We’ve closely tracked Colorado’s pursuit of its own public option insurance plan, which seems now to have reached a compromise that will allow a bill to move forward, according to reporting from Colorado Public Radio. The saga began two years ago when state legislators passed a law requiring Democratic Governor Jared Polis’ administration to develop a public option proposal. Amid the pandemic and broad industry opposition, progress stalled last year on the proposal. Lawmakers picked up the proposal this session, and have made progress on a compromise bill now poised to pass the state’s Democratic legislature.
Unlike the earlier version, the new legislation would not lay the groundwork for a government-run insurance option, but rather would force insurers to offer a plan in which the benefits and premiums are defined and regulated by the state. The bill would also allow the state to regulate how much hospitals and doctors are paid.
In the current version,hospital reimbursement is set at a minimum of 155 percent of Medicare rates, and premiums are expected to be 18 percent lower than the current average. While state Republicans and some progressive Democrats are still opposed, the Colorado Hospital Association and State Association of Health Plans are neutral on the bill, largely eliminating industry opposition.
The role hospitals played in fighting the pandemic surely paved the way toward the compromise bill, which is viewed as much more friendly to providers than the previous proposal.With the Biden administration unlikely to pursue Medicare expansion or a national public option, we expect more Democratic-run states to pursue these sorts of state-level efforts to expand coverage.
In the wake of the pandemic, providers are well-positioned to negotiate—and should use the goodwill they’ve generated to explore more favorable terms, rather than resorting to their usual knee-jerk opposition to these kinds of proposals.
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 accountsare 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) made historic strides in expanding access to health insurance coverage by covering an additional 20 million Americans.President Joe Biden ran on a platform of building upon the ACA and filling in its gaps. With Democratic majority in the Senate, aspects of his health care plan could move from idea into reality.
The administration’s main focus is on uninsurance, which President Biden proposes to tackle in three main ways: providing an accessible and affordable public option, increasing tax credits to help lower monthly premiums, and indexing marketplace tax credits to gold rather than silver plans.
However, underinsurance remains a problem. Besides the nearly 29 million remaining uninsured Americans, over 40% of working age adults are underinsured, meaning their out-of-pocket cost-sharing, excluding premiums, are 5-10% of household income or more, depending on income level.
High cost-sharing obligations—especially high deductibles—means insurance might provide little financial protection against medical costs beneath the deductible. Bills for several thousand dollars could financially devastate a family, with the insurer owing nothing at all. Recent trends in health insurance enrollment suggest that uninsurance should not be the only issue to address.
A high demand for low premiums
Enrollment in high deductible health plans (HDHP) has been on a meteoric rise over the past 15 years, from approximately 4% of people with employer-sponsored insurance in 2006 to nearly 30% in 2019, leading to growing concern about underinsurance. “Qualified” HDHPs, which come with additional tax benefits, generally have lower monthly premiums, but high minimum deductibles. As of 2020, the Internal Revenue Service defines HDHPs as plans with minimum deductibles of at least $1,400 for an individual ($2,800 for families), although average annual deductibles are $2,583 for an individual ($5,335 for families).
A common prescription has been to expand access to Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), with employer and individual contributions offsetting higher upfront cost-sharing. Employers often contribute on behalf of their employees to HSAs, but for individuals in lower wage jobs without such benefits or without extra income to contribute themselves, the account itself may sit empty, rendering it useless.
A recent article in Health Affairs found that HDHP enrollment increased from 2007 to 2018 across all racial, ethnic, and income groups, but also revealed that low-income, Black, and Hispanic enrollees were significantly less likely to have an HSA, with disparities growing over time. For instance, by 2018, they found that among HDHP enrollees under 200% of the federal poverty level (FPL), only 21% had an HSA, while 52% of those over 400% FPL had an HSA. In short, the people who could most likely benefit from an HSA were also least likely to have one.
If trends in HDHP enrollment and HSA access continue, it could result in even more Americans who are covered on paper, yet potentially unable to afford care.
Addressing uninsurance could also begin to address underinsurance
President Biden’s health care proposal primarily addresses uninsurance by making it more affordable and accessible. This can also tangentially tackle underinsurance.
