What’s Next for CHIP?



The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) offers a critical health insurance pathway for children living in families with modest means. These families’ incomes exceed the basic Medicaid eligibility standard for children but they lack access to employer insurance for their children, either because none is offered or because of a phenomenon known as the “family glitch,” which bars working parents with affordable employer coverage for themselves from getting marketplace subsidies for their children.

CHIP fills these gaps, reaching nearly 9 million children. And because of its popularity, as well as a streamlined enrollment process built into the original law in 1997 and expanded under Affordable Care Act, CHIP has had a remarkable impact on children’s access to health insurance. By 2016, just 4 percent of U.S. children lacked health insurance. Yet Congress has still not reauthorized federal funding for this program.

Unlike Medicaid, which rests on a permanent federal funding authorization, CHIP funding authority must be periodically renewed. Administering CHIP is complex for states because they typically offer CHIP in two forms: coverage through Medicaid for children with incomes just above the Medicaid eligibility cutoff and a separate, companion program for children living in families with slightly higher incomes. As a result, there is a need to transition children between two sources of insurance coverage (and potentially separate managed care plans and provider networks) as family incomes fluctuate.

Fundamental to smooth program operation is reliable federal funding, which accounts for the lion’s share of CHIP program costs. The most recent federal extension came in 2015 as part of legislation that extended funding through September 30, 2017. Congress has therefore known about CHIP’s 2017 funding cliff for more than two years.  States have been unequivocal about the need for steady financing in order to avert coverage interruptions. In the face of continued financial instability, their agencies may need to cease enrollment and freeze coverage — and therefore access to care — for children already enrolled (along with some 370,000 pregnant women also covered through CHIP).

Congress failed to take up CHIP in advance of the deadline because the winter, spring, and summer were consumed by the ACA repeal-and-replace battle. CHIP never was part of this fight; none of the bills considered — even the proposals that would have fundamentally impaired Medicaid’s ability to function effectively for the nation’s 36 million poorest children — proposed to end CHIP. Indeed, the Graham-Cassidy bill would have built on CHIP. But only at the end of September, when the Senate set aside Graham-Cassidy, did Congress return to CHIP.

On October 4, committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate completed their work on a CHIP extension. Both the House and Senate measures would extend federal CHIP funding for five years and both sides are in agreement on the proper federal CHIP funding level. In other words, the two committees are aligned on the policy.

The House CHIP measure also contains provisions to address other pressing matters such as a delay in scheduled reductions in federal Medicaid payments to hospitals that treat a disproportionate percentage of low-income patients and an increase in federal Medicaid payments to Puerto Rico to help the Commonwealth’s recovery from Hurricane Maria. The House CHIP measure is also part of a suite of other noncontroversial bills expected to move at the same time, including extension of the Health Center Grant Fund, which provides basic grant funding to the nation’s nearly 1,400 federally funded community health centers.

Congress still needs to determine the final contours of the bill, including whether to proceed with the controversial spending offsets the House has identified, in particular a $6.3 billion cut over 10 years to the Prevention and Public Health Trust Fund, which supports core public health services. As yet there is no word on next steps, even as states begin to fall over the edge of the fiscal cliff. Children covered through Medicaid CHIP are safe for the moment, although declining CHIP funding for Medicaid-enrolled children can be expected to trigger other offsetting Medicaid program cuts. But coverage for approximately 4 million children enrolled in separate CHIP programs is very much on the line.

Many hard decisions in a jam-packed fall schedule await Congress. Given the strong bipartisan support for CHIP and its totally predictable expiration, it is surprising — and unfortunate — that CHIP remains on the Congressional docket.

ACA Waiver Changes


Image result for aca waivers

In broad strokes, the bipartisan deal from Senators Alexander and Murray would restore cost-sharing payments through 2019 in exchange for some amendments to the rules governing ACA waivers. Now that we have the bill text, we can start to wrap our hands around the practical effects of those waiver changes.

