When Hospitals Merge to Save Money, Patients Often Pay More

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The ACA Protects People with Preexisting Conditions; Proposed Replacements Would Not


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The Affordable Care Act’s health insurance marketplaces open for enrollment today for the sixth time. But this year the marketplace health plans in many states will face some new competition from insurance products that don’t meet the law’s standards, including the ban on denying coverage or charging more based on a person’s preexisting health conditions.

New Trump administration regulations released earlier this year have undermined the coverage protections in the ACA by making it possible for insurers to renew often skimpy short-term health insurance for up to three years, and for small businesses to form associations that sell substandard health plans. One of the reasons insurers can charge low premiums for these plans is that they generally cover less that ACA-compliant plans and insurers can deny them to people with diabetes or a history of cancer, for example. Only healthy people get these plans. And the more healthy people who buy them, the more expensive coverage becomes for people with a history of illness who buy their own insurance and have incomes too high to qualify for marketplace subsidies. In guidance released last week, the administration will allow states to further encourage the sale of these plans by letting people use federal subsidies to buy them.

As a nation, it is important for us to focus our energy on ways to improve people’s health. We are experiencing an unprecedented decline in life expectancy which will ultimately affect our economic health and the ability of Americans to compete in a global workforce. One of the most basic things we can do is preserve the coverage protections for people with health problems that have been law for more than four years, rather than poke holes in them. Americans say they support this idea. Recent polls have found that majorities of Americans believe that people with health conditions should not be denied affordable health insurance and health care. As a result, House and Senate candidates of both parties are running on their support for protecting coverage for people with preexisting conditions. But some of those very candidates voted to repeal the ACA last year.

The ACA has dramatically improved the ability of people with preexisting conditions to buy coverage. In 2010, before the law passed, we conducted a survey that found 70 percent of people with health problems said it was very difficult or impossible to buy affordable coverage, and just 36 percent said they ended up purchasing a health plan. By 2016, the percentage of people who had trouble buying an affordable plan had dropped down to 42 percent — still high but much improved — and 60 percent ultimately bought a plan.

While the congressional ACA repeal bills failed last year, a Republican Congress could try again next year. And in the meantime, the law’s preexisting conditions protections and other provisions face another threat from a lawsuit brought by Republican governors and attorneys general in 20 states. The U.S Department of Justice has agreed with the plaintiff states in part, and refused to defend the law’s preexisting condition protections. The court decision is pending. Should the states win, an estimated 17 million people could become uninsured.

Some congressional candidates from these states and others are pointing to their support for Republican proposals, such as the “Ensuring Coverage for Patients with Pre-Existing Conditions Act,” as proof they support coverage for preexisting conditions. This bill would prevent insurers from refusing or varying premiums based on preexisting conditions. But, unlike the ACA, this bill would allow insurers to sell plans that entirely exclude coverage for care pertaining to the preexisting conditions themselves. The reality is that this bill would not protect sick Americans, or those who may become ill in the future, from high out-of-pocket health care costs.

Several million people will be going to the marketplaces in the next few weeks to sign up for coverage since they do not have it through an employer. At this time, not one of them who buys a plan in the marketplace has to fear that an insurance company will deny them coverage or charge them a higher premium because of their health. The efforts to undermine the individual market and invalidate the ACA’s consumer protections are real-life threats for people who depend on this insurance for their health care. The nation cannot move forward with tackling our most pressing health care problems if we continue to debate a core protection of the ACA that most Americans support.



Why the new ACA waivers matter



As in-the-weeds as a revised waiver process sounds, the practical effects of what the Trump administration announced yesterday could add up to one of its most substantive blows yet against the Affordable Care Act.

The big picture: These changes will likely cause more separation of healthy and sick people, but only in states that avail themselves of these new options — creating another level of segmentation between red and blue states.

How it works: Under the Obama administration, states seeking a waiver from the ACA’s rules had to show that their alternatives would cover just as many people as the ACA, with insurance that’s just as robust, for the same cost. That’s why only 8 waivers have ever been granted.

  • But under the Trump administration’s approach, if the same number of people have access to ACA-level coverage, that’ll count — even if few of them actually choose it.
  • Likewise, “a waiver that makes coverage much more affordable for some people and only slightly more costly for a larger number of people would likely meet” the new standards, the formal policy guidance says.
  • States could, for example, seek a waiver that would let their residents apply the ACA’s premium subsidies to “short-term” insurance plans, even though those plans don’t meet the ACA’s requirements, including the mandate to cover people with pre-existing conditions.

