Much of the recent attention on the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has focused on the fate of the 22.5 million people likely to lose insurance through a repeal of Medicaid expansion and the loss of protections and subsidies in the individual insurance market. Overlooked in the declarations of who stands to lose under plans to “repeal and replace” the ACA are those enrolled in employer-sponsored health plans — the primary source of coverage for people under 65.
Job-based plans offered to employees and their families cover 150 million people in the United States. If the ACA is repealed, they stand to lose critical consumer protections that many have come to expect of their employer plan.
It’s easy to understand the focus on the individuals who gained access to coverage thanks to the health reform law. ACA drafters targeted most of the law’s insurance reforms at the individual and small-group markets, where consumers and employers had the greatest difficulty finding affordable, adequate coverage prior to health reform. The ACA’s market reforms made coverage available to those individuals with pre-existing conditions who couldn’t obtain coverage in the pre-ACA world, and more affordable for those low- and moderate-income families who couldn’t afford coverage on their own.
Less noticed, but no less important, the ACA also brought critical new protections to people in large employer plans. Although most large employer plans were relatively comprehensive and affordable before the ACA, some plans offered only skimpy coverage or had other barriers to accessing care, leaving individuals—particularly those with costly, chronic health conditions—with big bills and uncovered medical care. For that reason, the ACA extended several meaningful protections to employees of large businesses.
For people with low and moderate incomes, the Affordable Care Act’s tax credits have made premium costs roughly comparable to those paid by people with job-based health insurance. For those with higher incomes, the tax credits phase out, meaning that adults in marketplace plans on average have higher premium costs than those in employer plans. The law’s cost-sharing reductions are reducing deductibles. Lower-income adults in marketplace plans were less likely than higher-income adults to report having deductibles of $1,000 or more. Majorities of new marketplace enrollees and those who have changed plans since they initially obtained marketplace coverage are satisfied with the doctors participating in their plans. Overall, the majority of marketplace enrollees expressed confidence in their ability to afford care if they were to become seriously ill. This issue brief explores these and other findings from the Commonwealth Fund Affordable Care Act Tracking Survey, February–April 2016.
With 91% of the population now covered by some form of health insurance, and the coverage rate higher in some states, the next big debate in health policy could be about the adequacy of coverage. That particularly means rising payments for deductibles and their impact on family budgets and access to care. This is about not just Obamacare but also the many more people who get insurance through an employer.
It’s not clear whether deductibles will continue to rise as they have over the past decade. Rising cost-sharing is not employers’ preferred strategy for containing health costs, but it’s the one they resort to when they need to quickly reduce their annual premium increase. If the economy weakens again employers will feel greater pressure to reduce their health-benefits costs, and the trend toward higher deductibles will be more likely to continue. The question of how much cost-sharing is too much, and what to do about it, could be the next big debate in health care–once the political world moves on from its focus on the ACA.