Deductibles: They’re not going down


Data: Kaiser Family Foundation; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

The average insurance deductible keeps going up, as does the number of people covered by high-deductible plans. And only about half of those people get help from their employers to save up for potential medical bills, according to a new study in Health Affairs.

The details:

  • In 2006, just 11.4% of private-sector workers had a high-deductible plan. In 2016, that number was up to 46.5%.
  • Roughly half of those workers also get an employer contribution to a health savings account or health reimbursement arrangement.
  • High-deductible plans are most popular with smaller companies, where employer contributions to an HSA are least popular.
  • At the smallest companies, about two-thirds of workers didn’t have the option of a plan without a high deductible, and don’t get an employer contribution to an HSA or HRA.

Why it matters: Higher deductibles don’t just require people to pay more out of pocket each year. They also expose those consumers to the complexities of the health care system, including the way prices are set.

  • People with high deductibles are more likely to have to pay the full sticker price of a prescription drug, or for a hospital procedure.


The fight over preexisting conditions is back. Here’s why the Obamacare battle won’t end.


There is a persistent divide in the US: Is insurance a privilege to be earned through hard work? Or is it a right?

President Trump and Republicans are so committed to killing Obamacare they’ve decided, just months before the midterm elections, to take aim at the most popular part of the law: coverage for preexisting conditions.

The Trump administration signed on to a long-shot lawsuit this week that would overturn the parts of the law that require insurers to cover preexisting conditions and not charge more for them.

The lawsuit, which you can read more about from Vox’s Dylan Scott, is, in some ways, a perplexing move mere months before midterm elections. Polling finds that both Democrats and Republicans think it’s a good idea to ensure that sick people have access to health insurance.

Politically, though, Republicans spent eight years campaigning on a promise to repeal Obamacare. They believe they have a responsibility to do something, even if the something doesn’t poll well.

But after eight years of covering the Affordable Care Act, I think there is a much deeper tension that keeps the fight over Obamacare alive. It is a persistent, unresolved split in how we think about who deserves health insurance in the United States: Is insurance a privilege to be earned through hard work? Or is it a right?

The United States hasn’t decided who deserves health insurance

Since World War II, the United States has had a unique health insurance system that tethers access to medical care to employment. Changes to the tax code created strong incentives for companies to provide health coverage as a benefit to workers. Now most Americans get their insurance through their employer, and, culturally, health insurance is thought of as a benefit that comes with a job.

Over time, the government did carve out exceptions for certain categories of people. Older Americans, after all, wouldn’t be expected to work forever, so they got Medicare coverage in 1965. Medicaid launched the same year, extending benefits to those who were low-income and had some other condition that might make it difficult to work, such as blindness, a disability, or parenting responsibilities.

Then the Affordable Care Act came along with a new approach. The law aimed to open up the insurance market to anybody who wanted coverage, regardless of whether he or she had a job.

It created a marketplace where middle-income individuals could shop on their own for private health coverage without the help of a large company. It expanded Medicaid to millions of low-income Americans. Suddenly, a job became a lot less necessary as a prerequisite for gaining health insurance.

This, I think, is the divide over health insurance in America. It’s about whether we see coverage as part of work. In my reporting and others’, I’ve seen significant swaths of the country where people push back against this. They see health as something you ought to work for, a benefit you get because of the contribution you make by getting up and going to a job each day.

This came out pretty clearly in an interview I did in late 2016 with a woman I met on a reporting trip to Kentucky whom I’ll call Susan Allen. (She asked me not to use her real name because she didn’t want people to know that she uses the Affordable Care Act for coverage.)

Allen used to do administrative work in an elementary school but now is a caregiver to her elderly mother. Her husband has mostly worked in manual labor jobs, including the coal industry.

Allen told me a story about when she worked in the school. At Christmas, there would be a drive to collect present for the poorest families, presents she sometimes couldn’t afford for her own kids. It made her upset.