Between the lines: The Trump administration has often treated the ACA’s exchanges as a de facto high-risk pool. And that’s the best prism through which to understand these latest changes.

  • These waivers will let states lean even further into new, non-ACA options for healthy people. That will likely increase premiums for ACA coverage. But because the vast majority of ACA enrollees are subsidized, they’ll be insulated from those costs.

There are limits to how far that dynamic can go, because states’ waivers still can’t add too much to the federal government’s costs. But that’s the basic dynamic at play here — and it’s one that will continue to move the larger individual market further and further away from the ACA.


The Health 202: The rate of people without health insurance is creeping upward




New Census Bureau data on the number of uninsured Americans is either a testament to the resiliency of the Affordable Care Act or a sign that President Trump’s anti-ACA rhetoric and policies are starting to work.

As our colleague Jeff Stein reported Wednesday, there was a slight uptick in the number of Americans without health insurance in 2017 compared to 2016, even though that number essentially remained statistically flat. Still, the fact that uninsured rate went up at all, by about 400,000 people, marks the first time since the ACA’s implementation that the uninsured rate didn’t drop. 

Supporters of the ACA worry the news marks the beginning of a trend, especially when some of Trump administration policies intended to circumvent the ACA go into effect next year.

Ahead of open enrollment last year, the Trump administration dramatically decreased funding for any Obamacare outreach or advertising, limited resources for “navigators” who help people find an insurance plan, and shortened the window for people to sign up for insurance from three months to six weeks in states that use a federally run marketplace.

“Even with all of that, health coverage stayed steady. But at the same time, we’d like to see further progress in the rate of the uninsured,” said Judith Solomon of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

It’s part of a pattern to weaken the 2010 health-care law known as Obamacare. After the GOP Congress failed to repeal and replace the ACA last summer, the Trump administration moved to dilute the law in other ways: including signing off on a plan to eliminate the individual mandate penalty next year; allowing individuals to buy skimpier, short-term health plans without certain coverage requirements under Obamacare; and seeking to allow states to put conditions on Medicaid coverage.

Some of the most prominent health care organizations in the country came together this morning to voice their disapproval of those short-term plans — including the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Heart Association, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the National Women’s Law Center, the , American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics and Families USA.

“The Administration’s decision to expand short-term health plans will leave cancer patients and survivors with higher premiums and fewer insurance options,” said Dr. Gwen Nichols, chief medical officer of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

The groups’ statements, compiled and released by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), are in support of the senator’s effort to have Congress rescind the White House regulation. Nearly every Democratic senator has signed a resolution of disapproval to overturn it.

The census data reflects trends that started last year, when the administration’s policies had yet to be implemented. Fourteen states saw their uninsured populations rise in 2017. The only three states that didn’t see a spike in that number were New York, California and Louisiana. The first two aren’t surprising given those states’ robust efforts to enroll their own residents, while Louisiana expanded Medicaid in June 2016 so its decrease represents those low-income individuals who now have government coverage.

Medicaid expansion in most of the 33 states and D.C. that have done so under the ACA has predictably decreased the number of people without coverage. The uninsured rate last year in states with an expanded Medicaid program was 6.6 percent compared to 12.2 percent in non-expansion states — a gap that has only continued to grow since 2013.

To be fair, as Larry Levitt, senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, pointed out on Twitter: the uninsured rate started leveling off before the Trump administration started its work. But Levitt suggested the uninsured rate may really rise in 2019 when elimination of the individual mandate penalty takes effect. Moreover, states are increasingly taking the White House up on its suggestion to add work requirements to their Medicaid programs — in just the first three months of it being implemented in Arkansas, more than 4,000 people were jettisoned from the rolls for failure to comply.

Matthew Fiedler, a health-policy expert at the Brookings Institution, agreed with Levitt’s assessment, noting that the bulk of the people who were uninsured pre-ACA have already been enrolled  in the program. He contended that if policy had remained static, there would likely have been a modest decline instead of similar increase in the uninsured rate — though not a dramatic one. The real effects, he said, of the Trump administration’s efforts to chip away at the ACA are still to come. 

“I don’t think the right takeaway is that none of the policy changes will have a negative effect. I think they will going forward, we just haven’t seen that yet,” he said. “I think if your goal is to evaluate the ACA, I think the right takeaway is that there was a lot of progress, but more policy progress to be made.”

Of course, Democrats and Republicans have disparate views on how to get there. Democrats are now pushing for a public option or a universal health care system in which the government would foot the bill for many health-care costs. A lot of them feel  the ACA “got us roughly 40 percent there and established a framework for lawmakers to make that progress going forward,” Fiedler said. That’s why we’re now seeing so many Democratic candidates and lawmakers embracing some iteration of a “Medicare for all” program.  

