As a confident critic of ObamaCare from its genesis, I’m impressed that the law remains unpopular and that the American people appear ready to scrap it and start again. Last March, a senior bureaucrat in charge of rolling out ObamaCare fretted about a “third-world experience“.
ObamaCare’s opponents have managed to keep Republican politicians unified against the law. The only tactical question is whether the GOP can credibly threaten to “shut down the government” during the forthcoming debate over the Continuing Resolution (the legislation that funds the government in the absence of a budget).
It’s been a good three and a half years for ObamaCare’s opponents. Nevertheless, outside the political realm, businesses and investors are behaving as if ObamaCare is hardened concrete. Although ObamaCare’s opponents have overwhelmingly succeeded in convincing society of the law’s drawbacks, it is not at all clear that society is ready to accept a more free-market alternative reform.
Indeed, some of the approaches used against ObamaCare might have unintended consequences that will appear in 2014, the law’s first fully operational year, which would make repealing and replacing ObamaCare extremely difficult.
Here are a few friendly questions for ObamaCare’s opponents:
First: We’ve spend a lot of effort convincing people that state-based health-insurance exchanges will be a disaster, and succeeded in blocking their establishment in many states. To be sure, they are an unnecessary bureaucracy, but do we really believe that enrolling in the New York Health Benefits Exchange or Cover California will be the worst thing since unsliced bread? It won’t be like shopping on Amazon.com, but I’ll bet it will be easier than doing business with the DMV. The New York Times recently reported on exchange outreach efforts in Colorado (a pro-ObamaCare state) and Missouri (an anti-ObamaCare state). The take-away: In Colorado, it’s almost impossible for people to avoid learning how to enroll in the exchange, while in Missouri it’s been extremely difficult to get information. Most people will not be interested in how much it cost taxpayers to set up and operate the exchanges. Do we really believe that when ordinary Missourians learn from their Coloradan friends that their state government has helped them get federal tax credits for health insurance, that they will reward Show-Me state politicians for trying to block them?
When California announced that individual premiums in its health insurance exchange could be 29% lower than expected, President Obama cheered. When Indiana announced premiums might be 72% higher than before, state officials predicted doom. So who is right? Are health insurance premiums going up or down?
We don’t know, at least in part, because both sides are playing with the numbers. To be sure, natural variation exists in how state insurance markets will be affected, but consumers should also be aware of how premium comparisons are twisted to reach predetermined results. Here are five ways they have been slanted:
- First, when the math suits your agenda, there is a tendency to conflate premiums for insurance purchased on ObamaCare’s new exchanges with those in the private market. Next year, only about2.5% of us will pay the exchange rates for purchasing our insurance. Since the vast majority of Americans will continue to receive health coverage through their employer, Medicare or Medicaid, the issue is smaller than we’re led to believe.
- Second, the impact of the Affordable Care Act varies widely for different subsets of the population. Opponents of ObamaCare tend to focus on the demographic least likely to benefit: young, healthy males, many of whom don’t buy insurance now and might pay higher premiums when entering the market next year than they’d pay today. Supporters, on the other hand, concentrate on older individuals and people with chronic conditions who are currently unable to buy insurance or forced to pay exorbitantly high premiums.
How will the Affordable Care Act affect my family and me? The answer, like the law itself, is complicated. There will be as many stories about health reform as there are families. But I’m confident that most of these stories will be good.
I say this both as a health-policy wonk, with my own health policy consulting firm, and as a husband and father. My wife and I live in Sacramento, California, and we have a five-year-old son. My wife also happens to have a pre-existing health condition. It’s nothing life-threatening but it’s just serious enough that she has been turned down for regular health insurance coverage. Up to a third of Americans face a similar issue, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Finding affordable, high-quality health coverage for my family has been, even for me, an “expert” in the area of health insurance, very complicated and frustrating. So I work with a health insurance broker to understand my options.
Currently, we have “COBRA” coverage for my wife, a type of health insurance you can get for 18 months after you’ve left employer-sponsored health coverage and that is available regardless of health history. It is expensive, though, costing us $655 per month. Then, since I don’t have an employer to provide coverage, I buy a separate policy in the so-called “individual market” to cover my son and myself. That costs $482 per month.
So before we get to any out-of-pocket medical expenses, we’re shelling out $13,644 per year in health insurance premiums. That’s actually quite a bit less than the average premium cost of $18,430 for people with employer-sponsored insurance (as calculated in the Milliman Medical Index of 2013), but the difference is that people with employer-sponsored insurance don’t have to take out their checkbook and pay the entire bill, since their company covers part of it and takes the rest out of their pay.
Our coverage is good for what we pay, but not extraordinarily so. It’s a pair of similar PPO (Preferred Provider Organization) products through Blue Shield of California that have a fairly broad network of doctors and hospitals.