Most importantly, the bill would relax one of the guardrails governing state waivers. In its current form, section 1332 of the ACA requires any waiver to include cost-sharing protections that are “at least as affordable” as those in the ACA. Under the new bill, the waiver would just have to provide “cost sharing protections against excessive out-of-pocket spending that are of comparable affordability, including for low-income individuals with serious health needs, and other vulnerable populations.”

To my eyes, that’s a pretty modest change. The category of waivers with cost-sharing protections that are “of comparative affordability” to those in the ACA, but are not “at least as affordable,” is tiny. The new language may signal that HHS could approve waivers where the states would offer protections are slightly less robust than what we’ve already got under the ACA. But that’s it.

There’s been some talk that the language change might allow the approval of Iowa’s waiver. I don’t see it. As I understand it, Iowa wants to undo cost-sharing protections for its residents.* [See the update below; Iowa’s position has softened from its original waiver proposal.] How is an absence of cost-sharing protections the same as “cost sharing protections … that are of comparable affordability” to those in the ACA? I’ve explained before that the decision to grant a waiver can be challenged in court. If Iowa’s waiver wasn’t viable before, it won’t be viable even if the Alexander-Murray bill becomes law.

Apart from the guardrail change, the bill would require HHS to decide on waivers within 90 days, not 180 days, which should speed processing. Of particular relevance to Iowa’s waiver, the bill also creates an expedited approval pathway of 45 days for “urgent situations.”

What’s an urgent situation? It’s one where the Secretary determines that all or part of a State is “at risk for excessive premium increases or having no health plans offered.” But there’s less than meets the eye here. An urgent waiver isn’t automatically granted when that time has elapsed: the Secretary still has to approve an urgent waiver before it can take effect. The default is still “no.”

Of perhaps greater significance, the bill would prohibit HHS from yanking a state waiver for six years “unless the Secretary determines that the State materially failed to comply with the terms and conditions of the waiver.” That last clause means that, if a state’s waiver is approved, the next Secretary of HHS can’t terminate the waiver—even if it turns out that the waiver doesn’t comply with the guardrails.

It’s not hard to see how that change might make a difference if a Democrat takes office in 2020. Still, it’s a far cry from changes to the waiver rules in previous Republican bills, which would have outright prohibited HHS from terminating waivers for eight years, however recklessly or foolishly states spent their ACA money.

Finally, the legislation would undo HHS guidance and regulations pertaining to waivers. The Obama administration, for example, declined to allow states to package their 1332 waivers with Medicaid waivers, and use savings from one waiver to offset an increase in spending from the other. The field would be clear for the Trump administration could revisit that. Then again, the Trump administration could have revisited those Obama-era rules anyhow, so I can’t see why vacating the regulations and guidance makes much of a difference.

All in all, the changes to the waiver rules are real but minor. To borrow from Hamilton, it looks like Senator Murray got more than she gave, and wanted what she got.

* Update: David Anderson has pointed me to an October 5 revision that Iowa made to its waiver request that would extend cost-sharing protections to individuals up to 200% of the poverty line (the ACA affords protection up to 250%). With those protections in place, Iowa says that people up to 150% of poverty “will not see an increase in their out-of-pocket costs,” and that people between 150% and 200% of poverty will have a “lower average total cost of care,” taking into account premiums and out-of-pocket spending. Those in the 200% to 250% range won’t receive out-of-pocket protections.

Are Iowa’s revised cost-sharing protections comparably affordable to those under the ACA? The protections are certainly thinner, and for people in the 200% to 250% range, nonexistent. Whether that package as a whole is “comparable” is a question of degree: I can see an argument either way. Which is to say that the revised Iowa waiver might be approved under the new standard, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lawsuit over any such approval.

Moody’s: Trump Executive Actions Credit Negative for HIX Insurers


Related image


The investor-service company gauges impact of new ‘association’ health plans, expanded short-term insurance, and elimination of subsidies on the Obamacare exchanges.

President Donald Trump’s health-insurance executive actions last week are credit negative for insurance carriers operating on the Obamacare exchanges, New York, NY-based Moody’s Investors Service reported today.

