White House pitch to bolster Obamacare includes tough trade-offs for Democrats


The White House is pictured. | Getty

The White House is seeking a package of conservative policy concessions — some of which are certain to antagonize Democrats — in return for backing a legislative package bolstering Obamacare markets, according to a document obtained by POLITICO.

The document indicates the administration will support congressional efforts to prop up the wobbly marketplaces, in exchange for significantly expanding short-term health plans and loosening other insurance regulations.

The document also makes severalreferences to abortion language that will be problematic for Democrats. A potential stumbling block in passing any stabilization package is whether conservatives will insist on including language prohibiting the use of government dollars to pay for abortions.

“Although congressional efforts to provide taxpayer money to prop up the exchanges is understandable, any such efforts must also provide relief to middle-class families harmed by the law and protect life,” the document states.

The source of the document provided to POLITICO isn’t identified and it isn’t dated. The White House declined to comment on the document but didn’t question its authenticity. A spokesperson for HHS said the department does not comment on leaked documents.

Two health policy experts who have been in contact with White House officials indicated that the document is consistent with ideas the administration has discussed for creating more stability and flexibility in the insurance markets.

“It’s legit,” said one former White House policy official.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have been in delicate negotiations over a stabilization package that could clear the House and Senate. Democrats want to bolster the federal health care law after Republicans failed in their efforts to repeal it last year.

The list of White House policy requests includes allowing insurers to charge older enrollees up to five times as much as their younger counterparts, as opposed to the current three-to-one cap. That policy would require amending the Affordable Care Act.

The White House is also seeking to allow short-term plans — which offer skimpier benefits with lower premiums — to be renewed. Short-term plans, exempt from Obamacare rules, can deny people coverage or charge them more based on a health condition, in a process known as underwriting. The Trump administration recently proposed expanding the maximum length of these plans from three months to one year. However, the White House document envisions allowing people to renew this coverage “without those individuals going through health underwriting.”

The document doesn’t include support for reinsurance, which insurers have been pushing to shield them from the costs of particularly expensive customers.

The document also reiterates that the administration supports funding for cost-sharing reduction payments, which Trump cut off in October. The president’s budget proposal including funding for the payments, which help insurers reduce out-of-pocket costs for low-income Obamacare customers.

There is at least one item on the White House list that could garner bipartisan support: Expanding the use of health savings accounts. Last week, a bipartisan group of House members introduced a package of potential changes, and business groups have been pushing for HSA proposals to be part of the appropriations package Congress must pass by March 23.

Republicans fear another year of eye-popping premium increases will hit voters just before Election Day — and that they’ll get the blame this time since they’re now in charge.

But the White House asks could further unsettle those talks. In particular, the emphasis on abortion language tripped up earlier negotiations.

Democrats have been seeking a very different list of policies to boost the markets. They want to increase the subsidies provided to Obamacare customers, reinstate funding for outreach and marketing, and prevent the executive branch from expanding the availability of what they deride as “junk” insurance plans.

“People nationwide are looking at higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs as a direct result of the damage President Trump has done on health care,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who has been in the middle of negotiations over a stabilization package, in a statement to POLITICO. “I certainly hope the president and Republican leaders won’t once again sabotage an opportunity to undo some of the damage they’ve done by choosing to play politics with women’s health and making last-minute, harmful demands that would raise families’ costs even more and place an age tax on seniors.”


Americans’ Views on Health Insurance at the End of a Turbulent Year



The Affordable Care Act’s 2018 open enrollment period came at the end of a turbulent year in health care. The Trump administration took several steps to weaken the ACA’s insurance marketplaces. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans engaged in a nine-month effort to repeal and replace the law’s coverage expansions and roll back Medicaid.

Nevertheless, 11.8 million people had selected plans through the marketplaces by the end of January, about 3.7 percent fewer than the prior year.1 There was an overall increase in enrollment this year in states that run their own marketplaces and a decrease in those states that rely on the federal marketplace.

To gauge the perspectives of Americans on the marketplaces, Medicaid, and other health insurance issues, the Commonwealth Fund Affordable Care Act Tracking Survey interviewed a random, nationally representative sample of 2,410 adults ages 19 to 64 between November 2 and December 27, 2017, including 541 people who have marketplace or Medicaid coverage. The findings are compared to prior ACA tracking surveys, the most recent of which was fielded between March and June 2017. The survey research firm SSRS conducted the survey, which has an overall margin of error is +/– 2.7 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. See How We Conducted This Study to learn more about the survey methods.


