The new proposal to expand association health plans promises to provide more affordable insurance options for small-business owners and employees. But some experts aren’t convinced that this is the right solution.
For one, the proposal’s promises of consumer protections aren’t as strong as they seem, said Timothy Jost, a Washington and Lee University professor emeritus who closely follows the ACA.
Association health plans can’t charge higher premiums or deny coverage based on health status, according to the Department of Labor (DOL). But because AHPs would be subject to large-employer market rules, they wouldn’t have to cover the list of essential health benefits that the Affordable Care Act mandates.
The upshot, Jost told FierceHealthcare, is that insurers could legally weed out those with costly conditions while still complying with regulations that bar them from denying those individuals coverage or hiking their premiums.
“If you can’t exclude someone because they have cancer, it’s easy to just not cover chemotherapy,” he said. “Or if you can’t exclude people who have mental illness, it’s easy to just not cover mental health care.”
And Larry Levitt, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, pointed out in a Twitter post that insurers could still hike premiums based on factors other than health status:
The association health plan regulation prohibits variation in premiums based on health. It does not prohibit premium variation based on any other factor, such as gender, age, industry or occupation, or business size.
Association health plans are also likely to be marketed toward the healthiest, youngest individuals, Jost noted.
“I doubt anybody is going to be out there writing association coverage for occupations that are predominantly people who are older or have chronic health problems,” he said.
The problem, then, is that AHPs would siphon more low-risk consumers out of the individual marketplaces—thus skewing that risk pool and likely causing insurers to raise premiums.
“I think everybody understands that this is going to undermine the market for ACA-compliant plans,” Jost said.
Andy Slavitt, the former Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services acting administrator, laid out his own criticisms in a Twitter thread—including pointing out that breaking up risk pools goes against the proposal’s stated purpose of giving small businesses more clout:
The regulation aims to push the idea of what can be considered an association.
Someone I talked to today referred to it as being able to create an “air breathers association.” Essentially, making it as rude-less as possible.
Many of the premises of AHPs have been shown not to work in the past.
For example, the rule says AHPs will create “increased buying power”. Breaking up pools does exactly the opposite.
Instead, a “Runners’ Association” just sends a clear signal that these are healthy people.
Merrill Matthews, Ph.D., a resident scholar at the right-leaning Institute for Policy Innovation, praised the new proposed rule, noting that it allows small businesses to do what large employers have long been able to: self-insure.
“Self-insured employers have been able to avoid many of the state and federal mandates imposed on the small group and individual markets, which helped employers keep down the cost of coverage,” he said.
But even Matthews acknowledged that the impact of the proposed policy changes is likely to be limited, as it will only apply to small employers and possibly some self-employed individuals. Since the proposed changes are “unlikely to provide much relief” for those affected by high premiums in the individual market, he said, “Congress still needs to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”
Perhaps the biggest issue that Jost saw with the new proposal was the fact that AHPs have had past issues with insolvency, bankruptcy and even fraud.
“There’s just a long history of association health plans being formed that are thinly capitalized, that pay large salaries and expenses for their owners, and disappear when the going gets rough,” he said.
For its part, the DOL said it will “closely monitor these plans to protect consumers.” But Jost pointed out that the agency has experienced staff and budget cuts that might undermine that goal.
Even the DOL itself said in the proposed rule that “the flexibility afforded AHPs under this proposal could introduce more opportunities for mismanagement or abuse, increasing potential oversight demands on the department and state regulators.”
Ultimately, what plays out will largely be decided by how states respond to the new regulations once they are implemented, Jost added.
“In states that try to take an aggressive approach to regulating them, there won’t be that much activity,” he said. “And in states that take a hands-off approach and let anything go, there will be probably quite a bit of activity until [AHPs] start going belly up.”
Killing the mandate doesn’t gut the health care law. Most likely, it will muddle along, because the rest of it is broadly popular.