To make individual market insurance more affordable, Biden proposes expanding the tax credits established under the ACA. His plan calls for removing the 400% FPL cap on financial assistance in the marketplaces and lowering the limit on health insurance premiums to 8.5% of income. Americans would now be able to opt out of their employer plan if there is a better deal on HealthCare.gov or their state Marketplace. Previously, most individuals who had an offer of employer coverage were ineligible for premium subsidies—important for individuals whose only option might have been an employer-sponsored HDHP.
Biden also proposes to index the tax credits that subsidize premiums to gold plans, rather than silver plans as currently done.This would increase the size of these tax credits, making it easier for Americans to afford more generous plans with lower deductibles and out-of-pocket costs, substantially reducing underinsurance.
The most ambitious of Biden’s proposed health policies is a public option, which would create a Medicare-esque offering on marketplaces, available to anyone. As conceived in Biden’s proposal, such a plan would eliminate premiums and having minimal-to-no cost-sharing for low-income enrollees; especially meaningful for under- and uninsured people in states yet to expand Medicaid.
Moving forward: A need to directly address underinsurance
More extensive efforts are necessary to meaningfully address underinsurance and related inequities. For instance, the majority of persons with HDHPs receive coverage through an employer, where the employer shares in paying premiums, yet cost-sharing does not adjust with income as it can in the marketplace. Possible solutions range from employer incentives to expanding the scope of deductible-exempt services, which could also address some of the underlying disparities that affect access to and use of health care.
The burden of high cost-sharing often falls on those who cannot afford it, while benefiting employers, healthy employees, or those who can afford large deductibles. Instead of encouraging HSAs, offering greater pre-tax incentives that encourage employers to reabsorb some of the costs that they have shifted on their lower-income employees could prevent the income inequity gap from widening further.
Under the ACA, most health insurance plans are required to cover certain preventative services without patient cost-sharing. Many health plans also exempt other types of services from the deductible – from generic drugs to certain types of specialist visits – although these exemptions vary widely across plans. Expanding deductible-exempt services to include follow-up care or other high-value services could improve access to important services or even medication adherence without high patient cost burden. Better educating employees about what services are exempt would make sure that patients aren’t forgoing care that should be fully covered.
Health insurance is complicated. Choosing a plan is only the start. More affordable choices are helpful only if these choices are fully understood, e.g., the tradeoff between an HDHP’s lower monthly premium and the large upfront out-of-pocket cost when using care. Investing in well-trained, diverse navigators to help people understand how their options work with their budget and health care needs can make a big difference, given that low health insurance literacy is related to higher avoidance of care.
The ACA helped expand coverage, but now it’s time to make sure the coverage provided is more than an unused insurance card. The Biden administration has the opportunity and responsibility to make progress not only on reducing the uninsured rate, but also in reducing disparities in access and patient affordability.
President Joe Biden has an unexpected opening to cut deals with red states to expand Medicaid, raising the prospect that the new administration could extend health protections to millions of uninsured Americans and reach a goal that has eluded Democrats for a decade.
The opportunity emerges as the covid-19 pandemic saps state budgets and strains safety nets. That may help break the Medicaid deadlock in some of the 12 states that have rejected federal funding made available by the Affordable Care Act, health officials, patient advocates and political observers say.
Any breakthrough will require a delicate political balancing act. New Medicaid compromises could leave some states with safety-net programs that, while covering more people, don’t insure as many as Democrats would like. Any expansion deals would also need to allow Republican state officials to tell their constituents they didn’t simply accept the 2010 health law, often called Obamacare.
“Getting all the remaining states to embrace the Medicaid expansion is not going to happen overnight,” said Matt Salo, executive director of the nonpartisan National Association of Medicaid Directors. “But there are significant opportunities for the Biden administration to meet many of them halfway.”
Key to these potential compromises will likely be federal signoff on conservative versions of Medicaid expansion, such as limits on who qualifies for the program or more federal funding, which congressional Democrats have proposed in the latest covid relief bill.
But any deals would bring the country closer to fulfilling the promise of the 2010 law, a pillar of Biden’s agenda, and begin to reverse Trump administration efforts to weaken public programs, which swelled the ranks of the uninsured.
“A new administration with a focus on coverage can make a difference in how these states proceed,” said Cindy Mann, who oversaw Medicaid in the Obama administration and now consults extensively with states at the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.
Medicaid, the half-century-old health insurance program for the poor and people with disabilities, and the related Children’s Health Insurance Program cover more than 70 million Americans, including nearly half the nation’s children.
Enrollment surged following enactment of the health law, which provides hundreds of billions of dollars to states to expand eligibility to low-income, working-age adults.
