The data on second-lowest-cost silver plans for next year come two weeks after HHS Secretary Alex Azar praised President Trump for halting premium hikes, despite critics’ contentions to the contrary.

Celebrating the news as “especially gratifying,” Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma released data Thursday morning showing that premiums for health plans on the federally facilitated exchange will drop next year for the first time since the Affordable Care Act took effect.

After years of double-digit increases, the average premium for second-lowest-cost silver plans will drop 1.5%, from $412 in 2018 to $406 in 2019, according to preliminary CMS data on the 39 states that use the federal ACA exchange. The final data are slated for release next month.

During a call with reporters, Verma said the ACA is still a broken piece of legislation that Congress should replace. Even so, President Donald Trump and his administration deserve credit for bringing these premiums down despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, she said, rejecting claims from critics who have argued Trump’s team has been sabotaging the ACA since Inauguration Day.

“Despite predictions that our actions would increase rates and destabilize the markets, the opposite has happened,” Verma said in a statement. “The drop in benchmark plan premiums for plan year 2019 and the increased choices for Americans seeking insurance on the exchanges is proof positive that our actions are working.”

“While we are encouraged by this progress, we aren’t satisfied,” she added. “Even with this reduction, average rates are still too high. If we are going to truly offer affordable, high quality healthcare, ultimately the law needs to change.”

The release of 2019 premium data comes two weeks after Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said benchmark ACA premiums would drop 2% next year. Azar heaped praise on Trump for the good news, but critics noted that rates are flattening out for 2019 after a significant jump for 2018 in response to the Trump administration’s healthcare policymaking.

The 1.5% decrease follows last year’s 36.9% increase, which was significantly higher than the 25.4% increase heading into 2017, according to the CMS data released Thursday.

Larry Levitt, senior vice president for health reform at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said last month that insurers on the exchange “overshot” their premium increases last year, which explains both their high profit margins at present and the average decrease for next year. That being said, although the Trump administration has taken steps to undermine the ACA, some of the administration’s actions have promoted stability, Levitt added Thursday.

Beyond premiums, though, Verma noted also that fewer insurers are dropping out of the exchanges, and some are returning. Most counties on the federal exchange, 56%, had only one issuer this year, but that figure will drop to 39% next year. There were 10 states with only one insurer this year, but that number will drop to four in 2019.



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The United States hasn’t decided who deserves health insurance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is health insurance a right or a privilege?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



A Long Road to Care for Rural Californians

Cramped rural hospital in Happy Valley California

In the northeast corner of California, nearly kissing Nevada and Oregon, lies Surprise Valley. At approximately 70 miles long, the valley is home to 1,232 people, which works out to about two people per square mile. Services are sparse: The Chamber of Commerce website lists two grocery stores, one insurance agency, and one hospital with an emergency room to provide care to its residents.

Essential CoverageThat hospital, Surprise Valley Community Hospital, is a vital institution, but it is bankrupt. Barbara Feder Ostrov of Kaiser Health News reports that years of mismanagement caught up to the hospital in 2017. By the time state inspectors arrived that June, the hospital was in a state of disarray — crushed by debt, it had only one acute care bed and a chief administrator who was MIA. Residents of Surprise Valley were torn between keeping it open and shuttering it even though the nearest hospital with an emergency room is 25 miles away on the other side of a mountain pass. In the June 5 California election, county voters chose to sell the hospital to an out-of-state entrepreneur rather than risk the hospital’s closure.

Surprise Valley isn’t alone in its lack of access to health care. Since 2010, 83 rural US hospitals have closed, Michael Graff writes in the Guardian. For residents of rural areas, the closure of the local hospital can cut off a lifeline. When Portia Gibbs of Belhaven, North Carolina, had a heart attack in 2014, her husband, Barry, had to choose between driving her 60 miles east to a hospital in Nags Head or 70 miles west to a hospital in the town of Washington. Portia never made it to a hospital.

It’s difficult to attract physicians and hospitals to rural areas, where wages and reimbursement rates tend to be lower. “What happens is if you’re a cardiologist you have a tendency to move to the East Coast where you can get paid more for the same procedure,” said US Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) in a meeting with HHS Secretary Alex Azar, according to Modern Healthcare.

Solving the Rural Hospital Puzzle

There is no easy fix for the decline in the number of rural hospitals, but Moran and other senators have proposed fixing the Medicare wage index. The index, which factors into reimbursement of hospitals serving Medicare patients, is a formula that accounts for geographic differences in wages and the cost of living. Some lawmakers contend that the formula penalizes rural hospitals and exacerbates the hospital shortage. Updating the index to increase payments to Medicare providers in underserved areas could draw more physicians to rural hospitals, which could help prevent hospitals from going under.

