How Did State-Run Health Insurance Marketplaces Fare in 2017?

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  • Issue: Sixteen states and the District of Columbia manage their own health insurance marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act. These states, which were broadly supportive of health reform, chose to run their marketplaces to exert greater control over their insurance markets and tailor the portals to suit local needs. Though federal policy changes and political uncertainty around the ACA in 2017 have posed challenges across the country, states that operate their own marketplaces had greater flexibility than others to respond.
  • Goal: To understand how states on the forefront of health reform perceived and responded to federal policy changes and political uncertainty in 2017.
  • Methods: Structured interviews with the leadership staff of 15 of the 17 state-run marketplaces.
  • Findings and Conclusions: Respondents unanimously suggested that federal administrative actions and repeal efforts have created confusion and uncertainty that have negatively affected their markets. The state-run marketplaces used their broader authority to reduce consumer confusion and promote stable insurer participation. However, their capacity to deal with federal uncertainty has limits and respondents stated that long-term stability requires a reliable federal partner.


The Affordable Care Act created health insurance marketplaces, also known as exchanges, in each state to help people who don’t have access to insurance through an employer or public program. The marketplaces act as a gateway to coverage for residents, providing a platform through which they can compare and purchase plans. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia are responsible for managing their own marketplaces; 34 states rely on the federal government to operate their exchange.

States that decided to manage their marketplaces wanted to retain control over their insurance markets and have the authority to tailor the portal to meet local needs.2 Compared with states using the federally run marketplace, nearly all these states have expanded their Medicaid programs and have been much more likely to adopt the ACA’s consumer protections into state law — potentially making it easier to enforce these reforms.3

Since President Trump’s election, the ACA and marketplaces have faced an uncertain future. The president has been openly hostile to the ACA and sought its repeal.4 At the same time, the administration has made regulatory and other implementation changes and reduced the funding that supports the marketplaces. These decisions have all affected how the law operates in practice and have had serious repercussions across the country.5 However, the impact has not been uniform. It has varied, in part, based on the choices state policymakers have made in implementing the ACA — including whether to run their own exchange.

We sought to understand how states that have been more actively engaged in reform have perceived federal policy changes and political uncertainty in 2017, and to explore whether these states were better able to promote stability within their markets. To do so, we interviewed the leadership staff of 15 of the 17 state-run marketplaces in September and October 2017.6 This brief explores key themes that emerged from those interviews. It identifies the major challenges facing the marketplaces as they went into the fifth open enrollment period, how states responded to those challenges, and the limits on states’ capacities to act.

Key Findings

Federal Actions Made It Harder for States to Manage Their Own Marketplaces

Marketplace respondents were unanimous in suggesting that actions taken by the Trump administration and ongoing efforts to repeal the ACA have created confusion and uncertainty that have negatively affected their markets. While these marketplaces had experienced ups and downs during their first three years of operation, many respondents were relatively optimistic in the fall of 2016 about future enrollment growth and stability in terms of plan participation and premiums — a view supported by independent analyses.7 But federal developments in 2017 made the challenges of the previous year “pale in comparison,” and respondents described a far more uncertain future.

Officials highlighted four federal-level developments during 2017 that jeopardized stability. First, respondents said that the administration’s repeated threats to end federal payments supporting the ACA’s cost-sharing reduction (CSR) plans caused protracted confusion and disruption and placed states in a “real jam.” These threats were eventually carried out, after months of uncertainty, in October 2017. But as deadlines for marketplace participation and rate setting for the upcoming year (2018) came and went with no clarity on whether the administration would continue to reimburse insurers for the cost of the CSR subsidies, marketplaces struggled to get insurers to commit to participate and to develop responses to the significantly higher premiums the insurers sought to offset the lost payments.8

Second, most respondents noted that actions taken by the administration to undermine the ACA’s individual mandate had the effect of undermining their marketplaces, as well. The requirement to maintain coverage, ultimately repealed on a prospective basis in December, was the law of the land throughout 2017 (and remains so in 2018). However, officials noted that an executive order, signed by the president on Inauguration Day, cast doubt on the enforcement of the mandate and caused insurers to be more cautious when setting rates.9 Many priced higher than they would have otherwise, fearing that a weakened mandate would lead to a sicker and more expensive risk pool.10 The president’s actions and words were also perceived to have caused widespread confusion among consumers about whether the requirement to maintain coverage was still the law.