However, enlarging the government safety net has long been anathema to most Republicans, many of whom fear that federal programs will inevitably impose higher costs on states.
And although the GOP’s decade-long campaign to “repeal and replace” the health law has largely collapsed, hostility toward it remains high among Republican voters.
That makes it perilous for politicians to embrace any part of it, said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies. “A lot of Republican state legislators are sitting in core red districts, looking over their shoulders at a primary challenge,” he said.
Many conservatives have called instead for federal Medicaid block grants that cap how much federal money goes to states in exchange for giving states more leeway to decide whom they cover and what benefits their programs offer.
Many Democrats and patient advocates fear block grants will restrict access to care. But just before leaving office, the Trump administration gave Tennessee permission to experiment with such an approach.
“It’s a frustrating place to be,” said Tom Banning, the longtime head of the Texas Academy of Family Physicians, which has labored to persuade the state’s Republican leaders to drop their opposition to expanding Medicaid.“Despite covid and despite all the attention on health and disparities, we see almost no movement on this issue.”
Some 1.5 million low-income Texans are shut out of Medicaid because the state has resisted expansion, according to estimates by KFF. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)
An additional 800,000 people are locked out in Florida, which has also blocked expansion.
Two million more are caught in the 10 remaining holdouts: Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Advocates of Medicaid expansion, which is broadly popular with voters, believe they may be able to break through in a handful of these states that allow ballot initiatives, including Mississippi and South Dakota.
Since 2018, voters in Idaho, Nebraska, Utah, Oklahoma and Missouri have backed initiatives to expand Medicaid eligibility, effectively circumventing Republican political leaders.
“The work that we’ve done around the country shows that no matter where people live — red state or blue state — there is overwhelming support for expanding access to health care,” said Kelly Hall, policy director of the Fairness Project, a nonprofit advocacy group that has helped organize the Medicaid measures.
But most of the holdout states, including Texas, don’t allow citizens to put initiatives on the ballot without legislative approval.
And although Florida has an initiative process, mounting a ballot campaign there is challenging, as political advertising is expensive. Unlike in many states, Florida’s leading hospital association hasn’t backed expansion.
Another route for expansion: compromises that could win over skeptical Republican state leaders and still get the green light from the Biden administration.
The Obama administration approved conservative Medicaid expansion in Arkansas, which funneled enrollees into the commercial insurance market, and in Indiana, which forced enrollees to pay more for their medical care.
Money is a major focus of current talks in several states, according to health officials, advocates and others involved in efforts across the country.
The health law at first fully funded Medicaid expansion with federal money, but after the first three years, states had to begin paying part of the tab. Now, states must come up with 10% of the cost of expansion.
Even that small share is a challenge for states, many of which are reeling from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, said David Becker, a health economist at the University of Alabama-Birmingham who has assisted efforts to expand Medicaid in that state.
“The question is: Where do we get the money?” Becker said, noting that some Republicans may be open to expanding Medicaid if the federal government pays the full cost of the expansion, at least for a year or two.
Other efforts to find ways to offset state costs are underway in Kansas and North Carolina, which have Democratic governors whose expansion plans have been blocked by Republican state legislators. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly this month proposed using money from the sale and taxation of medical marijuana.
Some Democrats in Congress are pushing to revise the health law to provide full federal funding to states that expand Medicaid now. Separately, in the stimulus bill unveiled last week, House Democrats proposed an additional boost in total Medicaid aid to states that expand.
Other Republicans have signaled interest in partly expanding Medicaid, opening the program to people making up to 100% of the federal poverty level, or about $12,900, rather than 138%, or $17,800, as the law stipulated.
The Obama administration rejected this approach, but the idea has gained traction in several states, including Georgia.
It’s unclear what kind of compromises the new administration may consider, as Biden has yet to even nominate someone to oversee the Medicaid program.
Some Democrats say it’s time to give up the search for middle ground with Republicans on Medicaid.
A better strategy, they say, is a new government insurance plan, or public option, for people in non-expansion states, a strategy Biden endorsed on the campaign trail.
“Democrats can no longer countenance millions of Americans living in poverty without insurance,” said Chris Jennings, a Democratic health care strategist who worked in the White House under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and served on Biden’s transition team.
“This is why the Biden public option or other new ways to secure affordable, meaningful care should become the order of the day for people living in states like Florida and Texas.”