Adults were asked about:

  • INSURANCE COVERAGE 14 percent of working age adults were uninsured at the end of 2017, unchanged from March–June 2017.
  • AWARENESS OF THE MARKETPLACES 35 percent of uninsured adults were not aware of the marketplaces.
  • REASONS FOR NOT GETTING COVERED Among uninsured adults who were aware of the marketplaces but did not plan to visit them, 71 percent said they didn’t think they could afford health insurance, while 23 percent thought the ACA was going to be repealed.
  • CONFIDENCE ABOUT STAYING COVERED About three in 10 people with marketplace coverage or Medicaid said they were not confident they would be able to keep their coverage in the future. Of those, 47 percent said they felt this way because either the Trump administration would not carry out the law (32%) or Congress would repeal it (15%).
  • SHOULD AFFORDABLE HEALTH CARE BE A RIGHT? 92 percent of working-age adults think that all Americans should have the right to affordable health care, including 99 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of Republicans, and 92 percent of independents.

A Big Divergence Is Coming in Health Care Among States


Little by little, the Trump administration is dismantling elements of the Affordable Care Act and creating a health care system that looks more like the one that preceded it. But some states don’t want to go back and are working to build it back up.

Congress and the Trump administration have reduced Obamacare outreach, weakened benefit requirements, repealed the unpopular individual insurance mandate and broadened opportunities for insurers to offer inexpensive but skimpy plans to more customers.

Last week, the administration released its latest proposal along these lines, by changing the definition of so-called short-term plans. These plans don’t need to follow any of the Obamacare requirements, including popular rules that plans include a standard set of benefits, or cover people with pre-existing conditions. If the rule becomes final, these plans could go from short term to lasting nearly a year or longer.

Taken together, experts say, the administration’s actions will tend to increase the price of health insurance that follows all the Affordable Care Act’s rules and increase the popularity of health plans that cover fewer services. The resultcould be divided markets, where healthier people buy lightly regulated plans that don’t cover much health care, lower earners get highly subsidized Obamacare — and sicker middle-class peopleface escalating costs for insurance with comprehensive benefits.

But not everywhere. Several states are considering whether to adopt their own versions of the individual mandate, Obamacare’s rule that people who can afford insurance should pay a fine if they don’t obtain it. A few are looking to tighten rules for short-term health plans. Some states are investing heavily on Obamacare outreach and marketing, even as the federal government cuts back.

The result is likely to be big differences in health insurance options and coverage, depending on where you live. States that lean into the changes might have more health insurance offerings with small price tags, but ones that are inaccessible to people with health problems and don’t cover major health services, like prescription drugs. States pushing back may see more robust Obamacare markets of highly regulated plans, but the price of those plans is likely to remain higher.

 Legislation to replace the individual mandate has already been introduced in Maryland and New Jersey with prominent sponsors. Political leaders in other states, including California, Washington, Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut as well as the District of Columbia, are weighing options for replacing the mandate this year, as Stephanie Armour reported in The Wall Street Journal. The mandate was designed to give healthier people an incentive to buy insurance before they fell ill, lowering the cost of insurance for everyone who buys it.

“Clearly, I think the federal administration and Congress are moving in one direction,” said Brian Feldman, a Maryland state senator who leads the state health subcommittee and was the primary sponsor of mandate legislation there. “And I think states like Maryland would like to move in a different direction.”

Mr. Feldman and his colleagues aren’t planning simply to replicate the federal individual mandate. Instead, they are trying a new strategy. People who fail to obtain insurance would still be charged a fine, but they would be allowed to use that money as a “down payment” on a health plan if they wished. Legislators estimate that many people subject to the penalty would not owe anything more to buy health insurance, after federal tax credits are applied.

Other states are hoping to mimic the expiring federal policy more closely. The board governing the insurance marketplace for the District of Columbia voted last week to recommend the adoption of an individual mandate replacement. Connecticut’s governor, Dannel Malloy, is considering a proposal by a Yale health economist.

