Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"You oughta be in Medicaid" revisited

Charles Gaba and I have at different times both taken a shot at estimating how many of the private plan buyers in the ACA Marketplace would have been eligible for Medicaid had their states not refused to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion. In 2015, slightly more than half of Marketplace customers were in states that had refused the expansion.

Our estimates were based on HHS's March 2015 report of the percentage of healthcare.gov buyers whose incomes were between 100% and 150% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). That's a frustratingly blurry frame, since it includes both buyers who would and would not have been eligible for Medicaid in "nonexpansion" states. Buyers up to 138% FPL would have been eligible for Medicaid (as they are in "expansion" states).

Now, the Commonwealth Fund has added an  equivocal hint. I'll get to that in a minute. First, the current estimates.

Monday, September 28, 2015

"Are marketplace plans affordable?"

Last week the Commonwealth Fund released a report* comparing the experiences of people who bought health plans in the ACA marketplace to that of people who get health insurance through their employers. Commonwealth surveyed nearly 5,000 adults between March and May of this year, asking questions about their income, their insurance status, plan features, usage and affordability.

With respect to out-of-pocket costs, here's the top-line takeaway as framed in the Commonwealth press release:
Overall, larger shares of adults with marketplace plans had per-person deductibles of $1,000 or more than did those with employer plans (43% vs. 34%). The differences were widest among those with higher incomes: in this group, over half (53%) with marketplace plans had high deductibles, compared to about one-third (35%) with employer plans. In the survey, people with high deductibles were less confident than those with lower deductibles that they could afford needed care.
What's equally salient, in my view, is that the subsidized marketplace has narrowed the longstanding coverage gap between employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) and nongroup market insurance for lower-income buyers. Compare those with incomes under 250% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) to those with ESI:

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Pope's swift turns of thought

I knew before this week that the Pope is a man of good will. As I read his speech to Congress, it dawned too that his is a mind of extraordinary subtlety.

He is the opposite of a fundamentalist. He sees the mix of good and evil in all -- in persons, political systems, historical events.  As he speaks, he keeps flipping the Janus head:  Every chastisement is an affirmation. Every affirmation -- of, say, an inherited national virtue -- is a challenge.

The Pope's paragraphs take swift turns.You think he's headed one way, and he goes into reverse -- present to past, praise to reproach, abortion to death penalty.  He sees six sides to everything.

Follow the switchbacks in this passage appealing to our better angels:

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Hillary Clinton's pocket patches for healthcare costs

Hillary Clinton's  just-released package of proposed health reform proposals is very...Hillary Clinton. It's got a lot of moving parts and takes incremental whacks at a pervasive problem -- ever-rising out-of-pocket medical costs for the insured -- from multiple angles.  On the one hand, it layers complexity on complexity. On the other hand, its patches are tailored to provide complementary plugs to different holes in coverage that deter people from obtaining needed care and drain thousands from their earnings. And by the way, the most powerful ideas are are well below the top line.

Pocket patches

The  two lead proposals are aimed directly at the relentless rise in health plan holders' out-of-pocket costs for care. To reduce insureds' "skin in the game" that has become in many cases a pound of flesh, Clinton would

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

ACA exchanges in 2016: targeting just 6.4 million subsidy-eligible uninsureds?

In a speech at Howard University College of Medicine today, HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell laid out a few facts about the target market for the ACA exchanges -- those still uninsured and eligible for private plan coverage. A couple of key points:
  • About 10.5 million uninsured Americans are eligible for Marketplace coverage in the upcoming open enrollment.

  • Almost 40 percent of the uninsured who qualify for Marketplace plans are living between 139 and 250 percent of the federal poverty level (about $34,000 to $61,000 for a family of four).
HHS has confirmed for me that the 10.5 million estimate is not limited to the subsidy-eligible. At present, according to Kaiser estimates, about half of those who have bought plans in the nongroup market are ineligible for subsidies, and most of the subsidy-ineligible have bought their plans off-exchange. 