Republicans still criticize the ACA as vast government overreach and are vowing they will take another stab at repealing it should they maintain the congressional majorities after the November midterms.

“We made an effort to fully repeal and replace ObamaCare and we’ll continue,” Vice President Pence said while campaigning for Baldwin’s opponent, Leah Vukmir, if the GOP performs well in the midterms.

One additional interesting data point from the census is ages at which there was the greatest increases or decreases in the uninsured rate. As highlighted in the chart above, rates of those without insurance rose at ages 18 and 19 — when children are no longer eligible for the Children’s Health Insurance Program; and for those between ages 25 and 26 — when children no longer qualify for their parents’ insurance. The uninsured rate dropped, however, for those aged 64 and 65 — when adults are eligible for Medicare.

The greatest spike in those without insurance was documented for 26 year olds. That’s likely because young adults are typically healthier and feel less urgency to pay for insurance when they lose coverage under their family’s plan.

As noted by the New York Times’ Margot Sanger Katz on Twitter, these stats show just how crucial government programs and laws have been in providing health coverage to Americans:

Premium hikes reignite the ObamaCare wars


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The ObamaCare premium wars are back.

The cost of health insurance plans on the ObamaCare exchanges could jump in the coming weeks, some by double digits, inflaming the issue ahead of the midterm elections.

Democrats argue the price increases are the result of what they refer to as “Republican sabotage.” They contend that, since the GOP controls Congress and the White House, the price hikes are their responsibility — and that’s the message they plan to take into the fall campaign.

“If these early states are any indication, health insurance companies are going to ask for huge hikes in the wake of President Trumpand congressional Republicans’ repeated efforts to sabotage our health-care system,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a press conference last week. “And we Democrats are going to be relentless in making sure the American people exactly understand who is to blame for the rates.”

Republicans counter that it was Democrats who passed the law, enacted in 2010, in the first place and without any GOP votes. And they blame Democrats for the failure to pass a bill that was aimed at shoring up ObamaCare’s exchanges.

Democrats wrote the Affordable Care Act, so “they should look in the mirror,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said last week on the Senate floor.

“And this is the very worst. When Republicans were prepared one month ago to stabilize these markets — and according to the Oliver Wyman health-care experts, to lower rates by up to 40 percent over three years — the Democrats said no,” he said.

For years, Republicans had the upper hand on health care, with the backlash to the Affordable Care Act helping them win the House in 2010, the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016.

During the Obama administration, Republicans railed against ObamaCare premium hikes while pledging to repeal and replace the law.

But that repeal push ended in failure last year, and Democrats say the political winds have shifted in their favor.

Democrats argue that any higher premiums this year will be a direct result of the Republican Congress and the Trump administration. They refer to certain actions by the GOP — such as the repeal of the individual mandate to have health insurance — as acts of “sabotage” that will siphon healthy people out of the ObamaCare insurance markets, leading to sicker people on the plans and higher costs.

“Thus far, Democrats have been on the defensive about premium increases,” said Cynthia Cox, a health insurance expert with the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Now they’re starting to play offense, and from our polling we’ve seen that a lot of the public now feels that the Trump administration and Congress are responsible for any problems with the [Affordable Care Act] going forward, so it may be that the politics of premium increases has changed.”

Protect Our Care, a pro-ObamaCare group, launched “Rate Watch” on Tuesday, a media campaign and website aimed at getting out the Democrat’s message that Republicans are to blame for rate hikes.

Only a handful of states have released proposed premiums for next year, as insurers are largely still hammering out what their preliminary rates are going to be.

In Maryland, the average proposed increase among insurers and plans was 30 percent. CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, for example, requested an 18.5 percent hike for its HMO plans and 91.4 percent for its PPO plans.

In Virginia, proposed rate hikes varied widely, from 15 percent to 64 percent. Vermont’s proposed premium increases were more modest.

It’s too early to know the full picture for what premiums will look like around the country for 2019. Insurers tend to file proposed rates in the late spring and early summer, and they’re generally not finalized until early fall — a little more than a month before the ObamaCare exchanges open for business on Nov. 1.

“It’s hard to come up with a general impression … but I think what we can expect is probably another year of double-digit rate increases driven in large part by the individual mandate repeal and the expansion of short-term health plans and association health plans,” Cox said.

The Trump administration proposed a rule to increase the length of time a consumer can keep a plan that doesn’t comply with ObamaCare’s insurance regulations from three months to nearly a year. Democrats deride those plans as “junk insurance.”