In a related vein, officials repeatedly expressed frustration at “federal noise”: ongoing but thus far inconclusive discussions about repealing and replacing the ACA, and related rhetoric by administration officials and congressional allies asserting that the health law was “dead” or “collapsing.” Respondents said it was a challenge to ensure residents had accurate information. They reported many instances of consumer confusion about the marketplaces, the mandate, coverage options, and the status of the health law, in general.

Fourth, a majority of respondents predicted that the administration’s decision to reduce advertising spending for the federal marketplace by 90 percent would have negative side effects for the state-run exchanges. Officials in both big and small states explained that because the federal marketing campaign was national in scope and used television advertising — a medium too expensive for several state marketplaces — it was effective in reaching their residents and had complemented state messaging efforts in prior years. Several respondents also lamented the perceived political ramifications of the funding cut, suggesting that the administration’s action would cause enrollment through the federal exchange to diminish, putting the entire program at greater risk of repeal.


Republicans release new plan to lower health premiums, stabilize Obamacare markets

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 Sen. Lamar Alexander and other congressional Republicans are pressing forward with their latest plan to stabilize Obamacare health insurance markets and help provide coverage for patients with high medical costs.

But while previous versions have had bipartisan support, Democrats are refusing to back the latest bill.

Alexander and three key Republicans filed legislation Monday that they said could provide coverage for an additional 3.2 million individuals and lower premiums by as much as 40 percent for people who don’t get their health insurance through the government or their employer.

Beginning in 2019, the bill would reinstate for three years the government subsidies paid to insurers that provide health-care coverage to low-income clients. It also would provide $30 billion in funding – $10 billion a year over three years – to help states set up high-risk insurance pools to provide coverage for people with high medical costs.

The proposal also would revise the Obamacare waiver process so that states will have more flexibility to design and regulate insurance plans. In addition, it would require the Department of Health and Human Services to issue regulations allowing insurers to sell plans across state lines.

“Our recommendations are based upon Senate and House proposals developed in several bipartisan hearings and roundtable discussions,” the proposal’s Republican sponsors said in a statement.

The bill is sponsored in the Senate by Alexander, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. The sponsors in the House are Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Penn.

The lawmakers are hoping to include the bill in a massive spending package that Congress is expected to take up by the end of the week. President Donald Trump told Alexander and Collins in a conference call over the weekend that he wants money to lower health insurance premiums included in the spending package.

The bill marks the latest attempt by lawmakers to offer short-term fixes that could bring some stability to the volatile health insurance markets created under the Affordable Care Act and help offset the higher insurance premiums expected to result from the repeal of the Obamacare requirement that most Americans buy insurance.

Alexander and the Senate health committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, struck a deal last fall to extend the cost-sharing subsidies for two years. Trump has halted the payments, established under the Affordable Care Act, which are worth around $7 billion each year.

But Murray and other Democrats are refusing to sign onto the latest proposal because it includes language that they say would expand the restrictions on federal funding of abortions.

“Senator Murray is disappointed that Republicans are rallying behind a new partisan bill that includes a last-minute, harmful restriction on abortion coverage for private insurance companies instead of working with Democrats to wrap up what have been bipartisan efforts to reduce health care costs,” said Murray’s spokeswoman, Helen Hare.

Murray “hopes the unexpected release of this partisan legislation isn’t a signal from Republicans that they have once again ended ongoing negotiations aimed at lowering families’ health care costs in favor of partisan politics, and that they come back to the table to finally get this done,” Hare said.

Republicans, meanwhile, pointed to an analysis by health care experts at the management consulting firm Oliver Wyman that compared the new proposal to what people in the individual market will pay if Congress fails to act.

The analysis showed that the package would reduce premiums by up to 40 percent in the individual market for farmers, small business owners and others who don’t buy their insurance from the government or their employer.