Will my life get less complicated and frustrating on January 1, 2014, the day that health reform coverage starts? I believe it will.
While sitting in the crowded waiting room of a medical specialist’s office I was forced to listen to the television set directly over my head. Cranked up so that everyone could listen above the din of conversation, Wolf Blitzer introduced a video clip of the President hailing the latest news from New York about health insurance exchanges.
Speaking as if he was still on the campaign trail, the President’s words came through loud and clear over the television: thanks to his health reform, premiums in the New York exchange would be half that of premiums in the individual market. This was a model the entire nation should embrace.
No one heard me mutter under my breath that this was a model for New York and a small handful of other states that previously regulated their individual insurance markets effectively out of existence.
What the President undoubtedly knows, but dared not say, is that New York’s individual insurance market is unlike any other state. In New York, insurers cannot charge higher premiums to high risk enrollees.
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As a result of this aggressive community rating, high risk individuals are disproportionately represented in New York’s individual policy risk pools. This drives up premiums, which drives away low risks, driving premiums even higher. Insurers in New York are counting on the purchase mandate, combined with purchase subsidies, to lure low risks into the pool.
This is why they have lowered premiums.
Come October millions of people will be applying for tens of billions of dollars in federal health insurance premium subsidies on the honor system.
On the Friday after the Fourth of July––when the administration apparently hoped no one would be paying attention––the Obama administration dropped 606 pages of regulations. Buried inside was the news that that insurance exchanges can ignore any personal income information they get from the Federal Data Hub during 2014 if it conflicts with “attestations” made by individuals.
That came three days after the administration announced it was putting the employer mandate on hold––and therefore not requiring detailed information from employers regarding the health plans they offer to their workers. The administration said the delay was because of the burden the reporting put on employers. But, was the administration ready to handle the data?
Because there will be no employer reporting in 2014, the administration also said in the Friday regs that the new health insurance exchanges “may accept the applicants attestation regarding enrollment in eligible employer-sponsored plan…without verification.” Given the incredibly complex “ObamaCare” 60%/9.5% employer benefit eligibility rule, that will be a challenge for most citizens.
But here’s the biggest deal in the new “ObamaCare” regulation: The exchanges are to rely upon the applicant’s statement regarding their income the vast majority of the time. Instead of requiring proof of their income, as had been expected when the Federal Data Hub couldn’t verify someone’s representation, the exchanges will only do a formal check on a “statistically valid sample” of applications.”
For those not part of this “statistically valid sample,” “the Exchange may accept the attestation of projected annual household income without any further verification.”
Apparently, millions of people will receive tens of billions of federal premium subsidy dollars “without any further verification.”
It would appear that the administration is going to rely upon subsequent 2014 tax filings, made in early 2015, to reconcile what it paid people compared to what they were actually eligible for.
That presents some big issues.
With ten states and D.C. having reported preliminary information on the prices of plans in their new health insurance exchanges, partisans on both sides of the Affordable Care Act have pounced on the news to reinforce their preconceived notions.
Supporters of the law report that “rate shock is a crock” and that prices are “surprisingly low,” while opponents look at the same data and conclude that “Obamacare will increase individual health insurance premiums.” Gary Cohen of CCIIO’s recent announcement that rates on the federal exchange will be made public in September will surely raise the fevered pitch of commentary.
But what do these numbers actually represent? Carriers submitting bids start with the prices of their current products and then adjust them for the myriad changes in the insurance market that go into effect on January 1, 2014.
Those changes include: elimination of health status underwriting, compression of rates by age, partial standardization (and in most instances significant expansion) of the benefit package, expansion of the market to a largely unknown population due to premium subsidies, effects of the “three Rs” (risk adjustment, reinsurance, and risk corridors), a completely new product distribution system, and a host of other changes in the health care and health insurance environment.
Needless to say, these many changes introduce a tremendous amount of uncertainty.
CDC’s report, Problems Paying Medical Bills: Early Release of Estimates From the National Health Interview Survey, January 2011-June 2012, provides some encouraging news. The data show fewer Americans have trouble paying their medical bills.
Among adults between the ages of 18-64, the percentage of those in families that have problems paying medical bills decreased from 20.9 percent in the first half of 2011, to 19.7 percent in the first half of 2012. The news was also encouraging for teens and children 17 and younger living in families with problems paying medical bills. The percentage of these decreased from 23.7 percent to 21.8 percent for the same period.
While the report provides good news, far too many Americans still find it burdensome to access medical services.
This is why the Affordable Care Act was passed. The law helps Americans with their medical bills in several ways. It requires many insurers to cover certain preventive services at no out of pocket cost to patients. Because of the law, 71 million Americans are receiving expanded coverage of preventive services without co-pays or deductibles — including vaccines, blood pressure and cholesterol tests, mammograms, colonoscopies and screenings for osteoporosis.
