Picture this. Amy becomes pregnant while working as a high school teacher. Her employer’s health insurance plan pays the maternity bills and she happily raises her twins.
Fast-forward a few years. She’s decided to become an entrepreneur and runs a small business. She becomes pregnant again but, this time, finds that her $400 a month individual health insurance policy won’t cover the expenses. In fine print, she discovers that she needed to purchase a special rider to activate maternity care benefits. She’ll have to pay $10,000+ out of pocket now, putting her burgeoning business at risk.
Angry at this, Amy decides to switch insurers but, to her dismay, she finds that the four largest insurers in her area don’t cover most expenses associated with a normal delivery. Amy has nowhere to go. Also, since pregnancy is a pre-existing condition, Amy is advised by her doctor to “not become pregnant again” if she wants to get quote reasonable health insurance rates during her search.
This is not an exaggerated or dystopian situation, it’s a real example from 2010.
States in more than half the nation have reported individual market premium rate requests for 2015, making this an opportune time to assess how the second year of the ACA’s new marketplaces is shaping up.
With rate filings in for 27 states plus the District of Columbia, the early word on 2015 appears to be expansion. At least 15 of the 28 jurisdictions in 2015 will offer new individual plans this year. Thirty-seven of the 176 health plan filings are new, according to analysis by PwC’s Health Research Institute (HRI).
Major national insurers such as UnitedHealth Group, as well as newbie Consumer Operated and Oriented Plans (Co-Ops), plan to add both products and states when exchange open enrollment begins in the fall. In Virginia, five new plan bids have been submitted to the state; Washington, Arkansas and Tennessee show three new plans each.
UnitedHealth’s CEO Stephen J. Helmsley estimates that UnitedHealth will sell on public exchanges in about two dozen states. In short, the ACA’s subsidized exchange markets represent growth opportunities for the health sector.
At the same time at least three non-profit health Co-Ops will move into additional markets. As of late April, Co-Ops operating in 23 states had 400,000 members, according to the National Alliance of State Health Co-Ops. Not every Co-Op drew big numbers, especially those in states such as Maryland, where the online marketplace never really got off the ground. And it’s far too early to say how many new entrants will be left standing as plans are forced to pay back $2 billion in federal loans over the next several years.
In other words, if premiums rise next year like WellPoint Inc. has predicted, subsidies also will rise to keep the net cost to consumers at the same percentage of their income.
So rising premiums aren’t a problem for consumers, unless their income rises so much that it reduces the size of their subsidy.
“If all insurers increase their rates by 10 percent, that might not have a dramatic shift in the market,” said Paul Houchens, a consulting actuary at the Indianapolis health practice of Milliman Inc. “Most of that premium increase is going to be absorbed by the federal government.”
(Rising federal spending could also be a problem for Obamacare–not to mention taxpayers–but that’s not my focus today. Also, Houchens noted, Obamacare’s premiums are not scheduled to rise in line with premiums forever, but will be indexed to income growth and inflation.)
But for 2015, what could cause the biggest problem for Obamacare consumers, Houchens pointed out to me last week, is if an insurer reduces its premiums. Or if a new compeitor enters the market in 2015 with lower premiums than insurers were offering in 2014.
If that idea makes your head spin, welcome to Obamacare, where up is down and down is up—at least compared to how health insurance used to work. It’s what I’ve taken to calling the weightlessness of Obamacare.
Being against Obamacare has been the keystone, the capstone, the mighty sledgehammer, the massive metaphor of your choice for the right for five years now. They couldn’t stop it from being passed. They couldn’t stop it at the Supreme Court.
They weren’t able to choke it off by “defunding” it. They rejoiced at the rubber-meets-the-sky rollout of Healthcare.gov, but then the kinks got worked out of that.They railed at the administration using discretionary powers built into the law to help it work better. Every horror story of Obamacare ruining people’s lives they came up with turned out to be false.
Almost all of the people cynically cancelled by the insurance companies as a way to sell them more expensive insurance got insured again fairly quickly. Then 7 million people signed up on the exchanges, and altogether some 10 million formerly uninsured people now have medical coverage.