A self-employed plumber making $60,000, for example, may be paying $20,000 for health insurance now, but over time that insurance bill could be cut up to $8,000, the lawmakers said.

Preliminary projections from the Congressional Budget Office indicated that the plan could be adopted without adding to the federal debt.


Back to the Health Policy Drawing Board

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The Affordable Care Act needs help. After scores of failed repeal attempts, Congress enacted legislation late last year that eliminated one of the law’s central features, the mandate requiring people to buy insurance.

Obamacare, as the Affordable Care Act is widely known, isn’t in imminent danger of collapse, but the mandate’s repeal poses a serious long-term threat.

To understand that threat and how it might be parried, it’s helpful to consider why the United States has relied so heavily on employer-provided insurance — and why it has not yet adopted a form of the universal coverage seen in most other countries.

First, some basics on private insurance: It works well only when many people, each with a low risk of loss, buy in. Most homeowners buy fire insurance, for example, and only a small fraction file claims annually. A modest premium can therefore cover large losses sustained by a few.

But because of what economists call the adverse-selection problem, this model can easily break down for private health insurance. People typically know more about their own health risks than insurers do, making those most at risk more likely to purchase insurance.

This drives premiums up, making insurance still less attractive to the healthiest people. That, in turn, causes many to drop out, producing the fabled “death spiral” in which only the least healthy people remain insured. But at that point, private health insurance may no longer be viable, because annual treatment costs for serious illnesses often exceed several hundred thousand dollars.

Most nations have solved this problem by adopting universal coverage financed by taxes. The United States probably would have followed this approach except for a historical anomaly during World War II. Fearing runaway inflation in tight labor markets, the American government imposed a cap on wages.

But the cap didn’t apply to fringe benefits, which employers quickly exploited as a recruiting tool. Employer health plans proved particularly attractive, since their cost was a deductible expense and they were not taxed. Before the war started, only 9 percent of workers had employer-provided insurance, but 63 percent had it by 1953.

To be eligible for favorable tax treatment, companies were required to make their plans available to all employees, which mitigated the adverse-selection problem. People would lose insurance if they lost their jobs, which inhibited labor mobility, but since employment relationships were relatively durable in the postwar years, this arrangement worked well enough.

But after peaking at almost 70 percent in the 1990s, employer coverage began declining in the face of stagnating wages and rising insurance costs. By 2010, only 56 percent of the nonelderly American population still had workplace health plans.

Even so, because more than 100 million Americans still had such plans and were reasonably satisfied with them, the Obama administration opted to build health reform atop the existing system. In addition to allowing people to keep their existing employer coverage, Obamacare expanded eligibility for Medicaid and established exchanges in which people without employer plans could buy insurance.

At the outset, Obamacare had three central features:

• Insurers could not charge higher prices to people with pre-existing conditions.

• Those without coverage had to pay a penalty to the government (the “mandate”).

• Low-income people would be eligible for subsidies.

The first two provisions were necessary to prevent the death spiral, and government couldn’t mandate insurance purchases without adding subsidies for the poor.

Despite a bumpy rollout and some frustrations over shrinking choices and rising prices at health care exchanges, Obamacare was working remarkably well by most important metrics. Program costs were much lower than expected, and the uninsured rate among nonelderly Americans fell sharply — from 18.2 percent in 2010 to only 10.3 percent in 2018.

This progress is now imperiled.

The mandate — by far the program’s least popular provision — was repealed as part of tax legislation passed in December 2017. And because economists predict that its absence will slowly rekindle the insurance death spiral, we’re forced back to the policy drawing board.

The most common response has been to call for a variant of the single-payer systems employed by most other countries, which promise dramatic reductions in health costs.

The United States spends far more on health care than any other nation, yet gets worse outcomes on most measures. In part this is because administrative and marketing expenses are much lower under single-payer plans. But by far the most important source of savings is that governments are able to negotiate much more favorable terms with service providers. Virtually every procedure, test, and drug costs substantially more here than elsewhere.