Association health plans would let small businesses and self-employed individuals band together to buy coverage that doesn’t comply with ObamaCare’s rules.

Republicans say the rules will expand choice and allow people to buy cheaper alternatives to ObamaCare plans.

Some insurers have cited the repeal of the individual mandate as a factor in their decision to propose rate hikes, and at least one also included the proposed regulations from the administration as a factor.

Some insurance commissioners across the country are approaching the open enrollment period with a level of “concern and a bit of trepidation,” said Julie Mix McPeak, Tennessee’s insurance commissioner who serves as the president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

In McPeak’s home state, she’s hopeful that signs are pointing to rates beginning to plateau and that Tennessee won’t see the large hikes of years past.

“My experience in Tennessee … is not typical for all of the states in the United States,” said McPeak, who was appointed to run the state’s insurance department by Gov. Bill Haslam (R.).

“I’m hearing from some of my colleagues from the national perspective that they are looking at significant rate increases,” she said.

Dave Jones, California’s Democratic insurance commissioner, said he’s worried that some insurers may leave parts of the state.

“We’re working closely with our exchange and other California agencies to do everything we can to encourage insurers to stay and to create as much stability as we can, not withstanding all of the rocks that the Trump administration is throwing at health-care reform,” he said.

If the short-term and association health plan rules are implemented, Jones said he’s prepared to file litigation aimed at stopping the regulations.

In North Dakota, the state’s Republican insurance commissioner is more optimistic.

Jon Godfread said he expects North Dakota’s marketplace will consist of three carriers selling plans across the state — an increase from last year, when areas had only one or two insurers to choose from.

As for rate hikes, he’s hoping in the low double-digits or, worst case, in the 18 percent to 22 percent range. He believes the repeal of the individual mandate won’t have much impact on consumer behavior in North Dakota because people who couldn’t afford insurance have likely already left the marketplace in the state.

“Health insurance and health care by its very nature is demographic,” Godfread said. “We may be leading into a somewhat calm year — in North Dakota, at least that’s what we’re hoping for. But that doesn’t mean my colleagues in Iowa and Nebraska and other places aren’t facing some pretty significant challenges, and we very well, that could be us next year, or it could be us this year still, too. There’s a lot of time between now and open enrollment.”



Health Care’s New ‘Skinny Plans’: Winners and Losers


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Trump’s ‘skinny plans’ offer a cheaper alternative to the Affordable Care Act, but may have far less coverage.


New, more-limited health plans may draw consumers away from Affordable Care Act coverage and drive up prices on insurance sold in the health law’s marketplaces. These “skinny” plans offer lower premiums, making them an attractive alternative for young, healthy buyers.

New, more-limited health plans may draw consumers away from Affordable Care Act coverage and drive up prices on insurance sold in the health law’s marketplaces.

These “skinny” plans offer lower premiums, making them an attractive alternative for young, healthy buyers.

State Regulation of Coverage Options Outside of the Affordable Care Act: Limiting the Risk to the Individual Market



  • Issue: Certain forms of individual health coverage are not required to comply with the consumer protections of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). These “alternative coverage arrangements” — including transitional policies, short-term plans, health care sharing ministries, and association health plans — tend to have lower upfront costs and offer far fewer benefits than ACA-compliant insurance. While appealing to some healthy individuals, they are often unattractive, or unavailable, to people in less-than-perfect health. By leveraging their regulatory advantages to enroll healthy individuals, these alternatives to marketplace coverage may contribute to a smaller, sicker, and less stable ACA-compliant market. The Trump administration recently has acted to reduce federal barriers to these arrangements.
  • Goal: To understand how states regulate coverage arrangements that do not comply with the ACA’s individual health insurance market reforms.
  • Methods: Analysis of the applicable laws, regulations, and guidance of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
  • Findings and Conclusions: No state’s regulatory framework fully protects the individual market from adverse selection by the alternative coverage arrangements studied. However, states have the authority to ensure a level playing field among coverage options to promote market stability.


Recent federal actions have created the potential for instability in the individual health insurance market, through which approximately 18 million Americans currently purchase their health insurance coverage.1 In October 2017, President Trump issued an executive order to encourage the sale of health insurance products that do not comply with the consumer protections of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).2 In December, Congress repealed, effective in 2019, the tax penalty for individuals who can afford to maintain health insurance coverage but decline to do so (the individual mandate penalty).3

Prior to health reform, insurers in the individual market had wide latitude to deny coverage, charge an unaffordable premium, or limit benefits based on a person’s medical history. As a consequence, individual market health insurance routinely proved inadequate for consumers’ health and financial needs and was often inaccessible to those with even minor health problems.4 The ACA established numerous consumer protections designed to make it easier for consumers in the individual market to access affordable, adequate health insurance. The law requires insurers that sell individual health insurance to offer coverage to all individuals regardless of health status, requires coverage of preexisting conditions, and prohibits insurers from charging higher premiums based on a person’s medical history or gender. It also includes limits on cost-sharing and requires insurers to cover a minimum set of essential health benefits, including coverage for mental and behavioral health care, prescription drugs, and maternity services.