But the right still needs to call it a “train wreck.” The magic mantra has to work for them. Just this morning, here’s a Republican Congressman saying that we have to cut Food Stamps because: Obamacare. Say that again slowly?
It’s getting harder and harder on the right to come up with new ways to say it isn’t working when it actually seems to be working. I have to hand it to them, though: Those spin factories are filled with hard-working creative people. Get to work early, stay late, trash Obamacare. Hey, it’s a living.
So what’s the latest? This fall, Obamacare premiums are going to “skyrocket”!
To properly price the exchange health insurance business going forward the carriers have to sharply increase the rates.
A senior executive for Wellpoint, which sells plans in 14 Obamacare exchanges, is quoted in a Reuters article telling Wall Street analysts there will be big rate increases in 2015, “Looking at the rate increases on a year-over-year basis on our exchanges, and it will vary by carrier, but all of them will probably be double digits.”
If the health plans do issue double digit rate increases for 2015, Obamacare is finished.
There are a ton of things that need to be fixed in Obamacare. But, I will suggest there is one thing that could save it.
The health insurance companies have to submit their new health insurance plans and rates between May 27 and June 27 for the 2015 Obamacare open-enrollment period beginning on November 15th. Any major modifications to the current Obamacare regulations need to be issued in the next month to give the carriers time to adjust and develop new products.
If the administration goes into the next open enrollment with the same unattractive plan offerings costing a lot more than they do today, they will not be able to reboot Obamacare.
But dramatically increasing the rates will only assure even fewer healthy people will sign up for 2015 and some of those who signed up for 2014 will back out over the higher rates. This is what a “death spiral” looks like.
A 26-year-old man who makes $36,000 a year in Philadelphia finds out that he is not eligible for a health insurance subsidy, and must pay his $205 monthly premium without any help.
This, despite the ACA’s subsidies for people earning up to 400% of poverty (about $46,000).
Has he fallen into the subsidy gap?
The latest talk about a subsidy gap into which some millennials are falling is mystifying to me. It seems to be a product of a misunderstanding about how the subsidies are calculated.
Let’s remember that the goal of the subsidies is to ensure that people earning between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL) pay no more than a certain percentage of income on health insurance premiums.
This cap is set on a sliding scale, so that people on the higher end of the FPL scale are expected to pay a higher percentage.
The caps range from 2% for someone at poverty level up to 9.5% for someone earning between 300-400% of poverty level. That’s how the Affordable Care Act defines “affordable.”
The amount of subsidy is based on the difference between that cap and the premiums for the second-cheapest silver plan on the market. The subsidies are not an entitlement for all people earning 100%-400% of FPL, nor should they be.
They kick in only when the premium for that silver plan exceeds the stated percentage of income.
Below that cap, the premiums are considered affordable and people are not eligible for subsidies. That’s not a gap; that’s the way the law is designed.
Recently I was asked to intervene on behalf of a patient who, trapped by circumstance, was paying off an enormous bill for a lithotripsy procedure. What I uncovered wasn’t news, but it drove home how egregious the current system can be, why it so badly needs to be fixed, and how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) helps move us in the right direction.
The patient had health insurance through her husband’s job. But it was cancelled just after the hospital validated it, because the employer failed to pay the premium. The procedure was performed, and the patient was charged as “self-pay.”
If Medicare had been the payor in this case, the hospital’s total reimbursement would have been a little less than $2,000. But the lithotripsy and associated costs were billed at $33,160, or just under 17 times the Medicare rate. After the patient applied for financial assistance, a 30% contractual adjustment was applied, reducing her bill to just under 12 times the Medicare rate.
If the health system had asked her to pay 190 percent of Medicare – typically the upper end of commercial insurance rates – her bill would have been about $3,800. By the time I was contacted, the patient and her husband – responsible people trying to make good on their debt – had already paid the health system $5,700 or 285 percent of Medicare. The hospital insisted they owed an additional $16,000.
I laid this out in a letter to the CEO and, probably because he wanted to avoid a detailed description of this unpleasantness in the local paper, he relented, zeroing out the patient’s balance. No hospital executive wants to be publicly profiled as a financial predator.