In July and again in September, Republicans narrowly failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But their newly passed tax legislation included a provision getting rid of Obamacare’s mandate requiring Americans to buy insurance, and President Donald Trump immediately declared victory in the partisan health care wars. “When the individual mandate is being repealed, that means Obamacare is being repealed,” he crowed at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday. “We have essentially repealed Obamacare.”
Well, no. The individual mandate is only part of Obamacare. It wasn’t even included in the original health care plan that Barack Obama unveiled during the 2008 campaign. The mandate did become an important element of Obamacare, and the only specific element that a majority of the public opposed. But the more generous elements of the program—like a major expansion of Medicaid, significant government subsidies for private insurance premiums, and strict protections for pre-existing conditions—are still popular, and still the law of the land.
“The death of Obamacare has been exaggerated,” says Larry Levitt, who oversees health reform studies at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Eliminating the mandate creates uncertainty, but all the benefits for people remain in place.”
The Republican ecstasy and Democratic gloom over the death of the mandate reflects the most consistent misperception over the seven-plus years of Affordable Care Act debates, the incorrect assumption that the “Obamacare exchanges,” where Americans can buy private insurance, are synonymous with Obamacare. The vast majority of Americans who get their coverage through Medicare, Medicaid or their employers shouldn’t be affected. Yes, killing the mandate could cause problems for the remaining 6 percent of Americans who have to buy insurance on the open market, but nearly half will remain eligible for subsidies that would insulate them from any premium hikes.
Repealing the tax penalties for Americans who don’t buy insurance would not repeal Obamacare’s perks for Americans who do—like the ban on annual and lifetime caps that insurers previously used to cut off coverage for their sickest customers, or the provision allowing parents to keep their children on their plans until they turn 26. And it would not repeal Obamacare’s “delivery reforms” that are quietly transforming the financial incentives in the medical system, gradually shifting reimbursements to reward the quality rather than quantity of care. The growth of U.S. health care costs has slowed dramatically since the launch of Obamacare, and the elimination of the mandate should not significantly affect that trend.
In fact, during the 2008 campaign, Obama was the only Democratic candidate whose health plan did not include a mandate, because he was the only Democratic candidate who thought the main problem with health care was its cost. “It’s just too expensive,” he explained at an Iowa event in May 2007. Insurance premiums had almost doubled during the George W. Bush era, and Obama believed that was the reason so many Americans were uninsured. He doubted it would be worth the political heartburn to try to force people to buy insurance they couldn’t afford.
But Obama eventually embraced the argument that a mandate was necessary to ensure that young and healthy Americans bought insurance. The fear was that otherwise, insurance markets dominated by the old and sick (who would enjoy the law’s new protections for pre-existing conditions) would have produced even higher premiums, and might scare insurers away from serving Americans who don’t get coverage through their jobs or the government. Killing the mandate will be a step in that direction, boosting Trump’s heighten-the-contradictions effort to sabotage the functioning of Obamacare to build support for a more sweeping repeal.
That effort has already produced some damaging results for the exchanges. Insurers have increased their premiums for 2018, repeatedly citing uncertainty over Trump’s efforts to blow up Obamacare as well as his decision to cut off promised payments to insurers who cover lower-income families. Several insurers left the exchanges even before the elimination of the mandate, and others could follow.
But the widespread warnings that wide swaths of America would have no insurers on the exchanges were wrong; there are zero “bare counties” with no insurers for 2018. And a Kaiser review found the exchanges have gotten more profitable for insurers this year,despite Trump’s efforts to damage them. This year’s enrollment period appears to have gone fairly well even though the Trump administration shortened it by half and slashed its promotional budget.
The fear is that eliminating the mandate could produce a “death spiral” for the exchanges, where higher premiums scare away healthier customers, leading to even higher premiums and even sicker customers—until eventually,the insurers decide to bail. It could also encourage insurers to try to lure healthier customers with cheaper but skimpier plans that don’t provide protections for pre-existing conditions, since those customers would no longer have to pay a tax penalty.