Those plans are more similar to the Affordable Care Act’s approach, in part for expedience. The federal mandate is set to expire next year, and insurance companies need to develop their health plans and submit 2019 prices by this summer.

“The idea that a state would be able to stand up something, and put out any guidance, and advise stakeholders, and be able to do it by 2019, is pretty infeasible,” said Jason Levitis, a former Obama administration Treasury Department official who has developed legislation to help states draft mandate replacement bills.

Imposing state-level versions of the mandate may be a political challenge even in blue states. But other strategies are in play, too. California is one of a handful of states considering a bill that would effectively ban the short-term insurance plans proposed by the Trump administration. (New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island already effectively block them.)

A number of states across the political spectrum are also considering policies that would provide so-called reinsurance funds, to help protect health insurers from rare, very expensive patients, and help them lower the prices for everyone else.

Alaska, Minnesota and Oregon have already adopted such plans. Washington, New Jersey, Maine, Colorado, Wisconsin and Maryland are working on proposals. Heather Howard, who directs the state health and values strategies program at Princeton University, said that reinsurance plans operated more like a “carrot” in stabilizing insurance markets. They may prove appealing to a broader array of states, while the mandate, a “stick,” may interest politicians only in the most liberal places.

Some Obamacare-averse states are pursuing policies meant to circumvent the health law’s rules for insurance, and broaden options for cheaper, lightly regulated health plans. Idaho has announced a plan to allow insurers to offer health plans that don’t comply with many of Obamacare’s core rules, and one insurer, Blue Cross of Idaho, has said it will begin selling such plans next month.

Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services secretary, has been cagey about whether he will step in to enforce federal law forbidding such products. Meanwhile, the Iowa legislature is considering a bill that would allow a different type of health plan to circumvent Obamacare rules, as The Des Moines Register recently reported. Medica, the only insurer currently offering Obamacare plans, said it might depart the Iowa market if the plan were approved.

The Affordable Care Act was drafted with room for state customization, but one of its primary goals was to make health insurance around the country more uniform. Thanks to state resistance to the health law, varying local conditions and a Supreme Court decision that made the Medicaid expansion optional, results have been much more uneven. Some states have seen much bigger reductions in the share of the uninsured than others. Only some states have seen insurance premiums stabilize.

“Without question I think we’re going to see a natural experiment in the states and a growing divergence in outcomes,” said Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute.

Evidence of that divergence is already here. This year, signups for Affordable Care Act health plans were nearly flat compared with last year, despite huge cuts in federal outreach and advertisement. But states that ran their marketplaces and spent heavily on advertising saw stronger signups, while states that were more resistant to the health law experienced drops. The loss of the mandate, and the proliferation of health plans that don’t follow Obamacare’s rules, are likely to widen those gulfs.



UPDATE: CMS seeks expansion of short-term plans to sidestep ACA


Image result for Out of Pocket expenses

Dive Brief:

  • HHS issued a proposed rule on Tuesday that expands the availability of short-term health insurance by allowing the purchase of plans providing coverage for up to 12 months, the latest in the Trump administration’s plans to weaken the Affordable Care Act. The action builds off a request for information by HHS last June on ways to increase affordability of health insurance.
  • The current maximum period for such plans is less than three months, a change made by the Obama administration in 2016. The proposed rule would mark a return to the pre-2016 era, but CMS noted that it is seeking comment on offering short-term plans for periods longer than 12 months.
  • Short-term plans are not required to comply with federal rules for individual health insurance under the ACA, so the plans could charge more for those with preexisting conditions and not provide what the ACA deemed essential health benefits like maternity care.

Dive Insight:

The proposed rule builds off of an executive order President Donald Trump signed in October, which instructed the federal government to explore more access to association health plans, expanding short-term limited duration plans and changes to health reimbursement arrangements or HRAs.

Consumers buying these short-terms plans could lose access to certain healthcare services and providers and experience an increase in out-of-pocket expenditures for some patients, according to the proposal.

The short-term plans “would be unlikely to include all the elements of ACA-compliant plans, such as the preexisting condition exclusion prohibition, coverage of essential health benefits without annual or lifetime dollar limits, preventive care, maternity and prescription drug coverage, rating restrictions and guaranteed renewability,” according to the proposed rule.

The Trump administration argues that expanding access to short-term plans is increasingly important due to rising premiums in the individual markets.

