Friday, December 19, 2014

Employers, HSAs and the ACA

Jay Hancock at Kaiser Health News reports that significant numbers of small businesses may stop offering health insurance to their employees, sending them instead to the ACA exchanges. This could be a good thing for employees who earn little enough to qualify for strong ACA subsidies -- win-win for employer and employee at the federal government's expense.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, small employers in 2014 paid an average of nearly $5,000 for solo coverage and a bit more $10,000 for a family premium. What if an employer wants to compensate employees for dropping a benefit that constitutes such a large share of their compensation?  There's a problem with straight salary increases: they reduce employees' ACA subsidies and so give a portion of the extra income back. At healthinsurance.org, I examine three scenarios in which a pay hike worth about 70% of a typical employer premium contribution triggers subsidy reductions ranging roughly from about 25-- 80%.

An employer who really wants to help employees can avoid this problem by getting creative about compensation.  One striking way to do so would be to fully fund Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) that employees can use with HSA-qualified plans on the exchanges. Here's how I described the possibility in the healthinsurance.org piece:

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Health exchange design has a clear impact on metal level choices

Why was there such huge variation among states in the proportion of ACA private plan buyers who bought bronze plans -- the plans with the lowest premiums and highest deductibles and copays? In Hawaii, 41% of ACA shoppers bought bronze; in Mississippi, 8% did.

Part of the answer, as I've noted before, lies in a state's relative levels of wealth and health. Lower income buyers are eligible for generous Cost Sharing Reduction subsidies that reduce deductibles, co-pays and yearly out-of-pocket (OOP) maximums -- but only if they buy silver plans. Fortunately, most did. If you're sick and poor, a $6,000 deductible is likely to give you pause -- even if the plan is all but free and you don't come in knowing what a deductible is. On Healthcare.gov, only 15% of buyers eligible for any kind of subsidy bought bronze. The percentage is probably considerably lower among those eligible for strong CSR subsidies -- that is, buyers with incomes under 200% of the Federal Poverty Level.

Another factor plainly has a strong impact, though, and accounts for some wealth/health anomalies. That's website design. In Connecticut, which has a median household income of $67,8k, second highest in the nation, just 16% of all buyers selected bronze. In Colorado, with a median income of $63.4k, 40% bought bronze.

That's doubtless because the Connecticut site shows CSR-eligible applicants silver plans first; that is, the search results default to silver (at least they do in the pre-application shop-around feature; I've been trying to confirm that they do in the actual application process). [UPDATE: an Access Health CT spokesperson has confirmed that the actual application also defaults to silver for CSR-eligible users.] The Colorado site, in contrast, does next to nothing to steer CSR-eligible buyers toward silver. The shop-around is extremely cumbersome; the filter by metal level is hard to find (at the bottom of the screen, and you have to scroll back up to activate it); and unlike on healthcare.gov, applicants who qualify for CSR and make a move to buy a bronze plan receive no warning that they're leaving benefits on the table.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Scalia researched torture's efficacy by watching "24"

Antonin Scalia reacted* to the Senate torture report with a defense of torture, as reported by the AP*:
"Listen, I think it's very facile for people to say, 'Oh, torture is terrible.' You posit the situation where a person that you know for sure knows the location of a nuclear bomb that has been planted in Los Angeles and will kill millions of people. You think it's an easy question? You think it's clear that you cannot use extreme measures to get that information out of that person?" Scalia said.
That jogged a memory. What planted this scenario in Scalia's mind? Hark back to June 2007, via the Wall Street Journal Law Blog:
The Globe and Mail reported that Scalia came to the defense of Jack Bauer and his torture tactics during an Ottawa conference of international jurists and national security officials last week. During a panel discussion about terrorism, torture and the law, a Canadian judge remarked, “Thankfully, security agencies in all our countries do not subscribe to the mantra ‘What would Jack Bauer do?’ ”

Justice Scalia responded with a defense of Agent Bauer, arguing that law enforcement officials deserve latitude in times of great crisis. “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles . . . . He saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” Judge Scalia reportedly said. “Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?” He then posed a series of questions to his fellow judges: “Say that criminal law is against him? ‘You have the right to a jury trial?’ Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer?”

