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The Case For the Exchanges


The Federal government will push forward to establish health insurance exchanges regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on the Affordable Care Act in the weeks to come, argues THCB contributor Maggie Mahar.  The only sensible conclusion?  The states should accept Washington’s help and open up the market for insurance online.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) calls on the states to create health insurance exchanges – marketplaces where individuals and small businesses can shop for and compare health insurance plans. Beginning in 2014, insurers peddling policies on an exchange will have to meet the ACA’s standards by covering “essential benefits,” capping out-of-pocket expenses for individuals, and offering more transparent information about costs and benefits.

Best of all, insurers will not be able to turn down customers suffering from chronic diseases, or charge them higher premiums.

So far so good.

But some states are attempting to derail “Obamacare.” Florida, Louisiana and Alaska have openly declared that they will have nothing to do with setting up exchanges. Last week, Politico.com reported that many others are stalling. The post quoted one consultant predicting that “between five and 10 states” will meet the 2014 deadline. The American Prospect confirmed the news, adding that some states that had begun making plans “have slowed down while awaiting the Supreme Court ruling on the health law.”

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The Essential Bargain

The ACA has included a long series of bargains to achieve universal health care in the face of two forces: a multi-trillion dollar health care industry, and an implacable political opposition that refuses to bargain. Whatever the merits and blunders of the compromises taken, it should have come as no great surprise that the guidance released at the end of 2011 for the minimum benefit set (the “essential benefits”) was yet another compromise. It bowed to the existing authority of the states by allowing them leeway to decide the essential benefit package, despite the fact that the law itself seemed to intend a single national standard. There are limits, of course: ten categories of benefit must be covered (hospital, lab, maternity, dental, etc.) and the details on what is covered must be set by reference to one of four model plans:

• One of the three largest small group plans in the state by enrollment;
• One of the three largest state employee health plans by enrollment;
• One of the three largest federal employee health plan options by enrollment;
• The largest HMO plan offered in the state’s commercial market.

Predictably, immediate reactions were mostly negative. It was almost universally described as a “punt” by the administration, but a more accurate football metaphor is that the new guidance was a field goal. It’s certainly better than not scoring at all, and games can be decided by field goals. But it also means that your offense wasn’t good enough to close the deal on a touchdown. In that way, you can look at a field goal as one step closer to losing. For different reasons, that is exactly what some foes and supporters alike of the ACA will say about the new guidance.

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