But if young and healthy people leave the individual market for short-term plans, it could contribute to an unbalanced risk pool. HHS itself states that the exodus of young and healthy exchange members could contribute to rising premiums within the ACA exchange markets.

“If individual market single risk pools change as a result, it would result in an increase in premiums for the individuals remaining in those risk pools,” the proposed rule stated.

But when asked about concerns that the idea might hurt the stability of the ACA marketplaces by siphoning healthy people away, CMS Administrator Seema Verma argued there would be little impact.

“No, we don’t think there’s any validity to that — based on our projections only a very small number of healthy people will shift from the individual market to these short-term limited duration plans. Specifically, we estimate that only 100,000 to 200,000 people will shift. And this shift will have will have virtually no impact on the individual market premiums,” Verma said on a press call.

But the insurance lobby cautioned that the action could increase insurance prices for the most vulnerable.

The American Hospital Association and Association for Community Affiliated Plans also slammed the short-term plans, saying they would increase the cost of comprehensive coverage.

“Short-term, limited-duration health plans have a role for consumers who experience gaps in coverage. They are not unlike the small spare tire in a car: they get the job done for short periods of time, but they have severe limitations and you’ll get in trouble if you drive too fast on them,” ACAP CEO Margaret Murray said in a statement.

“While we are reviewing the proposed rule to understand its impact on the people we serve, we remain concerned that expanded use of short-term policies could further fragment the individual market, which would lead to higher premiums for many consumers, particularly those with pre-existing conditions,” said Kristine Grow, SVP of communications at America’s Health Insurance Plans.

HHS anticipates most individuals switching from individual market plans to short-term coverage plans would be relatively young or healthy and not eligible to receive ACA’s premium tax credits.

CMS said the proposal is one to help the 28 million Americans without health insurance, pointing to the 6.7 million who chose to pay the individual mandate penalty in 2015 as evidence that ACA-compliant plans are too expensive.

“In a market that is experiencing double-digit rate increases, allowing short-term, limited-duration insurance to cover longer periods gives Americans options and could be the difference between someone getting coverage or going without coverage at all,” Verma said in a statement.

Senate HELP Committee Chair Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., praised the action, but cautioned that states still have a responsibility to protect consumers.

“Millions of Americans who are between jobs and who pay for their own insurance will welcome this extended option for lower-cost, short-term policies. States will have the responsibility for making sure these policies benefit consumers,” Alexander said in a statement.

Democrats largely oppose the move, arguing it will further destabilize the market for millions of Americans in the ACA exchanges. “Widespread marketing of these bare bones, junk plans will further destabilize health insurance markets, and will lead to higher premiums for everyone,” a group of House Democrats said in a joint statement.

As Republicans are not likely to take up ACA repeal again any time soon, the Trump administration has been working to pare back the law in the past several months. It halved the enrollment period and stopped paying cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers. Also, the recent tax overhaul included a repeal of the law’s requirement that most people have coverage.

California confronts the complexities of creating a single-payer healthcare system


California confronts the complexities of creating a single-payer healthcare system

California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon may have expected to torpedo the idea of a statewide single-payer healthcare system for the long term last June, when he blocked a Senate bill on the issue from even receiving a hearing in his house.

He was wrong, of course. His shelving of the Senate bill created a political uproar (including the threat of a recall effort), forcing him to create a special committee to examine the possibility of achieving universal health coverage in the state. On Monday and Wednesday, the Select Committee on Health Care Delivery Systems and Universal Coverage held its final hearings.

The panel ended up where it started, with the recognition that the project is hellishly complex and politically daunting but still worthwhile — yet can’t happen overnight. “I’m anxious to see what it is that we can actually be working on this year,” committee Co-Chair Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg) said toward the end of Wednesday’s seven-hour session. “Some of the logistics and the challenges we have to deal with are multiyear challenges.”

The No. 1 experience missing from the American healthcare system is peace of mind.

Little has changed since last year, when a measure sponsored by the California Nurses Assn., SB 562, passed the Senate in June and was killed by Rendon (D-Paramount) in the Assembly. The same bill, aimed at universal coverage for all residents of the state, including undocumented immigrants, is the subject of the select committee’s hearings and the template for statewide reform.