The groups said that Americans “deserve a stable healthcare market that provides access to high-quality care and affordable coverage for all.”
This week, a coalition of healthcare and employer groups called for achieving universal health coverage by expanding financial assistance to consumers, bolstering enrollment and outreach efforts, and taking additional steps to protect those who have lost or are at risk of losing employer-based coverage because of the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
They have banded together to advocate for achieving universal coverage via expansion of the Affordable Care Act, which is supported by President Biden. Biden also intends to achieve universal coverage through a Medicare-like public option — a government-run health plan that would compete with private insurers.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT
Despite a lot of pre-election talk about universal healthcare coverage from elected officials and those vying for public office, achieving this has remained an elusive goal in the U.S. In a joint statement of principles, the groups said that Americans “deserve a stable healthcare market that provides access to high-quality care and affordable coverage for all.”
“Achieving universal coverage is particularly critical as we strive to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and work to address long-standing inequities in healthcare access and outcomes,” the groups wrote.
The organizations support a number of steps to make health coverage more accessible and affordable, including protecting Americans who have lost or are at risk of losing employer-provided health coverage from becoming uninsured.
They also want to make Affordable Care Act premium tax credits and cost-sharing reductions more generous, and expand eligibility for them, as well as establish an insurance affordability fund to support any unexpected high costs for caring for those with serious health conditions, or to otherwise lower premiums or cost-sharing for ACA marketplace enrollees.
Also on the group’s to-do list: Restoring federal funding for outreach and enrollment programs; automatically enrolling and renewing those eligible for Medicaid and premium-free ACA marketplace plans; and providing incentives for additional states to expand Medicaid in order to close the low-income coverage gap.
THE LARGER TREND
The concept of universal coverage is gaining traction among patients thanks in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, A Morning Consult poll taken in the pandemic’s early days showed about 41% of Americans say they’re more likely to support universal healthcare proposals. Twenty-six percent of U.S. adults say they’re “much more likely” to support such policy initiatives, while 15% say they’re somewhat more likely.
As expected, Democrats were the most favorable to the idea, with 59% saying they were either much more likely or somewhat more likely to support a universal healthcare proposal. Just 21% of Republicans said the same. Independents were somewhere in the middle, with 34% warming up to the idea of blanket coverage.
More than 21% of Republicans said they were less likely to support universal care in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Seven percent of independents reported the same, while for Democrats the number was statistically insignificant.
During his campaign, President Joe Biden said he supported a public option for healthcare coverage. He also pledged to strengthen the Affordable Care Act. By executive order, Biden opened a new ACA enrollment period for those left uninsured. It begins February 15 and goes through May 15.
President Biden is scheduled to take executive actions as early as Thursday to reopen federal marketplaces selling Affordable Care Act health plans and to lower recent barriers to joining Medicaid.
The orders will be Biden’s first steps since taking office to help Americans gain health insurance, a prominent campaign goal that has assumed escalating significance as the pandemic has dramatized the need for affordable health care — and deprived millions of Americans coverage as they have lost jobs in the economic fallout.
Under one order, HealthCare.gov, the online insurance marketplace for Americans who cannot get affordable coverage through their jobs, will swiftly reopen for at least a few months, according to several individuals inside and outside the administration familiar with the plans. Ordinarily, signing up for such coverage is tightly restricted outside a six-week period late each year.
Another part of Biden’s scheduled actions, the individuals said, is intended to reverse Trump-era changes to Medicaid that critics say damaged Americans’ access to the safety-net insurance. It is unclear whether Biden’s order will undo a Trump-era rule allowing states to impose work requirements, or simply direct federal health officials to review rules to make sure they expand coverage to the program that insures about 70 million low-income people in the United States.
The actions are part of a series of rapid executive orders the president is issuing in his initial days in office to demonstrate he intends to steer the machinery of government in a direction far different from that of his predecessor.
Biden has been saying for many months that helping people get insurance is a crucial federal responsibility. Yet until the actions planned for this week, he has not yet focused on this broader objective, shining a spotlight instead on trying to expand vaccinations and other federal responses to the pandemic.
The most ambitious parts of Biden’s campaign health-care platform would require Congress to provide consent and money. Those include creating a government insurance option alongside the ACA health plans sold by private insurers, and helping poor residents afford ACA coverage if they live in about a dozen states that have not expanded their Medicaid programs under the decade-old health law.