On Oct. 12, Trump took two executive actions that will likely undermine the insurance exchanges established under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), Moody’s says:

  • In an executive order, the president eased regulations on “association” health plans and expanded the definition of short-term health insurance. The executive order calls for the federal departments of Labor, Treasury and Health and Human Services to expand insurance coverage for individuals such as allowing insurance purchases across state lines.
  • Although regulations must be put into place, association health plans will likely allow small businesses to band together to offer insurance to their employees. “Associations likely would be allowed to offer plans with lower benefits and lower costs,” Moody’s reported.
  • In a decision that did not require an executive order, Trump announced that his administration would end cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments that subsidize the purchase of health insurance on the exchanges. The subsidies help insure low-income individuals who do not qualify for Medicaid coverage but can’t afford to buy commercial insurance health plans.
  • This year, the federal government spent about $7 billion on CSR payments.

The executive order is expected to promote creation of skimpy health plans, which would undermine the PPACA exchanges, Moody’s reported. “The introduction of lower-benefit, lower-cost plans and short-term insurance would be credit negative for health insurers that are still participating in the PPACA-governed individual market. These new plans would incentivize healthy people to exit the PPACA market, which would increase risk in the remaining pool of insureds.”

The decision to stop CSR payments will also have a credit negative effect on commercial carriers operating on the exchanges, Moody’s reported. This negative impact will fall particularly hard on commercial insurers that did not submit rates for next year based on the assumption that the CSR payments would be eliminated.

Health insurance rates are set on a state-by-state basis.

There could be an “offset” linked to the executive order that would soften the financial blow for commercial carriers operating on the exchanges, Moody’s reported. “If the executive order succeeds in bringing more healthy but currently uninsured people into the small group or individual market, that could mitigate at least some of the order’s negative effects.”

Moody’s highlighted the PPACA-exchange risk exposure of four commercial carriers in today’s report, which lists the companies’ beneficiaries on the exchanges as a percentage of their total number of health-insurance beneficiaries:

  • Indianapolis-based Anthem Inc.: 2.9%
  • Chicago-based Health Care Service Corporation: 6.8%
  • St. Louis-based Centene Corporation: 9.2%
  • Long Beach, CA-based Molina Healthcare Inc.: 20.4%

ACA Alterations Will Jolt Health Exchanges for 2018


Image result for wrecking ball hospital

The end of cost sharing reductions has insurers trying to raise premiums even higher than planned. Those high premiums and other changes to the Affordable Care Act may drive consumers away from the exchanges.

The loss of cost sharing reductions (CSR) and the presidential executive order altering the Affordable Care Act will combine to significantly shake up the insurance market for 2018, one analyst says.

The effect is likely to include raising rates so high that the number of healthcare consumers who do not purchase coverage will skyrocket.

Health plans are scrambling to raise their rates even higher than already planned, responding to President Donald Trump’s announcement that insurers will no longer receive the subsidies.

Insurers were forced to submit rates for next year while the fate of CSRs was still uncertain—one set of rates is for if the subsidies continued and the second is for a higher rate to be used if they did not.

Some insurers are asking for a chance to revise the rates already submitted, says Julius W. Hobson Jr., an attorney and healthcare analyst with the Polsinelli law firm in Washington, D.C.

The CSR termination comes right after President Trump issued a new executive order he says is designed to increase competition and choice. Critics say it would seriously weaken the ACA, and some say that’s intentional.

President Trump says the order will give millions of Americans more access to affordable coverage and make it easier for people to obtain large-group coverage. Others worry that it could lure healthy young Americans away from the ACA exchanges, leaving those who remain to pay higher premiums.

“The combination of the executive order and the CSR termination wreaks havoc on the health insurance market for all of 2018,” Hobson says. “This also comes just before the open enrollment and with cutting back money for the patient navigators who help people sign up, and with reduced access to the website. That all means there are going to be fewer people who sign up.”