But it is also possible that younger and healthier customers who initially bought insurance because they were required to do so will now buy insurance because they want to; surveys show that more than 75 five percent of Americans covered on the exchanges are happy with their coverage. And as a political matter, repealing the unpopular mandate could make it even harder for Republicans to pass legislation repealing insurance protections, Medicaid expansions and the rest of Obamacare, because the rest of Obamacare is popular. It’s not surprising that Republicans managed to kill the law’s vegetables, but it won’t be as easy to kill dessert.
Trump thinks congressional Democrats will soon be begging him to come up with a replacement for Obamacare, and even many Republicans who don’t embrace that fantasy believe the demise of the mandate will ratchet up pressure for a permanent solution to a seven-year political war. It could happen. But there hasn’t been a lot of bipartisanship in Washington lately, and after the Doug Jones upset in Alabama, it seems unlikely that a Senate with one fewer Republican will be more amenable to a Republican-only repeal bill.
The most likely outcome seems to be at least a few more years of Obamacare muddling through, and at least a few more years of Obamacare political warfare.
House and Senate negotiators thrashing out differences over a major tax bill are likely to eliminate the insurance coverage mandate at the heart of the Affordable Care Act, lawmakers say.
But a deal struck by Senate Republican leaders and Senator Susan Collins of Maine to mitigate the effect of the repeal has been all but rejected by House Republicans, potentially jeopardizing Ms. Collins’s final yes vote.
“I don’t think the American people voted for bailing out big insurance,” said Representative Dave Brat, Republican of Virginia, who opposes a separate measure to lower insurance premiums that Ms. Collins thought she had secured.
The sweeping tax overhaul approved Saturday by the Senate would eliminate penalties for people who go without insurance, a change not in the tax bill passed last month by the House. But the House has voted many times to roll back the mandate, most recently in a bill to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and House members were enthusiastic about going along.
“Mandating people to buy a product was a bad idea to begin with,” said Representative Rob Woodall, Republican of Georgia. “We made people do something that was supposed to be good for them. But they are telling us by the millions how much they dislike the mandate.”
The individual mandate was originally considered indispensable to the Affordable Care Act, a way to induce healthy people to buy insurance and thus to hold down insurance premiums for sicker customers. The Obama administration successfully defended the mandate in the Supreme Court. But recent economic research suggests that the effect of the mandate on coverage is somewhat smaller than previously thought.
With little more than a week remaining until the annual open enrollment period ends, 3.6 million people have selected health plans for 2018 in the 39 states that use the federal marketplace, the Trump administration reported Wednesday. That is 22 percent higher than at this point last year, despite uncertainty about the mandate’s future and efforts by Republicans and the administration to undermine the law.
But because the sign-up period is only half as long, it appears likely that enrollment will end up lower than in the last period.
Without a mandate, some healthy people are likely to go without coverage, leaving sicker people in the market, and prices are likely to rise more than they otherwise would. The Congressional Budget Office said last month that repealing the individual mandate would increase average premiums on the individual market about 10 percent, and it estimated that the number of people without health insurance would rise by 13 million.
Regardless, the requirement has proved to be one of the most unpopular parts of the 2010 law, and House Republicans were happy to see it go. Representative Richard Hudson, Republican of North Carolina, called the Senate provision “a great move.”
The repeal also frees up money that Congress can use to reduce tax rates. The budget office said it would save the federal government more than $300 billion over 10 years — mainly because fewer people would have Medicaid or subsidized private insurance.
The mandate repeal’s effect on health insurance markets did concern Ms. Collins, and to win her vote for the Senate tax bill, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, offered her a deal, in writing: He would support two bipartisan bills to stabilize markets and hold down premiums, in the absence of the individual mandate.