A White House spokesman declined to discuss the plans. Two HHS officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity about an event the White House has not announced, said Monday they were anticipating that the event would be held on Thursday.
According to a document obtained by The Washington Post, the president also intends to sign an order rescinding the so-called Mexico City rule, which compels nonprofits in other countries that receive federal family planning aid to promise not to perform or encourage abortions. Biden advisers last week previewed an end to this rule, which for decades has reappeared when Republicans occupied the White House and vanished under Democratic presidents.
The document also says Biden will disavow a multinational antiabortion declaration that the Trump administration signed three months ago.
The actions to expand insurance through the ACA and Medicaid come as the Supreme Court is considering two cases that could shape the outcome. One case is an effort to overturn rulings by lower federal courts, which have held that state rules, requiring some residents to work or prepare for jobs to qualify for Medicaid, are illegal. The other case involves an attempt to overturn the entire ACA.
According to the individuals inside and outside the administration, the order to reopen the federal insurance marketplaces will be framed in the context of the pandemic, essentially saying that anyone eligible for ACA coverage who has been harmed by the coronavirus will be allowed to sign up.
“This is absolutely in the covid age and the recession caused by covid,” said a health-care policy leader who has been in discussions with the administration. “There is financial displacement we need to address,” said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe plans the White House has not announced.
The reopening of HealthCare.gov will be accompanied by an infusion of federal support to draw attention to the opportunity through advertising and other outreach efforts. This, too, reverses the Trump administration’s stance that supporting such outreach was wasteful. During its first two years, it slashed money for advertising and for community groups known as navigators that helped people enroll.
It is not clear whether restoring outreach will be part of Biden’s order or will be done more quietly within federal health-care agencies.
Federal rules already allow people to qualify for a special enrollment period to buy ACA health plans if their circumstances change in important ways, including losing a job. But such exceptions require people to seek permission individually, and many are unaware they can do so. Trump health officials also tightened the rules for qualifying for special enrollment.
In contrast, Biden is expected to open enrollment without anyone needing to seek permission, said Eliot Fishman, senior director of health policy for Families USA, a consumer health-advocacy group.
In the early days of the pandemic, the health insurance industry and congressional Democrats urged the Trump administration to reopen HealthCare.gov, the online federal ACA enrollment system on which three dozen states rely, to give more people the opportunity to sign up. At the end of March, Trump health officials decided against that.
During the most recent enrollment period, ending the middle of last month, nearly 8.3 million people signed up for health plans in the states using HealthCare.gov. The figure is about the same as the previous year, even though it includes two fewer states, which began operating their own marketplaces.
Leaders of groups helping with enrollment around the country said they were approached for help this last time by many people who had lost jobs or income because of the pandemic.
The order involving Medicaid is designed to alter course on experiments — known as “waivers” — that allow states to get federal permission to run their Medicaid programs in nontraditional ways. The work requirements, blocked so far by federal courts, are one of those experiments. Another was an announcement a year ago by Seema Verma, the Trump administration’s administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, that states could apply for a fundamental change to the program, favored by conservatives, that would cap its funding, rather than operating as an entitlement program with federal money rising and falling with the number of people covered.
“You could think about it as announcing a war against the war on Medicaid,” said Katherine Hempstead, a senior policy adviser at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Dan Mendelson, founder of Avalere Health, a consulting firm, said Biden’s initial steps to broaden insurance match his campaign position that the United States does not need to switch to a system of single-payer insurance favored by more liberal Democrats.
The orders the president will sign “are going to do it through the existing programs,” Mendelson said.
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.
Top executives at some of the biggest commercial insurers outlined their shifting strategies and what markets are growth opportunities in light of the recession at Morgan Stanley’s annual conference.
Top executives at some of the biggest commercial insurers provided a peak behind their curtains at Morgan Stanley’s annual investor conference this week, discussing the pace of utilization recovery and how they’re approaching rate setting and risk going into next year
Though there’s significant uncertainty around the future of the insurance industry, many remarks can be summed up in a line from Cigna CEO David Cordani: “We feel bullish on 2021.”
And despite the major role of government in regulating healthcare, most officials seemed agnostic on the presidential election looming in less than two months.
Payers are reporting skyrocketing profits amid the COVID-19 pandemic as patients deferred care in droves in the second quarter, sparking a congressional investigation into business practices. Use of healthcare services continues to recover from a nadir in March and April, and that recovery has continued into the third quarter, payer executives said. But the pace has differed by segment.