Some rural hospitals have tried another solution: joining multihospital systems. In California, where 25% of rural hospitals have closed over the past two decades, 19 rural hospitals have combined forces in systems composed of at least two other hospitals. However, our analysis of six of these hospitals showed mixed results for this strategy: The financial status of one rural hospital improved substantially after joining a system, but two others saw lower net income.

Perhaps a more feasible solution to lack of access to care in rural areas can be found in expanding the health care workforce. A study published in Health Affairsfound a growing presence of nurse practitioners (NPs) among rural practices nationwide. From 2008 to 2016, the number of NPs in rural areas increased 43%. Not surprisingly, “states with restricted scopes of practice had lower NP presence and slower growth.” The authors conclude that “adding nurse practitioners is a useful way for practices to align themselves with contemporary efforts to improve access and performance.”

It seems fitting and bittersweet to end this edition of Essential Coverage with our tribute to the late Herrmann Spetzler, the visionary CEO and the heart of Open Door Community Health Centers in rural Humboldt and Del Norte Counties. To underscore his commitment to providing health care in remote locales, he often described himself in meetings and speeches as “Herrmann Spetzler, RURAL.” Spetzler’s unexpected death in March cut short his life’s work to provide health care to everyone, regardless of income or geography. His passing leaves a huge hole in the community he served.


Syria’s health care system is in crisis

Syria’s health care system is in crisis

The Syrian civil war has taken a devastating toll on the country’s health care system.

What’s happening:

  • More than half of its public hospitals are closed or operating at a diminished capacity, and 75% of Syrian health care workers have fled the country, per a Wall Street Journal video filmed on the ground in Raqqa.
  • “No doctors, no hospitals, no nothing. No water, no electricity, nothing. It’s the wilderness, like living in the forest,” says one father who traveled over two hours to seek treatment for his son.
  • The people who have died from a lack of health care aren’t included in official death tallies, and those effects could last for years after the fighting ends (if it ever does).

Go deeper: Watch the video.



Consumers are paying less for ACA plans, even as premiums continue to rise site on computer

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) proclaimed its 2018 open enrollment period a success, citing relatively stable enrollment on reduced costs of outreach and a tightened enrollment period.

The agency’s final report on 2018 enrollment data provides insight on the 11.8 million individuals who enrolled or renewed coverage through the exchanges in 2018. That number includes approximately 8.7 million who signed up through, where the average premium rose 30% from $476 last year to $621 this year. A solid majority of consumers opted for the middle-tier silver plans, with 29% choosing bronze plans and only 7% purchasing gold plans.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma lauded the agency’s efforts on Twitter, but pointed to the 30% jump in premiums as an indication that “more affordable options are needed,” particularly for those that don’t qualify for tax credits.

Despite delivering the most successful consumer experience to date, Americans continue to experience skyrocketing premiums and limited choice on .

Despite higher premiums, consumers that qualified for the tax credit actually saw a 16% decline in their final cost, with average monthly costs dropping from $106 in 2017 to $89 in 2018.

“The reduction in price that consumers paid was staggering,” Josh Peck, co-founder of Get America Covered and former chief medical officer of under President Barack Obama, told FierceHealthcare.

“To be totally honest, enrollment would have been far higher had they tried,” he added.

While the total number of enrollees dipped slightly year over year, they remained relatively stable given the shortened time frame rolled out by the Trump administration. Verma also pointed to consumer satisfaction scores of 90%, up from 85% last year, as proof the agency had met its primary goal of ensuring “a seamless experience” for consumers.

Critics, however, lashed out at CMS for doing little to educate the public about open enrollment options.

Lori Lodes@loril

Really weird (and gobsmacking) to see @SeemaCMS take credit for 11.8 million people signing up for health care when she refused to do anything to educate people about Open Enrollent. 

The agency also touted the cost effectiveness of the enrollment period, after CMS slashed its advertising spending from approximately $11 per enrollee last year to just over $1 per enrollee in 2018. Those cuts spurred increased advertising dollars from private insurers in an attempt to make up the gap.

The majority of consumers using the exchanges continues to rely on premium subsidies. The age mix among consumers trended older, as enrollees aged 55 and over ticked up two percentage points to 29%, while the share of those aged 18-34 declined slightly.

Final Exchange Enrollment Report also shows most consumers on the Exchanges relied on premium subsidies. Approximately 83% of consumers nationwide had their premiums reduced by tax credits.

In a statement, Verma said she was pleased with the rise in customer satisfaction, but expressed concerns about the future. “Even with the success of this year’s open enrollment, the individual market continues to see premiums rise and choices diminish,” she said.



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.



