focused on health care, 21.3 percent of Americans have insurance so skimpy that they count as underinsured: Their out-of-pocket health-care expenses, excluding premiums, amount to at least 5 to 10 percent of household income. The limits in coverage mean their plans might provide little financial protection in a health-care crisis.

High-deductible plans offered by employers are one part of the problem. Among people covered by the companies they work for, enrollment in high-deductible health plans rose  from 4 percent in 2006 to 30 percent in 2019, according to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The average annual deductibles in such plans are $2,583 for an individual and $5,335 for families.

In theory, high-deductible plans, which make people spend lots of their own money before insurance kicks in, turn people into careful consumers. But research finds that people covered by such plans skip care, both unnecessary (elective cosmetic surgery, for instance) and necessary (cancer screenings and treatment, and prescriptions). Black Americans in these plans disproportionately avoid treatment, widening racial health inequities.

Health savings accounts are designed to blunt the harmful effects of high-deductible plans: Contributions by employers, and pretax contributions by individuals, help to cover costs until the deductible is reached. But not all high-deductible health plans offer such accounts, and many people in lower-wage jobs don’t have them. In the rare cases that they do, they often don’t have extra money to deposit in them.   

In a November 2020 article in the journal Health Affairs, scholars affiliated with Brown University and Boston University found that enrollment in high-deductible plans had increased across all racial, ethnic and income groups from 2007 to 2018; they also found that low-income, Black and Hispanic enrollees were significantly less likely than other groups to have a health savings account — and the disparities had grown over time.    

The short-term health-care plans — a.k.a. “junk” plans — that the Trump administration expanded also contribute to the problem of underinsurance. They often have low premiums but do not cover preexisting conditions or basic services like emergency health care.

Fortunately, proposals like Biden’s that make health care more accessible also tend to address the problem of underinsurance, at least in part. For example, to make individual-market insurance more affordable, Biden proposes expanding the tax credits established under the ACA. His plan calls for removing the cap on financial assistance, now set at 400 percent of the federal poverty level, in the insurance marketplaces and lowering the statutory limit on premiums to 8.5 percent of income (from nearly 10 percent).

The president also proposes to peg the size of the tax credits that subsidize premiums to the best plans on the marketplaces, the “gold” plans, rather than “silver” plans. This would increase the size of these credits, thereby making it easier for Americans to afford more-generous plans with lower deductibles.

The most ambitious Biden proposal is a public option, which would create a Medicare-like offering on marketplaces, available to anyone. Pairing this with allowing any American to opt out of their employer plan if they found a better deal on HealthCare.gov or their state marketplace — which they can’t now — would help some people escape high-deductible plans. The public option would also eliminate premiums and involve minimal to no cost-sharing for low-income enrollees — especially helpful for uninsured (and underinsured) people in states yet to expand Medicaid.

Given political realities, however, this policy may not see the light of day. So it would be best to target underinsurance directly. Most people with high-deductible plans get them through an employer. Yet unlike in the marketplace plans, the degree of cost sharing in these employer plans is the same for low-income as well as high-income employees. To deal with that problem, the government could offer incentives for employers to expand the scope of health services they cover — even in high-deductible plans. Already, many such plans exempt from the deductible some primary-care visits and generic-drug prescriptions. The list could grow to include follow-up visits and certain specialist care.

Instead of encouraging health savings accounts, the government could offer greater pretax incentives that encourage employers to absorb some of the costs that they have shifted onto their lower-income employees; that would help to prevent the insurance equity gap from widening further. The government could compensate employers that cover co-pays or other costs for their low-income employees. It could also subsidize employers that move away from high-deductible plans, at least for lower-income people. 

Health insurance is complicated: ­More-affordable premiums are good only if they don’t bring stingy coverage. Greater investment in well-trained (and racially diverse) “navigators” — the people who help Americans enroll in plans on the federal marketplace, for example — would make it less likely that consumers would choose high-deductible plans without grasping their downsides. But it’s also important that people have options beyond risky high-deductible coverage.

The ACA expanded coverage dramatically — but the government needs to make sure that coverage amounts to more than an unused insurance card.

One-third of small businesses say health insurance is a top concern during COVID-19: survey

Dive Brief:

  • Small businesses are struggling to cover the high costs of healthcare for their employees after a year of COVID-19, according to a new poll sponsored by the Small Business Majority and patient advocacy group Families USA.
  • More than one in three small businesses owners said it’s a challenge getting coverage for themselves and their workers. That pain is particularly acute among Black, Asian American and Latino businesses, which have fewer resources than their White counterparts, SBMfound.
  • As a result, small businesses want policymakers to expand coverage access and lower medical costs, beyond the temporary fixes included in the sweeping $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed by Congress earlier this month.

Dive Insight:

Providing health insurance can be pricey for small employers, a challenge that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic and its subsequent economic downturn.

Accessing health insurance has been a major barrier over the course of COVID-19, the national survey of 500 businesses with 100 employees or fewer in November found. The poll, conducted by Lake Research Partners for SBM and Families USA, found many such businesses have had to slash benefits during the pandemic. Among small business owners that have reduced insurance benefits, 36% have trimmed their employer contribution for medical premiums and 56% switched to a plan with a lower premium.

Additionally, one in five small business owners say they plan to change or lower coverage in the next few months, while only about a quarter have been able to maintain coverage for temporarily furloughed employees.

The situation is bleaker for minority-owned small businesses. Overall, 34% say accessing health insurance has been a top barrier during COVID-19, but that figure rises to 50%, 44% and 43% for Black, Asian American and Latino business respondents, SBM, which represents some 80,000 small businesses nationwide, said.

That’s in line with past SBM polling finding non-white entrepreneurs are more likely to face temporary or permanent closure in the next few months than their white counterparts, and are also more likely to struggle with rent, mortgage or debt repayments.

Though employers expect a more stabilized business environment starting in the second quarter, many are still reeling from difficult economic circumstances last year. COVID-19 capsized normal efforts to calculate medical cost trends for 2021, complicating financial planning for the year ahead — especially for fragile small businesses.

Washington did allocate a significant amount of financial aid for small businesses last year, and the ARP includes numerous provisions including increased subsidies for health insurance premiums for two years, and extended COBRA coverage for laid off employees through September.

But respondents to this latest polling urged for more long-term support.

The most popular policy proposal was bringing down the cost of prescription drugs, with 90% of businesses saying they supported the measure and 54% saying they were in strong support. Protecting coverage for people with pre-existing conditions was also popular, with 87% of small business owners in total support and 51% strongly supporting.

Three-fourths of small business owners strongly support a public health insurance option, while 73% support expanding Medicaid eligibility in all states and 66% support letting people buy into Medicare starting at age 55.

Both a public option and lower age of eligibity for Medicare are key tenets of President Joseph Biden’s healthcare plan — though getting both through Congress is unlikely. And long-time business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation for Independent Business hold major sway on such issues and tend to be more recalcitrant on progressive policy changes.

Still, calls have been mounting for employers, which insure more than half of the U.S., to do more to move the needle on medical costs, as price increases outpace overall inflation.

A survey of large to mid-size employers from the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions published Wednesday found at least three-fourths of employers support drug price regulation, surprise billing regulation, hospital price transparency and hospital rate regulation.