At the start of the pandemic, Humana saw beneficiary use drop to about 30% of pre-COVID-19 levels until mid-May, when it slowly started to tick back up. The Louisville, Kentucky-based insurer’s utilization is now still “a little below par,” but well above that depression and meeting internal expectations, CEO Bruce Broussard said.
CVS Health-owned Aetna has seen its commercial business come back faster than Medicare, CFO Eva Boratto said. Primary care and labs have seen a quicker rebound, but it’s been slower in inpatient and ambulatory.
Centene CEO Michael Neidorff predicts utilization will be between 65% to 80% of normal by the end of the year, but remains cautious due to the shifting nature of the pandemic, and how it could coincide with a potentially nasty flu season.
“We don’t know what other peaks we’re going to see,” Neidorff said.
2021 rate setting, strategic pivots
Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 is also shaping major payer’s go-to-market approaches and how they’re thinking about 2021 bids.
Humana, for example, studied both historical data prior to COVID-19 and did scenario planning around what the pandemic could do to factors like utilization, testing and treatment if it continued throughout the year. Eventually, the payer decided to base bid assumptions off trending historical information forward, according to Broussard.
“We were very oriented to pricing that was more conservative as we thought about the approach,” he said.
It appears Centene, contrastingly, is using 2020 data to risk score. When asked how the payer is approaching rate setting, Neidorff said: “We’re dealing with this year. And we’re saying that any concessions this year should not necessarily carry into next year, which is an entirely different year.”
Employers and plans nationwide are struggling with this issue. Only about 60% of employers are using 2020 claims to set rates for next year, while another 26% are calculating expected medical costs based on data from 2019, and 9% are using data from the first two months of 2020 alone, according to Credit Suisse.
The pandemic has also shifted insurers’ broader strategic priorities in 2021 and beyond, especially by hammering home the need for diversified revenue streams to keep afloat, top execs said.
“We’re in 37 states. If you have a stock that’s not performing well in your portfolio, you probably have some that are offsetting it,” Centene’s Neidorff said.
Humana has been investing in telesales, at-home and in-community offerings and digital capabilities, with an eye for growth. Broussard said Humana’s customers have been mostreactive to an omnichannel approach to care delivery.
For example, the payer is seeing home as an increasingly valid path for care a little more acute in service than in the past. As a result, Humana plans to continue investing in areas that dovetail with that trend, and those with biggest impact on downstream healthcare costs, including primary care, social determinants of health, behavioral health and pharmacy.
CVS has also accelerated development of its virtual care offering, eClinic, as a result of the pandemic and relaxed federal regulations. Visits are up 40% since the end of June, CEO Larry Merlo said, noting he believes the future of healthcare delivery is at the intersection between digital and physical.
Because of the pandemic, “we are seeing an accelerated shift to this multichannel, integrated approach,” Merlo said. “We did change some of our priorities, and accelerate some things that may have been further down the road.”
CVS is continuing to convert existing stores to health- and wellness-focused locations, called HealthHUBs, which devote a fifth of floor space to healthcare products and services. Currently, the Rhode Island-based giant has 275 HUBs up and running, despite pausing conversions for a time in March.
Cigna is also looking to drive revenue by moving beyond a payer’s traditional wheelhouse. On Wednesday, the insurer announced it was rebranding its health services division as Evernorth, in a next step for the Cigna-Express Scripts megamerger completed almost two years ago.
For its part, Centene is introducing more value-based contracts in 2021, after seeing providers it contracts with in alternative payment models are reporting stronger cash flow and patient relationships amid COVID-19 than those in fee-for-service relationships.
Going into next year, the payer is also focused on margin expansion, working with states to set rates and federal lobbying for friendly policies like an increased Medicaid match rate, Neidorff said.
The COVID-19 recession booted millions of Americans off employer-sponsored insurance, though the full scope of the insurance crisis isn’t yet clear. Cigna’s Cordani noted the disenrollment in the first half of the year in its commercial population was lower than expected, helped by the fact the payer is less active in sectors hit hardest by the pandemic like travel and leisure.
But disenrollment could still snowball in the second half of 2020. As a result, a number of major commercial payers are building out offerings in two coverage backstops in the market: Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act exchanges.