An American hospital stay, for example, costs more than twelve times as much as one in the Netherlands. The single-payer approach also sidesteps the thorny mandate objection by covering everyone out of tax revenue.

A June 2017 poll showed that 60 percent of Americans said the government should provide universal coverage, and support for single-payer insurance rose more than one-third since 2014.

Yet a move to a single-payer system faces the same hurdle that shaped Obamacare: Millions of Americans would resist any attempt to take their employer-provided plans away. And although single-payer health care would be far less costly overall, it would be paid for by taxes — the most visible form of sacrifice — rather than by the implicit levies that underwrite employer coverage.

From a purely economic standpoint, the increased tax burden is irrelevant. It’s a truism that making the economic pie larger necessarily makes it possible for everyone to get a larger slice than before. And because the gains from single-payer insurance would be so large, there must be ways to make everyone come out ahead, even in the short run.

The Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker, for example, has proposed the introduction of Medicare Part E (Medicare for Everyone), which would allow anyone to buy into Medicare, regardless of age. The program’s budget would be supported in part by levies on employers that don’t offer insurance.

The cost savings inherent in this form of single-payer coverage would lead more and more firms to abandon their current plans voluntarily. Gradually, the age for standard Medicare eligibility also would fall until the entire population was covered by it. The Center for American Progress has now introduced a similar proposal.

It’s critical to realize that there are attractive paths forward. In no other wealthy country do we see people organize bake sales to help pay for a neighbor’s cancer care. We can avoid this national embarrassment without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone.



No, Trump Hasn’t ‘Essentially Repealed Obamacare’

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Killing the mandate doesn’t gut the health care law. Most likely, it will muddle along, because the rest of it is broadly popular.

In July and again in September, Republicans narrowly failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But their newly passed tax legislation included a provision getting rid of Obamacare’s mandate requiring Americans to buy insurance, and President Donald Trump immediately declared victory in the partisan health care wars. “When the individual mandate is being repealed, that means Obamacare is being repealed,” he crowed at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday. “We have essentially repealed Obamacare.”

Well, no. The individual mandate is only part of Obamacare. It wasn’t even included in the original health care plan that Barack Obama unveiled during the 2008 campaign. The mandate did become an important element of Obamacare, and the only specific element that a majority of the public opposed. But the more generous elements of the program—like a major expansion of Medicaid, significant government subsidies for private insurance premiums, and strict protections for pre-existing conditions—are still popular, and still the law of the land.

“The death of Obamacare has been exaggerated,” says Larry Levitt, who oversees health reform studies at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Eliminating the mandate creates uncertainty, but all the benefits for people remain in place.”

The Republican ecstasy and Democratic gloom over the death of the mandate reflects the most consistent misperception over the seven-plus years of Affordable Care Act debates, the incorrect assumption that the “Obamacare exchanges,” where Americans can buy private insurance, are synonymous with Obamacare. The vast majority of Americans who get their coverage through Medicare, Medicaid or their employers shouldn’t be affected. Yes, killing the mandate could cause problems for the remaining 6 percent of Americans who have to buy insurance on the open market, but nearly half will remain eligible for subsidies that would insulate them from any premium hikes.

Repealing the tax penalties for Americans who don’t buy insurance would not repeal Obamacare’s perks for Americans who do—like the ban on annual and lifetime caps that insurers previously used to cut off coverage for their sickest customers, or the provision allowing parents to keep their children on their plans until they turn 26. And it would not repeal Obamacare’s “delivery reforms” that are quietly transforming the financial incentives in the medical system, gradually shifting reimbursements to reward the quality rather than quantity of care. The growth of U.S. health care costs has slowed dramatically since the launch of Obamacare, and the elimination of the mandate should not significantly affect that trend.

In fact, during the 2008 campaign, Obama was the only Democratic candidate whose health plan did not include a mandate, because he was the only Democratic candidate who thought the main problem with health care was its cost. “It’s just too expensive,” he explained at an Iowa event in May 2007. Insurance premiums had almost doubled during the George W. Bush era, and Obama believed that was the reason so many Americans were uninsured. He doubted it would be worth the political heartburn to try to force people to buy insurance they couldn’t afford.