One bill would provide money to continue paying subsidies to insurance companies in 2018 and 2019 to compensate them for reducing out-of-pocket costs for low-income people. President Trump cut off the “cost sharing” subsidies in October, more than a year after a federal judge ruled that the payments were unconstitutional because Congress had never explicitly provided money for them. The payments would resume under this measure, drafted by Senators Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, and Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington State.
The second bill would provide $5 billion a year for grants to states in 2018 and 2019. States could use the money to help pay the largest health claims, through a backstop known as reinsurance, or to establish high-risk pools to help cover sick people.
Ms. Collins has released a copy of her agreement with Mr. McConnell in which he pledged to support passage of the two measures before the end of the year. His signature was displayed prominently at the top of the first page. But the deal has landed with a thud in the House, where Republicans appear loath to support legislation that they view as propping up a health law that they have pledged to repeal.
“Our members wince at voting to sustain a system that none of them supported,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma.
The Senate could attach the Alexander-Murray legislation to a government funding measure, hoping that Republicans in the House would be willing to swallow it as part of a measure to avoid a government shutdown. But Mr. Cole said House Republicans would be “very offended” at such an approach.
“I don’t think we’re in the mood to be blackmailed by anybody,” he said.
Mr. Brat, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, assailed the deal with Ms. Collins as an example of horse trading that is characteristic of the Washington swamp that he said voters had repudiated.
Likewise, Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said of the Alexander-Murray bill, “There’s no appetite for that over here.”
Ms. Collins said on Wednesday that she believed the House would “take a serious look” at the two bills intended to hold down insurance premiums and that Mr. Trump, in several recent meetings, had assured her that he also supported those bills.
“I don’t think this effort is over by any means,” Ms. Collins said.
For Democrats, eliminating the insurance mandate penalties provides yet another reason to oppose the tax bill.
“The individual mandate is at the heart of the Affordable Care Act,” said Representative James E. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina. “Repealing it, as the G.O.P. tax scam does, is a deliberate attempt to undercut the law, create chaos in the health insurance marketplaces, increase premiums and decrease choice and coverage.”
Ms. Murray indicated that even if Ms. Collins secures her deal, Democrats would remain steadfast.
“Our bill, the Alexander-Murray bill, was designed to shore up the existing health care system,” not to “solve the new problems in this awful Republican tax bill,” she said.
Meanwhile, the damage to the Affordable Care Act may already have been done. Daniel Bouton, an enrollment counselor in Dallas, said he worried that the Trump administration’s decision to cut advertising for open enrollment had prevented millions of people from learning about the shortened sign-up period. He also said that the Senate’s recent vote to undo the individual mandate as part of its tax bill would discourage people from signing up.
“You’re going to have people who say, ‘Well, perfect, I don’t have to buy insurance anymore,’” Mr. Bouton said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Wednesday said House Republicans will aim to cut spending on Medicare, Medicaid and welfare programs next year as a way to trim the federal deficit.
“We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” Ryan said during an interview on Ross Kaminsky’s talk radio show.
Health-care entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid “are the big drivers of debt,” Ryan said, “so we spend more time on the health-care entitlements, because that’s really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking.”
Ryan said he’s been speaking privately with President Trump, who is beginning to warm to the idea of slowing the spending growth in entitlements.
During his campaign, Trump repeatedly promised not to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security.
“I think the president is understanding choice and competition works everywhere, especially in Medicare,” Ryan said.
House and Senate Republicans are currently working on their plans for tax reform, which are estimated to add more than $1 trillion to the deficit. Democrats have voiced concerns that the legislation could lead to cuts to the social safety net.
Ryan is one of a growing number of GOP leaders who have mentioned the need for Congress to cut entitlement spending next year.
Last week, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said that once the tax bill was done, “welfare reform” was up next.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), last week, said “instituting structural changes to Social Security and Medicare for the future” will be the best way to reduce spending and generate economic growth.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, told Bloomberg TV that “the most important thing we can do with respect to the national debt, what we need to do, is obviously reform current entitlement programs for future generations.”