Does that, then, suggest a target market of just 5 million subsidy-eligible uninsureds? Not quite.* HHS's estimate of the target market between 139% and 250% FPL (4.2 million or a bit less) provides a basis for estimating the size of the subsidizable target market.  In 2015, about 76% of private plan buyers on the exchanges had incomes under 251% FPL.*  According to HHS's most recent enrollment snapshot, 83.7% of all exchange enrollees qualified for premium subsidies. Thus 91% of subsidy-eligible buyers were under 251% FPL. Not all of them, however, fit HHS's "40 percent" category of 139-250% FPL - because in states that refused the Medicaid expansion, eligibility for subsidized marketplace coverage begins at 100% FPL.*** In 2015, about 15% of all enrollees**** (and 20% of those under 250% FPL) were under 139% FPL and so outside HHS's category. Those between 139% and 250% FPL thus constituted about 60% of total enrollment. If that percentage holds in 2016, that would suggest that about 7 million of the 10.5 million in the target market are subsidy eligible.

But the percentage of potential buyers under 139% FPL will probably be considerably lower this year. Takeup among that group was disproportionately high: Avalere Health estimated that 76% of eligible buyers from 100-150% FPL did in fact enroll, and the percentage was probably still higher under 139% FPL (and dramatically lower for all higher income bands). Moreover, two (small states) have accepted the Medicaid expansion for 2016. If, in 2016, 10% rather than 20% of those under 250% FPL are also under 139% FPL, then that suggests about 580,000 fewer subsidizable targets. Since we're now in the realm of educated guesswork, let's say that HHS's estimate of the 139-250% market suggests that about 6.4 million of their 10.5 million overall target market is subsidizable.

At present, 83.7% of 9.9 million exchange enrollees are subsidized. If there indeed are only about 6.4 million subsidy-eligible uninsured still out there, then about 57% of the subsidy-eligible target market has been enrolled. That doesn't sound right. Kaiser has pegged the percentage of potential exchange population enrolled through June 20 at 35%.Though that estimate is not limited to the subsidy-eligible, uninsured rates are much higher in lower income brackets.

The 10.5 million estimate excludes the Medicaid-eligible and -- I assume but have not confirmed -- those in the Medicaid gap, who theoretically could buy unsubsidized plans on the exchanges. Those who earn too little to qualify for premium subsidies are unlikely to pay full price for plans on the marketplace -- although, confusingly (to me), the just-released census report on health insurance showed greater gains in private coverage than in government insurance for those whose incomes should qualify them for Medicaid under the ACA expansion.

The still uninsured: can't afford coverage or don't know what's on offer? (Or both?)

With respect to reaching the still-uninsured, Burwell cited findings from a PerryUndem study that reflect a tension between two key factors:
  • About half of the uninsured have less than $100 in savings.
  • Nearly three in five of the uninsured are either confused about how the tax credits work or don’t know that they are available.
The first point is a proxy for several points highlighting the financial precariousness of the uninsured. Another: 58% of respondents report having less than $100 left over each month after paying bills. In other words, many would have a very tough time with the average premium paid for marketplace plans, net of subsidies: $101 per month. At the same time, most who consider coverage unaffordable do not know what's on offer.

I have noted the same tension in data from the Urban Institute, and in other surveys of the uninsured. If the still-uninsured who qualify for premium and cost-sharing subsidies knew what was on offer, would they still consider it unaffordable? Doubtless some would and some would not. The proportion in each camp will go a long way toward determining how viable the ACA private plan marketplace will prove over the long haul.

Researchers at the Urban Institute and healthcare reporter Jed Graham have argued that the ACA subsidy structure is too skimpy to meet the needs of large percentages of the uninsured.  To whatever extent that's true overall, it's increasingly true as you move up the income scale -- as Avalere Health's analysis of takeup rates at different income levels indicates. Avalere estimated that about 76% of the subsidy-eligible uninsured with incomes under 150% FPL bought subsidized private plans, compared to 41% for those from 151-200% FPL, 30% for those from 201-250% FPL, 20% of those from 251-300% FPL, and so on down.  The threshold for really strong Cost Sharing Reduction, 200% FPL, is one dividing line between strong and weak aid.  The ACA works best for those up to that income level. At the same time, that's where most of the uninsured are concentrated.

P.S. The PerryUndem study, conducted in May 2015 and surveying some 1,270 adults, is full of interesting info about the finances and priorities of the uninsured.

UPDATE, 10/14/2015: Kaiser yesterday estimated that 7.1 million uninsured people are eligible for subsidized private plans in the ACA marketplace.
----
* I originally oversimplified this calculation, simply taking the percentage of exchange buyers under 250% FPL. Correction is in this paragraph.