Higher premiums and deductibles already were driving some consumers away from purchasing individual healthcare plans, Hobson notes, and more will follow when the CSR loss forces insurers to raise rates even higher.

If the Trump administration stops enforcing the individual mandate, as it has said it might, that would make even more consumers forgo coverage, he says.

Fewer consumers buying insurance on the ACA exchanges intensifies their existing problems, Hobson says.

Premiums and deductibles will continue to rise as insurers struggle to remain profitable with a smaller pool of older, sicker patients driving high utilization costs. More and more consumers will leave the exchanges if they can, he says.

“People are going to be looking at premium increases they just can’t afford,” Hobson says. “The individual market will take a big hit, but the impact on the group market is harder to predict. We don’t know yet whether the increases in the individual market will bleed over into the group market.”

The recent changes are intended to weaken the ACA, Hobson says.

“The administration has said the ACA is imploding, but also that they’re going to do everything they can to wreck it. It’s not imploding on its own, it’s being shoved down the trash chute,” Hobson says.

“Losing the CSR payments is critical and, at this point, it’s unlikely that even if Congress acted they could do anything in time to affect 2018. There’s no way of looking at this other than it having a negative outcome,” he says.

Trump Flip-Flops on Senate Health Care Deal


Related image

President opposes bipartisan deal he supported the day before.

President Donald Trump reversed gears on a bipartisan Senate health care deal Wednesday, saying he would not sign the pact reached by Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray less than 24 hours after he signaled support for it in a public appearance in the Rose Garden.

Trump “supports the process” of trying to find a short-term fix to the 2010 health care law, but he “doesn’t support the result,” a White House official said of the efforts by the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The opposition comes just after Trump tweeted Wednesday morning he could not “support bailing out ins co’s who have made a fortune w/ O’Care.”

That came after Trump said in a speech to the Heritage Foundation Tuesday that he opposed continuing cost-sharing subsidy payments that help low-income people pay for health insurance on the exchange, the crux of the Alexander-Murray deal and something state insurance officials and insurance companies say is essential to the markets not collapsing. Trump last week said he would end the administration’s practice of making those payments.

That move has not resonated with the public. Fifty-three percent of respondents to an Economist/YouGov survey conducted Oct. 15 and 16 said they disapproved of the executive move, compared to 31 percent who were in favor. Sixteen percent declined to give an opinion.

“While I commend the bipartisan work done by Senators Alexander and Murray — and I do commend it — I continue to believe Congress must find a solution to the Obamacare mess instead of providing bailouts to insurance companies,” Trump said.

That speech came just a few hours after he said in the Rose Garden that administration officials have been involved in the Alexander-Murray talks and signaled he supported what he described as a one- or two-year package.

In that White House appearance, Trump called the Alexander-Murray move a “short-term deal” that is needed to “get us over this hump” until Republicans might find a way to send him a measure to partially or completely repeal the Obama-era law.

During a HELP Committee hearing that wrapped up just after Trump’s tweet Wednesday, Alexander said he and Murray, along with several co-sponsors, would present the plan on the Senate floor.

Murray ruled out major changes to the plan after Trump’s newfound position.

“This is our bipartisan agreement. We’ve agreed on it, and it’s a good compromise, both of us had to give and that’s what we have,” the Washington Democrat said.

Alexander said the president had encouraged senators to keep working toward a deal.

“The president called me this morning, which is the third time he’s called me about this. I appreciate his encouragement of the process,” the Tennessee Republican said. “He asked me to do it, to work with Sen. Murray on the project. He said he would review the legislation, which is what I would expect a president to do. So we will keep working on it.”

Alexander said Tuesday he briefed Senate Republicans on the temporary plan that would provide funding through 2019 for cost-sharing reduction subsidies that help lower-income consumers. It would also give states more flexibility to seek waivers to bypass the law under certain conditions.

Requirements for certain health benefits and banning insurers from charging more would stay in place, Alexander said.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s position remains that the Senate should focus on repeal and replace efforts, a spokesman said.