”These kids that get on the list every year, I’d hear them saying, ‘My mom is going to buy me a TV for Christmas,’” Allen says. “And I can’t afford to buy my kid a TV, and he’s in the exact same grade with her.”

Allen saw her health insurance as the same story: She works really hard and ends up with a health insurance plan that has a $6,000 deductible. Then there are people on Medicaid who don’t work and seem to have easier access to the health care system than she does.

”The ones that have full Medicaid, they can go to the emergency room for a headache,” she says. “They’re going to the doctor for pills, and that’s what they’re on.”

Is health insurance a right or a privilege?

More recently, Atul Gawande wrote a piece for the New Yorker exploring whether Americans view health care as a right or a privilege.

He reported the story in his hometown in Appalachian Ohio, where he kept running into this same idea: that health insurance is something that belongs to those who work for it.

One woman he interviewed, a librarian named Monna, told him, “If you’re disabled, if you’re mentally ill, fine, I get it. But I know so many folks on Medicaid that just don’t work. They’re lazy.”

Another man, Joe, put it this way: “I see people on the same road I live on who have never worked a lick in their life. They’re living on disability incomes, and they’re healthier than I am.”

As Gawande noted in his piece, “A right makes no distinction between the deserving and undeserving.” But he often found this to be the key dividing line when he asked people whether everyone should have health coverage. Often, it came down to whether that person was the type who merited such help.

This isn’t a debate that happens in most other industrialized countries. If you asked a Canadian who deserves health care, you’d probably get a baffled look in return. Our northern neighbors decided decades ago that health insurance is something you get just by the merit of living in Canada. It’s not something you earn; it’s something you’re entitled to.

But in the United States, we’ve never resolved this debate. Our employer-sponsored health care system seems to have left us with some really deep divides over the fundamental questions that define any health care systems.

Those are the questions we’ll need to resolve before the debate over Obamacare ever ends.



How Well Does Insurance Coverage Protect Consumers from Health Care Costs?

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  • Issue: The United States has made historic progress on insurance coverage since the Affordable Care Act became law in 2010, with 20 million fewer people uninsured. However, we must also measure progress by assessing how well people who have insurance from all coverage sources are protected from high health care costs.
  • Goals: To estimate the number and share of U.S. insured adults who are “underinsured” or have out-of-pocket costs and deductibles that are high relative to their incomes.
  • Method: Analysis of the Commonwealth Fund Biennial Health Insurance Surveys, 2003–2016.
  • Findings: As of late 2016, 28 percent of U.S. adults ages 19 to 64 who were insured all year were underinsured — or an estimated 41 million people. This is more than double the rate in 2003 when the measure was first introduced in the survey, and is up significantly from 23 percent, or 31 million people, in 2014. Rates climbed across most coverage sources, and, among privately insured, were highest among people with individual market coverage, most of whom have plans through the marketplaces. Half (52%) of underinsured adults reported problems with medical bills or debt and more than two of five (45%) reported not getting needed care because of cost.



How to turn healthcare’s single-payer threat into a reality

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What’s behind the renewed enthusiasm in the Democratic Party for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer healthcare bill? The GOP still controls both houses of Congress and the White House. The Affordable Care Act still faces an existential crisis.

Unless something is done in the next few weeks to shore up the exchanges for 2018 and reverse HHS’ mean-spirited efforts to undermine enrollment, the enormous progress made over the past four years—last week the Census Bureau announced the nation’s uninsured rate had dropped sharply over that period to 8.8%—will begin to reverse. For those desperately working to avert the immediate danger, single-payer advocacy is a distraction.

Unfortunately, the logic of contemporary politics made the current push for single-payer inevitable. President Donald Trump and the tea party set the table. They proved that in a populist moment, extreme positions that cater to a sliver of the electorate are a viable path to electoral success.

Expect left-wing challengers supporting single-payer to win numerous Democratic House and Senate primaries next spring. A wave election typical of first-term, off-year elections will lead to a single-payer caucus in the next Congress with as much power as the tea party caucus had after the wave of election of 2010.