For these consumer protections to work as intended and to keep premiums affordable, they need to be paired with policies that encourage a broad and balanced risk pool. To promote continuous enrollment by the sick and healthy alike, the ACA imposes an individual mandate and provides financial assistance to make coverage more affordable for those with lower and moderate incomes. Importantly, the ACA also defines what types of coverage were sufficiently protective for purposes of satisfying the individual mandate. To prevent cherry-picking of individuals who are low health risks, it also requires all individual market insurers to play by the same rules.

In many ways, the ACA’s regulatory approach to the individual market has proven successful. During the most recent open enrollment period, approximately 11.7 million Americans signed up for coverage through the ACA marketplaces (also called exchanges), most of whom are eligible for subsidies to help with the cost of coverage.5 In turn, improved access to comprehensive individual health insurance under the ACA, along with the expansion of Medicaid, has helped to reduce the uninsured rate by a third, as of 2018, and lower consumers’ average out-of-pocket costs.6 And, despite insurers’ continued uncertainty over the possible repeal of the health law and the Trump administration’s approach to implementing the ACA, analysis showed that, on average, states’ individual markets were stabilizing, with some insurers reaching profitability.7

However, challenges remain. In the past two years, the individual market in most states has seen significant increases in premiums, coupled with decreases in the number of participating insurers.8 While the ACA’s premium subsidies insulate many consumers from these price hikes, many millions of consumers are not eligible for subsidies, and those individuals identify the cost of coverage as a significant barrier to care.9 And though marketplace sign-ups remain stable despite federal policy uncertainty and Trump administration actions seen as undermining the ACA, enrollment remains well below early expectations.10

These challenges are interrelated and can be attributed to many factors. Still, the availability of coverage options that are not compliant with the ACA’s rules, as well as confusion over them, likely has played an important contributing role.

Policy Implications

Although states’ approaches to implementing the ACA can sharply differ, the law’s consumer protections operate nationwide, and nearly all states have taken responsibility for enforcing these reforms in their jurisdictions. The insurance exchanges in most states have proven resilient in the face of significant change and uncertainty, with millions of Americans now able to depend on individual health insurance to protect them both medically and financially.

However, maintaining a stable individual market will become more challenging, thanks to an environment in which healthy consumers are not required to maintain insurance and federal regulations are loosened to promote coverage arrangements likely to weaken insurance risk pools and raise premiums. These developments may incline healthy individuals to look increasingly outside the compliant market for coverage, leaving those who remain to face higher costs and fewer plan choices.68

Based on our review of state laws and standards, it appears that no state maintains a regulatory environment that fully protects its individual health insurance market from being undermined by the alternative coverage options we have identified. However, states continue to be the primary regulators of private health insurance. Although the ACA set a federal floor of consumer protections for insurers that operate in the individual market, it did not curtail states’ power to regulate above these minimum standards and to exercise full authority over coverage arrangements that fall outside the scope of federal insurance law.

How We Conducted This Study

This analysis is based on a review of applicable laws, regulations, and guidance enacted or promulgated prior to February 1, 2018, by each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. This review was supplemented by correspondence with state regulators in 48 states and the District of Columbia.

A number of states have taken steps to limit the availability of non-ACA-compliant products and protect against adverse selection. Massachusetts and New York promptly discontinued transitional coverage and effectively prohibit underwritten short-term policies, while several other states tightly restrict the duration of such plans. Significantly, Massachusetts also has its own individual mandate, requiring state residents to maintain coverage that meets minimum standards.69 Other states have begun to explore enactment of similar policies in anticipation of the federal mandate’s 2019 repeal.

On many fronts, states face a federal regulatory approach to the individual market that is significantly different from what was originally envisioned under the Affordable Care Act. In light of these changed circumstances, there may be value for states in considering regulatory options for protecting their individual insurance markets and their insured beneficiaries from the detrimental effects of non-ACA-compliant policies. The decisions states make will likely have a significant impact on their residents’ access to adequate and affordable coverage and on the stability of their individual health insurance markets.