Trump Acting Solo: What You Need To Know About Changes To The Health Law

Trump Acting Solo: What You Need To Know About Changes To The Health Law

Apparently frustrated by Congress’ inability to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, President Donald Trump this week decided to take matters into his own hands.

Late Thursday evening, the White House announced it would cease key payments to insurers. Earlier on Thursday, Trump signed an executive order aimed at giving people who buy their own insurance easier access to different types of health plans that were limited under the ACA rules set by the Obama administration.

“This is promoting health care choice and competition all across the United States,” Trump said at the signing ceremony. “This is going to be something that millions and millions of people will be signing up for, and they’re going to be very happy.”

The subsidy payments, known as “cost-sharing reductions,” are payments to insurers to reimburse them for discounts they give policyholders with incomes under 250 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $30,000 in income a year for an individual. Those discounts shield these lower-income customers from out-of-pocket expenses, such as deductibles or copayments. These subsidies have been the subject of a lawsuit that is ongoing.

The cost-sharing reductions are separate from the tax credit subsidies that help millions of people pay their premiums. Those are not affected by Trump’s decision.

Some of Trump’s actions could have an immediate effect on the enrollment for 2018 ACA coverage that starts Nov. 1. Here are five things you should know.

1. The executive order does not make any immediate changes.

Technically, Trump ordered the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Treasury within 60 days to “consider proposing regulations or revising guidance, to the extent permitted by law,” on several different options for expanding the types of plans individuals and small businesses could purchase. Among his suggestions to the department are broadening rules to allow more small employers and other groups to form what are known as “association health plans” and to sell low-cost, short-term insurance. There is no guarantee, however, that any of these plans will be forthcoming. In any case, the process to make them available could take months.

2. The cost-sharing reduction changes ARE immediate but might not affect the people you expect.

Cutting off payments to insurers for the out-of-pocket discounts they provide to moderate-income policyholders does not mean those people will no longer get help. The law, and insurance company contracts with the federal government, require those discounts be granted.

That means insurance companies will have to figure out how to recover the money they were promised. They could raise premiums (and many are raising them already). For the majority of people who get the separate subsidies to help pay their premiums, those increases will be borne by the federal government. Those who will be hit hardest are the roughly 7.5 million people who buy their own individual insurance but earn too much to get federal premium help.

Insurers could also simply drop out of the ACA entirely. That would affect everyone in the individual market and could leave some counties with no insurer for next year. Insurers could also sue the government, and most experts think they would eventually win.

3. This could affect your insurance choices for next year. But it’s complicated.

The impact on your plan choices and premiums for next year will vary by state and insurer. For one thing, insurers have a loophole that allows them to get out of the contracts for 2018, given the change in federal payments. So, some might decide to bail. That could leave areas with fewer — or no — insurers. The Congressional Budget Office in August estimated that stopping the payments would leave about 5 percent of people who purchase their own coverage through the ACA marketplaces with no insurers in 2018.

For everyone else, the move would result in higher premiums, the CBO said, adding an average of about 20 percent. In some states, regulators have already allowed insurers to price those increases into their 2018 rates in anticipation that the payments would be halted by the Trump administration.

But how those increases are applied varies. In California, Idaho, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, for example, regulators had insurers load the costs only onto one type of plan: silver-level coverage. That’s because most people who buy silver plans also get a subsidy from the federal government to help pay their premium, and those subsidies rise along with the cost of a silver plan.

Consumers getting a premium subsidy, however, won’t see much increase in their out-of-pocket payments for the coverage. Consumers without premium subsidies will bear the additional costs if they stay in a silver plan. In those states, consumers may find a better deal in a different metal-band of insurance, including higher-level gold plans. Many states, however, allowed insurers to spread the expected increase across all levels of plans.

4. Congress could act.

Bipartisan negotiations have been renewed between Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to create legislation that would continue the cost-sharing subsidies and give states more flexibility to develop and sell less generous health care plans than those currently offered on the exchanges. Trump’s move to end the cost-sharing subsidies may bolster those discussions.