Single-payer looms as their threat. If you destroy President Barack Obama’s grand compromise-his eponymous plan relied on private insurers and preserved the employer-based system- the fire next time will get rid of both.

Unlike the tea party, single-payer advocates have history on their side. The U.S. over the last half century has moved inexorably toward universal coverage: Medicare and Medicaid; the Children’s Health Insurance Program; the ACA. It will get there one way or another.

Sanders asked the right question in his op-ed last week in the New York Times. “Do we, as a nation, join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee comprehensive health care to every person as a human right?”

Polls now report growing support for single-payer health insurance. When asked if the government has the responsibility to guarantee access to healthcare for all Americans, nearly 60% answer yes. In other words, a clear majority of Americans now say yes to Sanders’ question.

It’s not just a human-rights issue. Universal access through universal insurance coverage is a necessary if insufficient component of getting healthcare costs under control. It is also a building block for restoring the nation’s economic competitiveness, especially in areas of the country suffering from a prolonged decline. No region can thrive unless it has a well-educated, healthy workforce.

Industrialized countries diverged in how they achieved universal coverage. Some chose a government-funded, single-payer system. Others chose well-regulated private insurers. Still others chose a combination of the two.

The U.S., because its employers used health benefits to get around World War II’s wage-and-price controls, accidentally chose a mixed system. It was the erosion of the employer-based system that led to Obamacare.

Sanders and his 15 Senate co-sponsors propose to eliminate the employer-based system entirely. He would gradually expand Medicare to cover everyone over four years.

The legislation is silent on how to transfer the $1.1 trillion spent by employers on health insurance to government coffers, necessary to defray the cost of his plan. He doesn’t address how he would counter the tremendous opposition that disrupting the existing system would draw from employers and their workers, including those in many unions.

Sanders decries the lack of progressive think tanks to come up with answers to those and other transition questions. But the problem isn’t the absence of good ideas. It’s the absence of fertile soil in which those ideas can grow.

That will change rapidly if Republicans succeed in repealing Obamacare, or undermine it and send the uninsured rate soaring again. That, and only that, will turn the single-payer threat into the last viable path to universal coverage.

Employers Fret Job-Based Coverage Vulnerable To Fallout From GOP Health Overhaul

Employers Fret Job-Based Coverage Vulnerable To Fallout From GOP Health Overhaul

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Through years of acrimony over Obamacare coverage for the poor and other individuals lacking health policies, one kind of insurance has remained steady, widespread and relatively affordable.

Employer-sponsored medical plans still cover more Americans than any other type, typically with greater benefits and lower out-of-pocket expense. Recent cost increases for job-based coverage have been a tiny fraction of those for Obamacare plans for individuals.

Now, as President Donald Trump promises a replacement for the Affordable Care Act that will provide “insurance for everybody,” employers worry Republican attempts to redo other parts of the insurance market could harm their much larger one.

“We’re deeply embedded” in the health law, said Neil Trautwein, vice president of health care policy for the National Retail Federation, a trade group. “Pick your analogy — it’s like being tied to the railroad tracks or having a bomb strapped across your chest. It’s tough to disarm these things.”

Business dislikes many parts of the ACA, including its substantial paperwork, the mandate to offer coverage and the “Cadillac tax” on high-benefit plans that takes effect in 2020. But large companies in particular — those that have always offered job-based insurance — say a poorly thought-out replacement might turn out to be worse for them and their workers.

Seven healthcare questions the candidates aren’t answering

Hillary Clinton is quick to tout that she will defend the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and build on it to slow the growth of out-of-pocket healthcare costs while Donald Trump vows to repeal the ACA and have a series of reforms ready for implementation that follow free-market principles.

But when taking a closer look at their proposals, Clinton and Trump are keeping mum about some healthcare issues, and that’s raising some critical questions. Managed Healthcare Executive asked industry experts to comment on what topics presidential candidates are being quiet about, and why they suspect they’re not talking about them.