But Obama eventually embraced the argument that a mandate was necessary to ensure that young and healthy Americans bought insurance. The fear was that otherwise, insurance markets dominated by the old and sick (who would enjoy the law’s new protections for pre-existing conditions) would have produced even higher premiums, and might scare insurers away from serving Americans who don’t get coverage through their jobs or the government. Killing the mandate will be a step in that direction, boosting Trump’s heighten-the-contradictions effort to sabotage the functioning of Obamacare to build support for a more sweeping repeal.

That effort has already produced some damaging results for the exchanges. Insurers have increased their premiums for 2018, repeatedly citing uncertainty over Trump’s efforts to blow up Obamacare as well as his decision to cut off promised payments to insurers who cover lower-income families. Several insurers left the exchanges even before the elimination of the mandate, and others could follow.

But the widespread warnings that wide swaths of America would have no insurers on the exchanges were wrong; there are zero “bare counties” with no insurers for 2018. And a Kaiser review found the exchanges have gotten more profitable for insurers this year,despite Trump’s efforts to damage them. This year’s enrollment period appears to have gone fairly well even though the Trump administration shortened it by half and slashed its promotional budget.

The fear is that eliminating the mandate could produce a “death spiral” for the exchanges, where higher premiums scare away healthier customers, leading to even higher premiums and even sicker customers—until eventually,the insurers decide to bail. It could also encourage insurers to try to lure healthier customers with cheaper but skimpier plans that don’t provide protections for pre-existing conditions, since those customers would no longer have to pay a tax penalty.

But it is also possible that younger and healthier customers who initially bought insurance because they were required to do so will now buy insurance because they want to; surveys show that more than 75 five percent of Americans covered on the exchanges are happy with their coverage. And as a political matter, repealing the unpopular mandate could make it even harder for Republicans to pass legislation repealing insurance protections, Medicaid expansions and the rest of Obamacare, because the rest of Obamacare is popular. It’s not surprising that Republicans managed to kill the law’s vegetables, but it won’t be as easy to kill dessert.

Trump thinks congressional Democrats will soon be begging him to come up with a replacement for Obamacare, and even many Republicans who don’t embrace that fantasy believe the demise of the mandate will ratchet up pressure for a permanent solution to a seven-year political war. It could happen. But there hasn’t been a lot of bipartisanship in Washington lately, and after the Doug Jones upset in Alabama, it seems unlikely that a Senate with one fewer Republican will be more amenable to a Republican-only repeal bill.

The most likely outcome seems to be at least a few more years of Obamacare muddling through, and at least a few more years of Obamacare political warfare.


Tax Bill Threatens Our Health and Our Democracy

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Earlier this month, the Senate passed legislation that would overhaul the tax code, make dramatic changes to federal health care policy, and undermine the budgets of Medicaid and Medicare, two pillars of the American health care system. The House and Senate are now trying to reconcile their two tax bills. Each passed the legislation on a party-line vote, with one Republican voting against the bill in the Senate.

Congress is now one step away from passing a tax bill that will have a profound effect on the health and well-being of Americans for a generation. No one should forget that, to get this close, the Senate rushed to approve a deeply unpopular proposal with little transparency and due diligence — and no bipartisanship. Left unchecked, these actions will harm millions of Americans — and American democracy itself.

Even though the legislation has been framed as a tax bill, it is very much a health care bill. The Senate bill would eliminate the Affordable Care Act’s individual health insurance mandate, which would lead to the destabilization of the individual health insurance market. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that this change alone would increase individual premiums by 10% a year and cause as many as 13 million Americans to join the ranks of the uninsured by the end of the next decade. In California, the uninsured population would grow by 1.7 million people. Congress may still pass separate legislation to restore some stability to the individual market, but the leading proposals are too modest to prevent much damage.