Friday, December 12, 2014

Obama: Drop that "Plans for under 100!" pitch

Hey, Mr. President: you may have the right audience here. But you have partly the wrong message:
Obama appeared Dec. 8 on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” where he took the place of host Stephen Colbert for a regular segment called “The Word” -- retitled “The Decree” for his appearance -- to pitch enrollment to young viewers.

“Most young people can get covered for less than $100,” Obama said, using lines purportedly meant for Colbert. “How is the president going to get that message out to the kids? 
The administration really needs to take down this "plans for under $100!" banner. Here's why: if an adult under age 35 has an income low enough to get a plan with a premium under $100, she almost certainly qualifies for Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) subsidies that reduce deductibles and copays -- but only if she buys a silver-level plan. Keeping the premium under $100 for a single person in many cases means buying a bronze plan -- and the average deductible on a bronze plan is over $5,000.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Forecast: A lot more Pennsylvanians will buy bronze plans in the ACA marketplace in 2015 than in 2014

Here's a prediction: the percentage of ACA private plan buyers in Pennsylvania who select bronze plans -- the lowest metal level, with the lowest monthly premiums and the highest deductibles -- is going to shoot up in 2015.

In 2014, among states with the lowest percentages of bronze plan buyers in the ACA marketplace, Pennsylvania was something of an anomaly.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Is Medicaid expansion reducing SSI claims? If so, an uninsured diabetic in Tennessee called it

There is some evidence that the ACA's Medicaid expansion may be reducing claims for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). While such claims are dropping across the US as employment picks up, they're dropping somewhat faster in states that opted in to the ACA Medicaid expansion Modern Healthcare's Virgil Dickson reports:
The number of Americans applying for Supplemental Security Income benefits dropped in the first six months of this year compared to the same period last year, and experts are debating whether the decline is partly related to the healthcare reform law's Medicaid expansion to low-income adults.

A total of 1,189,567 SSI disability claims—mostly related to physical or mental disability— were filed in the first six months of 2014, compared with 1,330,169 during the same period last year, a drop of 10.6%, according to data obtained by Modern Healthcare from the Social Security Administration through a Freedom of Information Act request. The total decline in SSI claims in states that expanded Medicaid in the first six months of 2014 was 11.2%, compared with 10.0% in non-expansion states.
Back in June 2012, an uninsured diabetic waiting in line for treatment at a Remote Area Medical clinic in rural Tennessee forecast such a drop to New Republic reporter Alec MacGillis:

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Instead of adding copper plans to the ACA marketplace, enhance bronze

One of the relative successes of the ACA's first open season is the high rate at which private plan buyers who were eligible for Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) subsidies, which attach only to silver plans, did in fact choose silver.

In so doing, they resisted the temptation to pay far less per month for bronze plans, which carry sky-high deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums, unsoftened by CSR. As I've noted before, in the federal marketplace only 15% of buyers eligible for any kind of subsidy (including those who earn too much for CSR) bought bronze plans.

That's kind of surprising, since the premiums for silver plans are quite high for those in the middle income range of CSR eligibility. For a 44 year-old earning $23,000 per year, the benchmark second-cheapest silver plan in 2015 will cost $118, and the cheapest silver is usually only a few dollars cheaper.  The cheapest bronze plan price for this 44 year-old varies widely by state and county, falling most commonly in the $50--$75 range. That price spread between bronze and silver widens with age; a buyer in her 60s at this income level will often pay nothing or next to nothing for a bronze plan, versus the same $118 for silver (the subsidized benchmark price is a percentage of income and doesn't change with age).

I am troubled by the high premiums that low-income people have to pay for silver. $118 per month on an income of under $2,000 per month is quite a swallow. Though paying the extra premium for silver could save the buyer thousands in out-of-pocket medical costs, I'm impressed that so many many had the discipline to do it.  Prompted by a comment by xpostfactoid reader Bob Hertz, I find myself wondering: why do CSR subsidies attach only to silver plans?