Backers of the Healthy California program envisioned by the bill feel as if they’re in a race with federal officials intent on dismantling healthcare reforms attained with the Affordable Care Act, and even those dating from the 1960s with enactment of Medicare and Medicaid.

In just the last few weeks, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has approved adding a work requirement to Medicaid in Kentucky and begun considering a plan to place lifetime limits on Medicaid benefits — profound changes in a program traditionally aimed at bringing healthcare to needy families.

The Republican-controlled Congress effectively repealed the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act. That is likely to drive up premiums for unsubsidized middle-income insurance buyers and has prompted California and other states to consider implementing such a mandate on their own. (Idaho is moving distinctly in the opposite direction from California, proposing to allow “state-based health plans” that allow insurers to discriminate against applicants with pre-existing conditions.

Healthy California would be the most far-reaching single-state project for universal health coverage in the nation. That’s to be expected, since the state’s nation-leading population (39 million) and gross domestic product ($2.6 trillion) provide the impetus to solve big social and economic issues on its own.

The program would take over responsibility for almost all medical spending in the state, including federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, employer-sponsored health plans, and Affordable Care Act plans. It would relieve employers, their workers and buyers in the individual market of premiums, deductibles and co-pays, paying the costs out of a state fund.

All California residents would be eligible to obtain treatment from any licensed doctor in the state. Dental and vision care and prescription drugs would be included. Insurance companies would be barred from replicating any services offered by the program.

Doctors and hospitals would be paid rates roughly analogous to Medicare reimbursements, and the program would be expected to negotiate prices with providers and pharmaceutical companies, presumably by offering them access to more than 39 million potential patients.

Wood stressed that the goal of reform is to lower healthcare prices, or at least to slow the rate of growth. Yet that may mean focusing on the wrong challenge.

The mechanics of cost reduction aren’t much of a mystery. As several witnesses at the latest hearings observed, the key is reducing unit prices — lower prices per dose of drug, lower reimbursements for physicians and hospitals, all of which are higher in the U.S. than the average among industrialized countries. It will also help to remove insurance industry profit and overhead (an estimated 15% of healthcare spending), not to mention the expenses they impose on billing departments at medical offices and hospitals, from the system.

The real challenge, however, lies in the politics of transitioning to a new healthcare system. Advocates of reform often overlook an important aspect of how Americans view the existing system. Although it’s roundly cursed in the abstract, most people are reasonably satisfied with their coverage.


That’s because most people seldom or never experience difficult or costly interactions with the healthcare system. Horror stories of treatments denied and astronomical bills charged are legion. But the truth is that annual healthcare spending is very heavily concentrated among a small number of people.

The top 5% of spenders account for half of all spending, the top 20% of spenders for about 80%. According to the National Institute for Health Care Management, the bottom 50% of spenders account for only about 3% of all spending.

These are annual figures, so over a lifetime any person may have more contacts with the system. But that may explain why it’s hard to persuade Americans to abandon a system many consider to be just good enough for something entirely new, replete with possibilities that it could turn out to be worse.

The nurses association is pegging its reform campaign to the uncertainties built into the existing system. “The experience of most Americans is that they’re satisfied with what they’re getting, but there’s a great deal of anxiety,” says Michael Lighty, the group’s director of public policy. “The No. 1 experience missing from the American healthcare system is peace of mind. People are not afraid that what they have will be taken away, but that what they have will not be adequate for what they need.”

In terms of funding, the idea is for the state to take over the $370 billion to $400 billion a year already spent on healthcare in California. (The higher estimate is from the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, the lower from the nurses association.) That includes $200 billion in federal funds, chiefly Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare subsidies; and an additional $150 billion to $200 billion in premiums for employer insurance and private plans and out-of-pocket spending by families.

University of Massachusetts economist Robert Pollin, the nurses’ program consultant, estimates that the program will be about 18% cheaper than existing health plans, thanks to administrative savings, lower fees for drugs, physicians, and hospitals, and a step up in preventive services and a step down in unnecessary treatments.

That would leave about $106 billion a year, as of 2017, needed to replace the employer and private spending that would be eliminated. Pollin suggests doing so through an increase of 2.3% in the sales tax and the addition of a 2.3% gross receipts tax on businesses (or a 3.3% payroll tax, shared by employers and workers), instead of the gross receipts tax. Each levy would include exemptions for small businesses and low-income families.