The Affordable Care Act has also played a role in helping Americans access the health insurance they need. Since 2010, the law has allowed more than 3.1 million young people to stay on their parents’ health insurance policies until age 26.
Last week, I received my weekly email update from the Maryland health insurance exchange:
Maryland Health Connection completed its Final Detailed Design Review (FDDR) live system demo on Thursday, May 30. The FDDR is a federal stage-gate required of all state-based exchanges. Maryland Health Connection successfully demonstrated end-to-end enrollment of a split family scenario including user log in, eligibility determination, real-time data verification through the Federal Data Services Hub, enrollment into plans, payment and file generation to be sent to an insurance carrier. This major information technology milestone received high marks by federal partners. We will continue with development of Maryland Health Connection over the next several weeks and begin user acceptance testing in July.
This report tells us a few things.
First, the Maryland health insurance exchange is on track to launch on time and ready to serve all comers. I continue to be impressed by how well this state-run health insurance exchange is working toward implementing the Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”) on October 1, 2013.
Second, apparently the Federal Data Hub is up and running. While that is what the Obama administration has been telling us, it has been hard to find anyone who has actually seen it or used it.
Third, Maryland has its system ready to exchange eligibility and premium information with the health insurance plans––perhaps the biggest challenge the new exchanges, state or federal, face.
Across the country, I am not so worried that consumers will have a website to go to on October 1 in order to shop for the new health plans as I am concerned with how things will go on January 1, 2014 when patients show up in a doctors office. If we don’t have a clean exchange of eligibility and payment information there are going to be lots of people who will have their doctor or hospital telling them they don’t know anything about their coverage.
Oct. 1, 2013 is a focus of increasing anxiety in this country. That’s the date when enrollments begin for the federally run health insurance exchanges, created under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). No one really knows what to expect, but it could be far worse than advertised —and for a reason that has more to do with the federal deficit than health care.
What’s anticipated is unsettling enough. President Obama speaks of inevitable “glitches and bumps” in the implementation. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) sees the possibility of “a huge train wreck” if the public isn’t adequately educated and prepared. Supporters of the ACA, especially Democrats in the Congress, are nervous about taking the blame if the exchanges don’t unfold as intended.
All these worries are legitimate. The American people, already burdened by a numbingly complex, inefficient and inequitable tax system, now wonder if an increasingly government-run health care system will follow suit. Many are concerned that some employers will dump their current health care plans and pay the relatively modest fine. There’s also worry that young people will opt out of the exchanges (preferring to pay the small penalty), leaving the exchanges with a disproportionately older and sicker pool. Then there’s the very real uncertainty surrounding the ACA’s ultimate cost — illustrated by the impact of Medicare alone, which the Office of the Chief Actuary of Medicare estimates could cost cost $10 trillion more than claimed.
Amid all these concerns and speculations, almost no attention is being paid to the opportunity that the ACA’s insurance exchanges could represent for state and local governments’ retiree health care programs. It’s time to think about it because the consequences could be far-reaching.
States in a deep hole
We already know that many state and local governments are in a financial hole that keeps getting deeper. A newly released report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) makes clear that, absent significant reforms, the fiscal picture for most state and local governments will steadily worsen through 2060. A main cause, in addition to Medicaid, is the cost of health care for state and local government retirees. These largely unfunded obligations are similar to the pressures on the federal government to fulfill its unrealistic Medicare promises.
Doctors who contract with state health insurance exchanges next year might find themselves on the hook for treatment costs resulting from what many are calling a loophole in the Affordable Care Act.
Some say the provision might prompt doctors to avoid the exchanges altogether, while other experts say few health care providers are aware of the issue and likely won’t know about the loophole until it’s too late.
Provision Permits Care Without Coverage
Under the ACA, if families who obtain subsidized health plan coverage through the exchanges fail to pay their premiums, they have a three-month grace period before the policy is cancelled. However, insurers are responsible only for paying claims during the first month of that grace period.
During the other two months, families are asked to pay their doctor’s bill or their insurance premium if they seek health care services. However, if they do not pay either bill, physicians are left to cover the cost of the treatment.
Such families would face a tax penalty for missing payments, but they would not receive a fine, a premium rate increase or a repayment order. They also would not be barred from purchasing another subsidized plan during the next enrollment period.
A ‘Laudable’ Design With Flaws
“I believe this part of the law was designed for logical and laudable reasons,” Lisa Folberg — vice president of medical and regulatory policy at the California Medical Association — said.
She explained that the three-month grace period was meant to ensure continuity of care for low-income families who might be between jobs and cannot afford to pay their premiums for a few weeks.