Seismic Impact

On its own, the language in the tax bills would trigger a major earthquake in the health care system, and the aftershocks of this tax bill would be just as dangerous. By eliminating more than $1 trillion of federal revenue, the administration and congressional leaders are manufacturing a budget crisis that would likely lead to automatic cuts to Medicare under federal rules. The CBO, which examined the House bill, has estimated that those cuts could be around $25 billion a year. Republican leaders have also indicated they intend to use the revenue shortfall that they are engineering with this tax bill to seek deep cuts in safety-net programs, starting with Medicaid.

This isn’t merely about what the legislation will do to health care, because it also would exacerbate inequality and worsen health disparities in this country. Under both the House and Senate bills, low- and middle-income families would pay more in taxes and have a harder time paying not just for health care, but also for food, housing, child care, education, and other basic needs. When people struggle so much to make ends meet, they suffer more from illness and die younger. And if inequality keeps getting worse, it will undermine the economic, social, and political stability upon which our nation depends.

The burden on Californians would be particularly heavy. Our families would no longer be able to deduct what they pay in state and local taxes on their federal tax returns. This change alone would take more than $112 billion a year out of the pockets of hardworking Californians — more than any other state. The fact that Californians would be paying more in federal taxes would inevitably put new pressure on our state and municipal governments to reduce their taxes. Under that scenario, it is not hard to imagine a new wave of painful state and local budget cuts.

The irony is that California actually has the power to stop this runaway train. If the entire California congressional delegation worked together to protect their constituents, and if they were united and strong, they could prevent many — if not all — of the worst provisions in the tax bills from becoming law.

This moment is a test of leadership. Nothing less than the health of our people — and our democracy — are at stake.

Actuaries warn of premium increases from repealing ObamaCare mandate

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A group of insurance experts is warning Congress against repealing ObamaCare’s individual mandate, saying the move would raise premiums and could cause insurers to drop out of the market.

The American Academy of Actuaries wrote to congressional leaders on Tuesday saying that “eliminating the individual mandate would lead to premium increases.”

The Republican tax-reform bill which is nearing completion in Congress would repeal the ObamaCare mandate that people have health insurance or pay a fine.

Republicans argue the measure included in the Senate-passed bill is tax relief by removing a penalty for low-income people who choose not to buy insurance.

The actuaries warn that repealing the mandate would harm the health insurance market by removing an incentive for healthy people to enroll and balance out the costs of the sick.

The insurance experts also say that a measure pushed by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), intended to help offset the premium increases from repealing the mandate, would not be enough to make up the difference.

That bill, sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray(D-Wash.), would fund key ObamaCare payments known as cost-sharing reductions. The actuaries say the payments “would not offset premium increases due to an elimination of the mandate.”

The letter says additional measures — such as funding to bring down premiums known as “reinsurance,” which Collins has also proposed — could help, though. Some experts say more funding than is currently proposed would be needed.

The instability from repealing the mandate also could lead some insurers to drop out of markets altogether, the actuaries warn, potentially leaving some people with no insurance options.

“Insurers would likely reconsider their future participation in the market,” the actuaries write. “This could lead to severe market disruption and loss of coverage among individual market enrollees.”



Actuaries: Alexander-Murray won’t offset mandate repeal

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The American Academy of Actuaries is throwing some cold water on Republicans’ claims that they’ll offset the damage from repealing the ACA’s individual mandate by restoring funding for the law’s cost-sharing subsidies.

  • “While making cost-sharing reduction reimbursements to insurers … would offset premium increases due to the prior termination of those payments, it would not offset premium increases due to an elimination of the mandate,” the actuaries wrote in a letter yesterday.
  • This should not come as a surprise. This is hardly the first time nonpartisan experts have said the move to restore cost-sharing payments — a bill sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray — would not make up for the effects of repealing the mandate. They are separate things.

The big question: Does Collins believe this analysis, and does she care? Collins has made two ACA-related demands — a vote on Alexander-Murray, and a vote to establish a new reinsurance fund — in return for her vote to repeal the individual mandate.

  • Plenty of experts have said Alexander-Murray wouldn’t do much.
  • Reinsurance would.
  • But it’s not clear either proposal can pass the House. If one of them can, it’s probably Alexander-Murray.
  • That leaves a distinct possibility that insurance markets will not actually see the stabilizing effects Collins is bargaining for.

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