Anyone with experience in California tax politics knows this is a potential brick wall. Taxes of this magnitude will generate intense opposition, despite the nurses’ argument that relief from premiums and other charges means that families and business will come out ahead.

But that’s not the only obstacle. A workaround would have to be found for California Constitution requirements that a portion of tax revenues be devoted to education. A California universal coverage plan would require “a high degree of collaboration between the federal government and the state,” Juliette Cubanski of the Kaiser Family Foundation told the committee Monday. Waivers from Medicare and Medicaid rules would have to be secured from the Department of Health and Human Services; redirecting Medicare funds to the state might require congressional approval.

A federal law that preempts state regulations of employee health benefits might limit how much California could do to force employer plans into a state system.

Obtaining the legal waivers needed from the federal government to give the state access to federal funds would take two to three years “with a friendly administration,” Wood said. “We don’t have a friendly administration now.”

Advocates of change are understandably impatient in the face of rising healthcare costs and the federal government’s hostility to reform. Shocked gasps went up from the hearing audience Wednesday when Wood casually remarked, “It is absolutely imperative that we slow this down.” Startled by the reaction, he quickly specified that he meant “slow the costs down.”

The desire to pursue the goal of universal coverage, whether through a single-payer model or a hybrid, plainly remains strong in Sacramento, in the face of the vacuum created by the Republican Congress and Trump White House.

As Betsy Estudillo, a senior policy manager for the California Immigrant Policy Center put it at Wednesday’s hearing, “The nation needs California’s leadership, now more than ever.”


Idaho Blue Cross Jumps Into Controversial Market For Plans That Bypass ACA Rules

Idaho Blue Cross Jumps Into Controversial Market For Plans That Bypass ACA Rules

Image result for idaho skinny healthcare plans


That didn’t take long.

It’s barely been two weeks since Idaho regulators said they would allow the sale of health insurance that does not meet all of the Affordable Care Act’s requirements — a controversial step some experts said would likely draw legal scrutiny and, potentially, federal fines for any insurer that jumped in.

On Wednesday, Blue Cross of Idaho unveiled a menu of new health plans that break with federal health law rules in several ways, including setting premiums based on applicants’ health.

“We’re trying to offer a choice that allows the middle class to get back into insurance coverage,” said Dave Jeppesen, the insurer’s executive vice president for consumer health care.

The firm filed five plans to the state for approval and hopes to start selling them as soon as next month.

The Blue Cross decision ups the ante for Alex Azar, the Trump administration’s new Health and Human Services secretary. Will he use his authority under federal law to compel Idaho to follow the ACA and reject the Blues plans? Or will he allow state regulators to move forward, perhaps prompting other states to take more sweeping actions?

At a congressional hearing Wednesday, even as Blue Cross rolled out its plans, Azar faced such questions.

“There are rules. There is a rule of law that we need to enforce,” Azar said. Observers noted, however, he did not specifically indicate whether the federal government would step in.

Robert Laszewski, a consultant and former insurance industry executive, thinks it should.

“If Idaho is able to do this, it will mean other … states will do the same thing,” he said. “If a state can ignore federal law on this, it can ignore federal law on everything.”

Idaho’s move stirs up more issues about individual insurance market stability.

Policy experts say that allowing lower-cost plans that don’t meet the ACA’s standards to become more widespread will pull younger and healthier people out of Obamacare, raising prices for those who remain. Supporters say that is already happening, so this simply provides more choices for people who earn too much to qualify for subsidies to help them purchase ACA coverage.

The state’s move to allow such plans, announced in January, drew harsh and swift criticism.

“Crazypants illegal,” tweeted Nicholas Bagley, a law professor at the University of Michigan and former attorney with the civil division of the U.S. Department of Justice, who said that states can’t pick and choose which parts of federal law to follow. Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms, pointed out that health insurers could be liable for sharp fines if they are found to be in violation of the ACA.

But both Idaho regulators and Blue Cross officials say they are not worried.

Jeppesen said the ACA gives states regulatory authority “to make sure the market works and is stable,” and the insurer is simply “following what the state has given us guidance” to do.

Other insurers in Idaho are taking a much more cautious approach, telling The Wall Street Journal they are not stepping up immediately to offer their own plans.