Ryan also mentioned that he wants to work on changing the welfare system, and Republicans have in the past expressed a desire to add work requirements to programs such as food stamps.
Speaking on the Senate floor while debating the tax bill last week, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he had a “rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger and expect the federal government to do everything.”
His comments were echoed by Ryan.
“We have a welfare system that’s trapping people in poverty and effectively paying people not to work,” Ryan said Wednesday. “We’ve got to work on that.”
Marguerite Moniot felt frustrated and flummoxed, despite the many hours she spent in front of the computer this year reading consumer reviews of health insurance plans offered on the individual market in Virginia. Moniot was preparing to buy a policy of her own, knowing she would age out of her parent’s plan when she turned 26 in October.
She asked her parents for help and advice. But they, too, ran into trouble trying to decipher which policy would work best for their daughter. The family had relied on her father’s employer-sponsored plan through his work as an architect for years, so no one had spent much time sifting through policies.
“Honestly, my parents were just as confused as I was,” said Moniot, a restaurant server in Roanoke.
In defeat, just before Thanksgiving, she went with her mother to meet a certified health insurance navigator, buying a policy that allowed her to keep her current doctors.
A new crop of young people like Moniot are falling off their parents’ insurance plans when they turn 26 — the age when the Affordable Care Act stipulates that children must leave family policies.
They were then expected to be able to shop relatively easily for their own insurance on Obamacare marketplaces. But with Trump administration revisions to the law and congressional bills injecting uncertainty into state insurance markets, that task of buying insurance for the first time this year is anything but simple.
The shortened sign-up period, which started Nov. 1, runs through Dec. 15. That window is half as long as last year’s, hampering those who wait until the last minute to obtain insurance.
Reminders and help are scarcer than before: The federal government cut marketing and outreach funds by $90 million, and federal funding to groups providing in-person assistance was whacked by 40 percent.
“I think it’s definitely going to be difficult. There’s just additional barriers with [less] in-person help, just fewer resources going around,” said Erin Hemlin, director of training and consumer education for Young Invincibles, an advocacy group for young adults.
Emily Curran, a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute, said those actions combined with the Trump administration’s vigorous criticism of the health law could further handicap the uphill battle to entice young people to enroll. As of Dec. 2, more than 3.6 million people had enrolled through the federal marketplace, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The data were not sorted by age.
“There’s already a barrier where young adults are having difficulty understanding what the value of insurance is,” she said. “Coming out … and saying prices are going up, choice is going down and this law is a mess doesn’t really get at the young adult population.”
Trouble Attracting Young Adults
Before the Affordable Care Act, young adults had the highest uninsured rate of any age group.
The ACA made coverage more affordable and accessible. It allowed states to expand Medicaid to cover single, childless adults. Tax credits to help pay for premiums made plans on the individual market more affordable for people whose incomes fell between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level (between $12,060 and $48,240 for an individual). And young adults were allowed to stay on their parents’ plan until their 26th birthday.
If the Trump administration’s moves dampen enrollment, insurers could face additional challenges in attracting healthy adults to balance those with illnesses, who drive up costs.In all, the uninsured rate dropped to roughly 15 percent among 19- to 34-year-olds in 2016. Still, young adults have not joined the individual market in the numbers as expected. About a quarter of marketplace customers in 2016 were ages 18-34, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. But that age group makes up about 40 percent of the exchanges’ potential market, according to researchers and federal officials.
“When you’re relatively healthy, it’s not something that you’re thinking about,” said Sandy Ahn, associate research professor at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute.
But illness does not recognize age. Dominique Ridley, who turned 26 on Dec. 6, knows this all too well.
Ridley has asthma. She always carries an inhaler and sees a doctor when she feels her chest tighten. The student at Radford University in Virginia relies on her mother’s employer-sponsored plan for coverage.
Ridley started peppering her parents with questions about health insurance as soon as she started seeing ads for this year’s open enrollment.