** I calculated the percentage of exchange enrollees with incomes under 251% FPL in this post.

*** Thanks to Jed Graham for pointing out that HHS's estimate began at 139% FPL (rather strangely, when you consider the doubtless still-sizable number of uninsureds between under 139% FPL in states that refused the Medicaid expansion. Also among subsidized buyers under 139% FPL: legally present immigrants who are time-barred from Medicaid; they are eligible for premium subsidies even if their income is under 100% FPL (in nonexpansion states) or 139% FPL (in expansion states).

**** See this post for a calculation of 2015 exchange customer with incomes under 139% FPL. In this post, I've slightly dropped the estimate, from 16% of all buyers to 15%, in light of the recent purge of those who failed to verify their state income when asked.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Why does the Census show such small gains among the poor in government-provided health insurance?

If I may reiterate: it seems quite strange to me that the Census health insurance surveys show a net gain for 2014 of just 1.3 million people with incomes under 138% of the Federal Poverty Level enrolled in government insurance plans -- whereas according to HHS, Medicaid enrollment increased by over 9 million in 2014, thanks to the ACA expansion. 138% FPL is the eligibility threshold for Medicaid under the ACA expansion.

The second half of this post provides more detail. According to the Census surveys, those with incomes under 138% FPL showed much stronger gains in private insurance than in public, while those in higher income brackets showed stronger gains in public insurance than in private. That's odd.

The difference may in large part be due to differences in how households are defined: the ACA marketplaces determine eligibility according to who is included in a household tax filing, while the Census surveys (CPS and ACS) consider who lives under one roof. Many other factors are in play, including a modest acceleration in Medicare eligibility and higher income thresholds for children in CHIP than for adults in Medicaid. But none appear on the face of things (as far as I can see) to explain the very low recorded gains in government insurance among adults under 138% FPL (and even more strikingly, under 100% FPL).

Again, there's more detail below the second subhead here (along with some updates added over the weekend). This post is simply to unbury the lead a bit, as I look into the state data.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sure, Kasich hates the ACA and the Iran deal

I, Democrat, think John Kasich is the Republican presidential candidate best qualified to be president. Ergo, he's doomed.

It's become a cliche that Kasich is this cycle's Jon Huntsman, a GOP candidate who seems borderline sane to Democrats and hence is a total political anaphrodisiac to Republicans. Kasich is more formidable than Huntsman and getting a better response from GOP audiences, at least in New Hampshire. But the principle does apply.

I'm not the closest observer in the political audience but that's why I'm so sure. In a year, I've sopped up two subtexts from Kasich: the ACA is okay, and so is the Iran deal. He'd deny both, but he's pricked my political pituitary twice. First, on the ACA. Last October Kasich told the AP:

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Census on health insurance gains: who got what and how?

This week the Census reported on changes in Americans' health insurance rates from 2013 to 2014, based on results of its two yearly surveys, the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey. The two together show what is probably the most dramatic drop in the percentage of people without insurance since Medicare and Medicaid were implemented. The drop in the ranks of uninsured was steepest among the roughly one third of the population living in households with incomes under 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) -- where lack of insurance is most concentrated.

In my grand personal tradition of burying the lead, I discuss an apparent oddity in the data under the second subhead below. Feel free to skip! If you're well-versed in these matters, it may be no mystery to you.

The near-poor gain most

The ranks of the uninsured dropped more steeply for the near-poor than for those below the poverty line, and for the part-time employed than for the nonworking population,  The pattern does not hold for educational level: the uninsured rate dropped most for those without a high school diploma and next most for high school grads, with smaller drops at each level of educational attainment.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Kaiser tracks modest premium increases for benchmark plans -- which means what to whom?

The Kaiser Family Foundation has updated an analysis of 2016 premium changes in 12 states and the District of Columbia, the only states (and, um, District) where complete information was available. Rather than focus on average rate increases across all plans, Kaiser focuses on the benchmark second-cheapest silver and cheapest silver plans This is useful in a number of ways, outlined below. Kaiser spotlights the largest city in each state.

The headline is a quite modest average increase in the benchmark plan -- 3.1% -- and a somewhat larger spike in the average cheapest silver plan in each city, 4.2%. The average covers a wide range of variation, from a 22.8% benchmark hike in Portland, OR to a 10.1% drop in Seattle, WA.

Prices changes in the ACA marketplace (including the off-exchange nongroup market) affect different constituencies is different ways -- as do different measures of price changes. I've outlined a few of the permutations below. Point #3 is most interesting, in my view (bury the lead, squawk squawk, bury the lead...).