What’s at Stake: States’ Progress on Health Coverage and Access to Care, 2013–2016

Image result for What’s at Stake: States’ Progress on Health Coverage and Access to Care, 2013–2016



  • Issue: Given uncertainty about the future of the Affordable Care Act, it is useful to examine the progress in coverage and access made under the law.
  • Goal: Compare state trends in access to affordable health care between 2013 and 2016.
  • Methods: Analysis of recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.
  • Findings and Conclusions: Between 2013 and 2016, the uninsured rate for adults ages 19 to 64 declined in all states and the District of Columbia, and fell by at least 5 percentage points in 47 states. Among children, uninsured rates declined by at least 2 percentage points in 33 states. There were reductions of at least 2 percentage points in the share of adults age 18 and older who reported skipping care because of costs in the past year in 36 states and D.C., with greater declines, on average, in Medicaid expansion states. The share of at-risk adults without a recent routine checkup, and of nonelderly individuals who spent a high portion of income on medical care, declined in at least of half of states and D.C. These findings offer evidence that the ACA has improved access to health care for millions of Americans. However, actions at the federal level — including a shortened open enrollment period for marketplace coverage, a failure to extend CHIP funding, and a potential repeal of the individual mandate’s penalties — could jeopardize the gains made to date.


The year 2017 marked a turning point in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans in Congress attempted to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act numerous times, ultimately failing but promising to try again. In addition, the Trump administration significantly cut funding for outreach and enrollment activities during 2018’s open enrollment period for the marketplaces, and disrupted markets by declining to pay insurers money owed to them for providing cost-reduced plans for lower-income enrollees. In December, Senate Republicans passed a tax bill that included a provision to repeal the ACA’s individual mandate penalties, paid by most people who do not have health insurance. Given these developments, many Americans are confused about the ACA’s status, which could reduce the number of people who enroll in health plans for the coming year, despite strong enrollment thus far.

It is useful to assess the changes in coverage and access that happened across states under the law before this tumultuous year. Between 2013, the year before the ACA’s major coverage expansions took effect, and the end of 2016, the number of uninsured Americans under age 65 fell by an estimated 17.8 million.1 Uninsured rates declined in every state and the District of Columbia (Exhibit 1).

In this issue brief, we examine the extent to which health care access and affordability improved from 2013 to 2016 for residents in each of the 50 states and D.C. We use six indicators: uninsured rates for working-age adults and for children, three measures of adults’ access to care, and the percentage of individuals under age 65 with high out-of-pocket medical costs relative to their income (Exhibit 2). These measures align with those reported in the Commonwealth Fund’s ongoing series of Health System Performance Scorecards.


After three years of the ACA’s major coverage expansions, the number of uninsured working-age adults and children in the United States had fallen to a record low. This historic decline was accompanied by widespread reductions in cost-related access problems and improvements in access to routine care for at-risk adults, particularly in states that expanded Medicaid. If the 19 states that have not yet expanded Medicaid decided to expand, they could see similar positive effects for their residents.

There is no deadline for adopting the Medicaid expansion. In November, Maine residents voted to expand Medicaid under a citizen-initiated ballot referendum, indicating that popular support for expanding the program may exist in states where elected officials have rejected it. While implementation in Maine could face hurdles because of opposition from the state’s governor, similar efforts are now under way in other nonexpansion states.

Actions at the federal level could, however, jeopardize the gains made under the ACA. Recent actions by the Trump administration, including a shortened open enrollment period for marketplace coverage and deep cuts in advertising and outreach, could reduce enrollment for 2018.10 In addition, Congress has yet to extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which expired at the end of September. In the absence of an extension, more than half of states are projected to run out of federal CHIP dollars by March 2018.11 The result could be a loss of coverage for millions of children.12

Further, the tax bill passed by Senate Republicans included a repeal of the ACA’s individual mandate penalties, which would mean a cancellation of the penalties owed by people who do not take up insurance. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that repealing the penalties would reduce the number of Americans with health insurance by 13 million by 2027 and significantly increase premiums for plans purchased in the individual market. This is because healthy individuals would be the most likely to forgo coverage, leaving sicker people (who are more expensive to insure) in the risk pool.13

People who buy their own coverage on the individual market and who have incomes above 400 percent of the federal poverty level (about $48,200 for an individual and $98,400 for a family of four) — the threshold for ACA premium subsidies — would face the brunt of the premium increase.14 A recent Commonwealth Fund analysis estimates that a 40-year-old buying unsubsidized individual market coverage in one of the 39 states that uses the federally facilitated marketplace would face an average dollar increase in premiums ranging from $556 in North Dakota to $1,264 in Nebraska (Exhibit 10).15