“I don’t want to just go out there and apply for health insurance, and it be all kinds of wrong and I can’t afford it,” she said.
Her parents didn’t have the answers, but her mother linked up Ridley with a friend that runs a marketing company tailored to promoting the Affordable Care Act. Ridley then connected with a broker who signed her up for a silver plan that will cost her less than $4 per month, after receiving a premium subsidy of more than $500 a month.
“If you don’t have health insurance, you don’t have anything,” Ridley said.
A Digital Campaign
The Obama administration relied in part on partnerships to attract young enrollees to sign up. Last year, it collaborated with national organizations like Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Young Invincibles on a social media campaign called #HealthyAdulting. Emails, according to Joshua Peck, former chief marketing officer for healthcare.gov, were particularly effective for recruitment.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which oversees the marketplaces, said it will focus this year’s resources on “digital media, email and text messages.”
“But obviously we can’t make up for $90 million in advertising” that’s been cut, said Hemlin.Hemlin said the government has not asked Young Invincibles to assist in marketing. Her group will use its own resources to pay for targeted ads on social media to reach the target demographic, she said.
One factor that might compensate is that 20-somethings are facile at shopping online, said Jill Hanken, director of Enroll! Virginia, a statewide navigator program.
“Our job is to make sure they understand to look at provider networks and drug formularies if they have health concerns. But they’re able to do the mechanics of enrollment on their own very often.”
James Rowley, a 26-year-old entrepreneur from Fairfax, Va., is among those who signed up without help. He started his own company two years ago while covered under his father’s health plan. When he turned 26, he signed up for health insurance on his own through a special enrollment period this year. After general enrollment opened this fall, he once again picked a plan.
“I might not 100 percent need it now, but there will come a time where health insurance is important,” said Rowley.
Senate GOP leaders won a key swing vote for their tax bill by pledging to pass bipartisan legislation to shore up the Affordable Care Act. But now it looks like those measures’ chances of becoming law are getting dimmer.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, wants two bills to pass that she hopes will mitigate the effects of a provision in the tax bill that repeals the individual mandate: the Alexander-Murray bill, which would fund cost-sharing reduction payments for two years, and a bill she co-authored with Democrat Bill Nelson, which provides funding for states to establish invisible high-risk pool or reinsurance programs.
Collins voted for the Senate’s version of the tax bill—a critical win for GOP leaders, as they could only lose two votes and it failed to gain her support for previous ACA repeal bills. But she only did so after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell assured her the two ACA stabilization measures would pass.
Yet while some lawmakers previously said those measures could be tacked on to the short-term spending bill Congress aims to pass this week, congressional aides now say it isn’t likely to be included, according to The Wall Street Journal. Further, while House conservatives have indicated strong support for repealing the individual mandate in the final version of the GOP tax bill, they are far from on board with the two ACA stabilization bills.
For example, Ohio Rep. Warren Davidson said he’s a “hard, hard, very hard no,” on the Alexander-Murray bill, per the WSJ article.
House Speaker Paul Ryan could also be a barrier to passing the two bills. His office told a meeting of congressional leadership offices on Monday that he wasn’t part of any deal between Collins and McConnell, The Hill reported. But his office didn’t say outright that it opposed the bills.
For her part, Collins said it will be “very problematic” if the ACA stabilization bills don’t pass, according to the WSJ. She also won’t commit to voting for the final version of the tax bill until she sees what comes out of a conference committee between the House and Senate.
Even if those measures do pass, there have been questions about whether they would do enough to soften the blow of repealing the individual mandate. The Congressional Budget Office has advised that the Alexander-Murray bill would do little to change its prediction that repealing the mandate would increase the uninsured rate and raise premiums.
A new analysis from Avalere found that Collins’ bill could help stabilize the individual market by increasing enrollment and reducing premiums in 2019, but the consulting firm’s experts cautioned that those effects could be overshadowed by repealing the individual mandate.