Laszewski said they are likely waiting to see what legal challenges develop.

“If I were running an insurance company, there’s no way I would stick my neck out until the high court has ruled in favor of this — and they’re not going to,” he said.

Jeppesen said his company has consulted with legal experts and is moving ahead with confidence. The aim is to bring people back into the market, particularly the young, the healthy and those who don’t get a tax credit subsidy and can’t afford an ACA plan.

For some people — especially younger or healthier applicants — the new plans, which the insurer has named Freedom Blue, cost less per month than policies that meet all ACA rules.

They accomplish that by limiting coverage. If they are allowed to be sold, consumers will need to weigh the lower premiums against some of the coverage restrictions and variable premiums and deductibles, policy experts say.

The plans, for example, will include a “waiting period” of up to 12 months for any preexisting conditions if the applicant has been without coverage for more than 63 days, Jeppesen said.

Additionally, they cap total medical care coverage at $1 million annually. And premiums are based, in part, on a person’s health: The healthiest consumers get rates 50 percent below standard levels, while those deemed unhealthy would be charged 50 percent more.

All those caveats violate ACA rules, which forbid insurers from rejecting coverage of preexisting conditions or setting dollar caps on benefits or higher premiums for people with health problems.

But the rates may prove attractive to some.

Premiums for a healthy 45-year-old, for example, could be as low as $195 a month, according to a comparison issued by the insurer, while a 45-year-old with health problems could be charged $526. In that case, the 45-year old would find a lower price tag — $343 a month — for an ACA-compliant bronze plan.

While Freedom Blues plans cover many of the “essential health benefits” required under the ACA, such as hospitalization, emergency care and mental health treatment, they do not include pediatric dental or vision coverage. One of the five plans does not include maternity coverage.

When compared with one of the Blues’ ACA-compliant plans — called the Bronze 5500 — the new standard Freedom Blue plan’s annual deductibles are a mixed bag.

That’s because they have two separate deductibles — one for medical care and one for drugs. If a consumer took only generic drugs, the new plan would be less expensive, according to details provided by the plan. But with a $4,000 deductible for brand-name drugs, the Freedom Blue plan requires more upfront money before full coverage kicks in than the ACA-compliant plan it was compared with.

Jeppesen said the insurer hopes to attract many of the “110,000 uninsured state residents who cannot afford [ACA] coverage.”

That’s the total number of uninsured people who earn more than 100 percent of the federal poverty level in the state, he said.

Sarah Lueck, senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, cautioned that some of those residents might actually be eligible for subsidies under the ACA, which are available to people earning up to four times as much.

“Many … could be getting subsidies for more comprehensive coverage through the [ACA-compliant state exchange] and would be better off,” Lueck said.


Podcast: ‘What The Health?’ The State Of The (Health) Union

Podcast: ‘What The Health?’ The State Of The (Health) Union

Image result for Podcast: ‘What The Health?’ The State Of The (Health) Union

In his first State of the Union Address, President Donald Trump told the American public that “one of my greatest priorities is to reduce the price of prescription drugs.” But that message could barely begin to sink in before other health news developed: The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was forced to resign Wednesday after conflict-of-interest reports.

Meanwhile, outside the federal government, Idaho is proposing to allow the sale of individual insurance policies that specifically violate portions of the Affordable Care Act. And three mega-companies — Amazon, Berkshire-Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase — say they will partner to try to control costs and improve quality for their employees’ health care.

This week’s “What The Health?” panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Alice Ollstein of Talking Points Memo and Julie Appleby and Sarah Jane Tribble of Kaiser Health News.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Despite Trump’s strong rhetoric in the State of the Union Address, the president has taken few actions during his first year in office to reduce drug prices.
  • The president touted that Republicans had repealed the health law’s requirement that individuals get health insurance or pay a penalty. But that change in the law doesn’t go into effect until 2019, so his comments could be confusing to some taxpayers.
  • Idaho officials have announced that they are going to allow insurers to issue policies that don’t meet all the criteria of the federal health law. But it’s not clear that insurers are interested in participating in the experiment.
  • “Alexa, send me my Lipitor!” Can Amazon’s announcement that it and two other corporate behemoths are taking on employees’ health care create a new formula for keeping costs down and improving quality?