But while that resolved that patient’s problem, it did nothing to change the broader practice. Most US health systems, both for-profit and not-for-profit, exploit self-pay patients in this way. Worse, not-for-profit health systems legally pillage their communities’ most financially vulnerable patients while getting millions of dollars in tax breaks each year for providing charity care.
Aggressive collections procedures, including home liens, are widespread.
Some states have strictly limited what hospitals can charge low income patients. In California, uninsured patients with incomes below 350 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) – $82,425 in 2013 for a family of 4 – can be charged no more than Medicare rates. In New Jersey, patients within 500 percent of the FPL cannot be charged more than 115 percent of Medicare.
Section 9007 of the ACA took effect last year and prohibits excessive pricing for self-pay patients, and would revoke a charitable hospital’s tax-exempt status if it charges them more than it charges for insured patients. The language is ambiguous, conceivably allowing health systems to circumvent the law’s intent. But the spirit is clear. To keep their not-for-profit tax status and perks, health systems must stop taking advantage of self-pay patients.
I’m hearing a lot of the lazy “but what are the political implication” perpetual horse race questions from the media about recent developments surrounding the Affordable Care Act. That’s fun Inside-the-Beltway stuff, but in the mean time there are real people who are likely to be helped and hurt with matters as essential as their health. So, what I am not hearing enough of yet, however, are tough, substantive questions that get to the heart of whether the Affordable Care Act is going to be stillborn.
Here are some questions that I think intelligent journalists and blogger ought to be asking in light of recent developments with the Affordable Care Act. Getting answers in many cases may take persistent questioning and closer scrutiny of existing documents. In others, FOIA requests may be needed.
1. Actual v. Anticipated Age Distributions in the Exchanges
If there is a significant difference between the age distribution encountered thus far and the anticipated age distribution, that increases the probability of the ACA succumbing to an adverse selection death spiral.
“The rates listed on the Healthcare.gov/Michigan site are inaccurate “estimates.” Being unable to apply on the website due to glitches, I simply go on the site to view plans for my husband and me. Based on our locality, “estimates” shown are about $250 – $600 for bronze and silver plans. We even see some gold plans for about $460.
But when I telephone the insurance companies (Aetna, Humana, BCBSM, HAP) for details and quotes, suddenly the costs of the same plans are $950 – $1750! Obviously, the “estimates” are disingenuous, probably reflecting prices that are available only to very young adults with no medical history.
An estimate is not an estimate unless it is close to what the final price is expected to be, not one-half or one-third the final price. Insurance companies need to list the estimates on the .gov website by range, rather than a single rate. For example, if a policy can be sold for as little as $250 or as much as $950 depending on the particulars of each insured, that policy estimate needs to read $250 – $950. Until insurance companies do this, they are, effectively using a bait-and-switch sales technique, which is illegal.”
If you’ve had a bad or good experience attempting to buy health insurance on the state or federal exchanges, we’d like to know about it. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Will all the White House messages, the stream of breathless Twitter updates on the number of hits and enrollments, and the press hype surrounding opening day send the uninsured public into panic mode? Will they prompt buyers to consider only the premium and click to enroll ASAP? And why not? For weeks the administration, state exchange officials and supporters of the Affordable Care Act have been telling the public how cheap premiums will be — much cheaper than expected.
A Pennsylvania woman told me she was chomping at the bit to enroll because she was eager to dump her policy from Aetna for a cheaper model from Blue Cross. Never mind that she had no idea whether the coverage was better, the same, or worse.
A Nebraska woman heard there was a worksheet to fill out and it had to be completed by October 1. It was first-come-first-served, an agent had told her.
If cheap premiums were the only thing shoppers had to consider, this sense of urgency might be fine. But it’s not. Here’s the problem.
Selecting a health insurance policy is fraught with potential missteps and misunderstandings. As the Nebraska woman told me, “You’re walking into a chasm of uncertainty. It’s like shopping for a used car. You don’t know if you’re getting a lemon,” a lemon you’re stuck with until the next open enrollment.
For consumers, the key advice right now is: don’t rush into anything. Tuesday, October 1st marked the first day of a six-month open enrollment period, not the last. Coverage doesn’t even begin until January 1, 2014, so there’s no need to buy the first policy you see. If you do want coverage on January 1, the deadline for enrolling is Dec 15.