Broussard said Humana sees ample opportunity in Medicaid — including the dually eligible — but wants to be more surgical in expansion moving forward, especially as states look for a more contemporary delivery of services and engagement with clinical programs. Humana is going to look for tuck-in acquisitions.
“Is there a way to enter the market in a small way, and leverage our capabilities and grow from that?,” Broussard said.
Cordani agreed that budget-strapped states are looking for new ways to lower costs, but said “Medicaid has always been a lower priority growth platform” for Cigna. Instead, the insurer sees the safety net program as an opportunity for Evernorth in the near term, more than its government business.
Of the 1.1 million new members Centene added from March through August, the majority were in Medicaid, but a significant portion were in the ACA exchanges, Neidorff said. Capitalizing on that momentum, Centene — already the largest payer in the exchanges — is adding 2 new states to its footprint for 2021. “I think we’ll grow in marketplace, given the level of people and the subsidies they get,” Neidorff said. “I see it as a positive going forward.”
Humana, however, is leery on entering the exchange market, given political uncertainty around the upcoming 2020 presidential election, according to its top exec.
“The exchange market has stabilized in a lot of different ways, but still has elements where it tends to be a sicker, more transient population,” Broussard said. “We’d rather not be in the situation where we go in and have to pull out because of the political realm.”
Payers also continue to forecast strong growth in Medicare Advantage. Currently, about 34% of Medicare beneficiaries are in the privately run Medicare plans. It’s a popular program: The Congressional Budget Office predicts MA’s share of the overall Medicare population will swell to 47% by 2029.
CVS is currently on track for mid-single-digit growth next year, and sees Aetna’s continued growth in MA as one of the building blocks to continued earnings power, Boratto said.
Similarly, Cigna is well on track to meeting its goal of 10% to 15% annual organic growth in MA, Cordani said. Historically, Cigna has only been present in about 18% to 19% of the addressable government market, but is trying to eventually expand to 50%.
Shrugging off election
Unlike years past when some payers worried of Democratic plans for Medicare and other aspects of insurance, most executives seemed to shrugged off the coming presidential election.
President Donald Trump has made undermining the ACA one of the chief goals of his first term, while Democrat nominee former Vice President Joe Biden’s healthcare plan revolves around shoring up the decade-old law, enacting a public option and lowering Medicare’s age of eligibility.
But executives noted Trump’s tenure hasn’t necessarily been bad for them, and having Biden at the helm could provide some opportunity for savvy operators.
Humana could be particularly at risk going into a period of political uncertainty. The payer has a smaller portfolio and fewer assets than some of its bigger peers, Ricky Goldwasser, managing director at Morgan Stanley, said.
But Broussard said regardless of whether the inhabitant of the White House is blue or red, they’ll likely support value-based payment models — a key tenet of its strategy. Additionally, the seemingly-threatening Medicare buy-in option is “very similar to MA,” Broussard said. “We’d see that as the opportunity to expand our ability to bring our capabilities to maybe a younger population, but with a lot of the same elements.”
Some industry experts see the public option, which has bipartisan support among voters, as a potential benefit for companies with leading market share in MA, like UnitedHealth, Humana and Aetna.
“We’ve had public options and done well in public options. So history says that’s fine,” Centene’s Neidorff said. “I think Biden would not be a threat, but an opportunity. I think a Trump re-election would just be more of what we’ve seen. And we’ve done OK with that.”
On Monday, the American Medical Association (AMA) voted to recognize racism as an “urgent threat to public health”. At its annual meeting, the organization’s House of Delegates voted to take actions to confront systemic, cultural and interpersonal racism, including acknowledging harm and bias in medical research and healthcare delivery, funding research to identify risks of racial bias to health, and encouraging medical schools to teach students about the causes and effects of racism, and strategies to prevent adverse health outcomes.
The resolution was one of several proposed items aimed at addressing racial diversity and equity in medical education and care delivery. Over the past two years, the AMA has been moving toward a more progressive stance on health and social policy; in June the AMA Board of Trustees also pledged action against racism and police brutality in response to the murder of George Floyd.
A generational divide between older and younger doctors was also apparent during last year’s debates on Medicare for All, when the organization narrowly voted to maintain its opposition to single-payer healthcare in a close vote that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.
At this week’s meeting, however, the group gave its stamp of approval to proposals for a more limited “public option” coverage expansion.As more young physicians enter the field of medicine, we’d expect the AMA to become a stronger voice on a range of social and policy issues.