First, here's Kaiser's flagship chart:

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

The feds are taking cost sharing and premium subsidies away from many ACA private plan enrollees

CMS's latest snapshot of private plan enrollment in ACA marketplaces shows significant attrition, from 10,197,187 total enrollments as of March 31 to 9,949,079 as of June 30, a drop of 2.4%. That's mainly -- in fact entirely -- because of stepped-up enforcement of citizenship or immigration status.

That increased vigilance also explains an apparent anomaly that jumped out at me from the numbers: the drop in plan holders whose plans are enhanced with Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) subsidies is larger than the drop in enrollment among silver plan holders. Since CSR is available only with silver plans, one might have assumed that a drop in CSR enrollment would simply reflect a drop in silver plan enrollment among those with incomes under 250% FPL, the cutoff for CSR eligibility. Yet CSR enrollment dropped by 278,103 -- 4.8% -- compared to a silver enrollment drop of 142,336 (2.0%).

It turns out that the marketplaces are cracking down on enrollees whose stated income doesn't match other data, presumably mainly from tax returns, and reducing or withdrawing CSR benefits as well as premium subsidies when enrollees don't verify their income claims. That's in tandem with increased enforcement with respect to immigration or citizenship status. Here's the explanation:

Some low-income ACA shoppers bought gold plans*

* But not enough to cover Avalere's estimate of CSR-forfeiters

On August 19, Avalere Health published an analysis spotlighting ACA private plan buyers who failed to access the Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) subsidies that are available to applicants with incomes up to 250% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) -- but only if they buy silver plans. Avalere estimated that about 27% of CSR-eligible buyers forfeited the subsidy by buying plans in metal levels other than silver -- usually the cheapest bronze plans, which carry very high deductibles.

In a response, I argued that Avalere had somewhat lowballed CSR takeup by overestimating the number of private plan buyers who were eligible for CSR. The numerator of the equation is not in doubt: an ACA enrollment update published by CMS in June pegged total CSR enrollment at 5,850,936 as of March 31. But the denominator (CSR-eligibles) is based on extrapolations from incomplete income breakouts of ACA private plan customers, provided by HHS in March for healthcare.gov states alone. Avalere assumed that 8.1 million of those still enrolled as of March 31 were CSR-eligible; I estimate that about 7.7 million enrollees were eligible, and that therefore, about 76% of CSR-eligibles accessed the benefit.

The difference stems from two factors: what you assume about the roughly 6% of enrollees for whom income data was unavailable, and how you estimate the percentage of CSR-eligibles in state-based exchanges, for whom income data was not included in federal enrollment reports. I assume that income distribution in the SBMs is closer to that of those healthcare.gov states that accepted the Medicaid expansion than to the overall average for healthcare.gov states, which is dominated by states that refused to expand Medicaid.

CSR-eligibles who bought neither silver nor bronze

I was struck today by additional evidence that Avalere somewhat overestimated the number of private plan holders who are eligible for CSR. According to their analysis, 2.2 million plan holders renounced the benefit by buying non-silver plans. The assumption is that those who leave CSR on the table mostly buy bronze plans, which have lower premiums. But the total number of bronze plan buyers is a known quantity: 2,164,116.  And we know that bronze plan buyers are more concentrated at higher income levels. Among buyers eligible for any kind of subsidy (not all of whom were CSR-eligible), 19% bought bronze. Among those who earned too much to qualify for subsidies, 35% chose bronze.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Obama overcompensates for winning

Obama's defense of the Iran deal in an interview with the Jewish Daily Forward's editor-in-chief Jane Eisner was marked by bulletproof logic and and impressive grasp of nuance. It was marred, however, by grotesque overcompensation for having beaten back Netanyahu's attempt to control U.S. policy on this front. Obama foreclosed on the the possibility of a fundamental divide in interests, not to say values, in terms inappropriate to relations between nations:
There are always going to be arguments within families and among friends. And Israel isn’t just an ally, it’s not just a friend — it’s family.
And then:

Thursday, September 03, 2015

The ACA's uncertain shield against underinsurance: A CSR compendium

Updated 10/9/15, 4/6/16, 4/14/17

Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) subsidies are the ACA marketplace's best defense against underinsurance for private plan buyers. That's why I've been so interested in who accesses or fails to access CSR and why -- and why takeup varies widely from state to state.