In a statement, Murray called Trump’s action to withdraw cost-sharing subsidies “reckless” but said she continues “to be optimistic about our negotiations and believe we can reach a deal quickly — and I urge Republican leaders in Congress to do the right thing for families this time by supporting our work.”

Trump on Friday urged Democrats to work with him to “make a deal” on health care. “Now, if the Democrats were smart, what they’d do is come and negotiate something where people could really get the kind of healthcare that they deserve, being citizens of our great country,” he said Friday afternoon.

Earlier Friday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) did not sound as if he was in the mood to cut a deal.

“Republicans have been doing everything they can for the last ten months to inject instability into our health care system and to force collapse through sabotage,” he said in a statement. “Republicans in the House and Senate now own the health care system in this country from top to bottom, and their destructive actions, and the actions of the president, are going to fall on their backs. The American people see it, and they know full well which party is doing it.”

poll released Friday by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that 71 percent of the public said they preferred that the Trump administration try to make the law work rather than to hasten replacement by encouraging its failure. The poll was conducted before Trump made his announcement about the subsidies. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

5. Some states are suing, but the outcome is hard to guess.

Even though all states regulate their own insurance markets, states have limited options for dealing with Trump’s latest move. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia, led by New York and California, are suing the Trump administration to defend the cost-sharing subsidies. But it is unclear whether a federal court could say that the Trump administration is obligated to continue making the payments while that case is pending.


Gun Carnage Is a Public Health Crisis


Image result for Gun Carnage Is a Public Health Crisis

“We’ll be talking about gun laws as time goes by,” President Trump promised all too casually after the Las Vegas gunman took 58 lives in a rapid-fire slaughter. Time is indeed going by, and the silence is alarming as the Republican Congress and Mr. Trump, the devoted candidate of the National Rifle Association, duck their responsibility to confront the public health crisis of gun deaths.

There were so many hundreds of casualties in Las Vegas that many were treated by local Air Force surgeons who found themselves serving as specialists in triage — in a civilian fire zone. “These were definitely injuries you would see in a war zone,” one of the doctors told The Washington Post. Victims bled from single wounds through the chest and abdomen because the gunman shot from a high perch with military-style weapons adapted to shoot rapidly downward into the concert audience that was his chosen target.

This is the domestic war zone now bedeviling the nation as Washington looks the other way. Republican leaders are once again contriving to divert public attention to the challenges of mental illness, whereas the core issue is and has been the egregious availability of military-style weapons that the gun industry and the N.R.A. are lethally marketing to civilians. The talk of outlawing the “bump stock” device that heightened the Vegas gunman’s rapid fire is similarly diversionary, since the problem is the weapon, not the latest accessory.

Washington has also hobbled basic research into what is clearly a public health disaster. In 1996, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was barred from spending any funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” Full and accurate federal information has been choked off repeatedly since then. Research ordered by President Barack Obama following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of 20 children in 2012 was never carried out. California, by contrast, has chosen a more enlightened path. Reacting to the 2015 gun killings in San Bernardino, the state in July created the Firearm Violence Research Center at the University at California at Davis to get beyond the hobbles the gun lobby and Congress have put on federal researchers.

If there is any bright spot it is that little more than a third of American households own a gun now, compared with 50 percent in earlier decades. Still, this has driven the industry to try to sell more guns to fewer Americans, from battlefield-type weapons to the concealed-carry pistols marketed as stylish vigilante accessories. According to a 2015 study by Harvard and Northeastern Universities, 3 percent of American adults own half the nation’s guns — averaging a startling 17 guns apiece.

The Las Vegas shooter was one of these hard-core arsenal owners. He stockpiled dozens of weapons, apparently with no one, and no law, to question the practice or his rationale. The government should be asking how he was able to do this, and how it could have been prevented. To the nation’s continuing sorrow, however, it’s clear little can be expected of the president and congressional leaders as time goes by and the next mass shooting draws nearer.