Thanks to CSR, half of marketplace enrollees obtain coverage that covers a higher percentage of the average enrollee's costs than the average employer-provided plan. That is, about 49% of enrollees are enrolled in CSR-enhanced silver plans that raise the plan's actuarial value -- the percentage of the average user's costs covered by the insurer --  to either 94% or 87% (see The Rosetta Stone of CSR takeup*).  The average in employer sponsored insurance is about 82%, or at least it was as of 2011, according to a Kaiser analysis. Another 5% of enrollees are in gold or platinum plans, with AV 80% and 90% respectively [paragraph added 4/14/2017].

Below is an index of my posts examining the factors affecting CSR takeup, along with some posts questioning whether the benefit ought to be restructured.  I've done a fair number of single-state snapshots, and they're listed separately at bottom. The top two posts focused on California highlight price sensitivity; the Connecticut, New York, Maryland, Rhode Island Washington posts show how website design can shape the choice; and the posts on southern states mostly illustrate that lower income buyers, for whom the CSR benefit is strongest and the cost of silver lowest, are likeliest to access CSR.

Overall, according to the most recent enrollment figures for 2015, 56% of marketplace private plan buyers in all states accessed CSR (Update, 4/14/17: 58% in 2017).  About 85% of them reported a household income under 201% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) and so received a strong version of the benefit, raising the actuarial value of their silver plans to 94% (up to 150% FPL) or 87% (151-200% FPL). Another 7% of all buyers bought gold (AV 80%) and 3% bought platinum (AV 90%) plans. 21% bought bronze plans (AV 60%) with their sky-high deductibles, usually ranging from $5,000-6,600 per person. (Update: in 2017, the breakout was 4% gold, 1% platinum, 71% silver and 23% bronze.)

Here's a sampling of my posts on the subject.

National CSR takeup (and implications)

ACA vs. AHCA: Total subsidized shares of costs at different income levels and ages (3/19/17)

The Rosetta Stone of CSR takeup (1/9/17)

ACA afflicted by a deductible cliff (12/21/16)

Cutting off CSR subsidies will hit red state enrollees especially hard (12/5/16)

Two major divides in the post-ACA individual market (4/1/16)

Supporting the biggest decision for ACA marketplace shoppers (11/3/15)

How bronze plans offer fool's gold to the Treasury (11/1/15)

Surprise! When silver plans are cheaper, more people buy them (10/24/15)

Addled by the metal level (10/5/15)

"Are marketplace plans affordable?" - on Commonwealth Fund survey (9/28/15)

The feds are taking CSR and premium subsidies away from many enrollees (9/8/15)

Five factors shaping CSR takeup on ACA exchanges (9/1/15)

A quibble with Avalere over CSR takeup (8/20/15; updated, 9/3/15)

Is Obamcare's bronze trap widening? (on healthinsurance.org (8/12/15)

Income levels and CSR takeup in states that refused Medicaid expansion (8/23/15)

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

No man is an island -- but the GOP is

Yesterday, in a speech in Anchorage starkly laying out the current and future effects of climate change, Obama rhetorically placed his opposition on an island unto themselves, as besieged intellectually as Alaskan islanders now are physically. That reminded me of something. Here's the passage:
But if those trend lines continue the way they are, there’s not going to be a nation on this Earth that’s not impacted negatively.  People will suffer.  Economies will suffer.  Entire nations will find themselves under severe, severe problems.  More drought; more floods; rising sea levels; greater migration; more refugees; more scarcity; more conflict.

That’s one path we can take.  The other path is to embrace the human ingenuity that can do something about it.  This is within our power.  This is a solvable problem if we start now.

And we’re starting to see that enough consensus is being built internationally and within each of our own body politics that we may have the political will -- finally -- to get moving.

So the time to heed the critics and the cynics and the deniers is past.  The time to plead ignorance is surely past.  Those who want to ignore the science, they are increasingly alone.  They’re on their own shrinking island. 
Here's the association. Defending the Iran deal in early August, Obama similarly quarantined the opposition: 

Five factors driving (or inhibiting) CSR takeup in ACA private plan markets

I want to lay out some notes here for a regression analysis of what drives takeup (or the lack of takeup) of Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) subsidies among buyers of private health plans on ACA exchanges. CSR reduces out-of-pocket costs for buyers with incomes under 251% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).  The benefit is quite strong up to 200% FPL, but almost negligible in the 201-250% FPL range.

CSR is best understood not as some obscure secondary benefit but as the ACA's best defense against underinsurance -- that is, against leaving plan holders on the hook for more medical expenses than they can afford. Thanks mainly to CSR, about 60% of buyers on ACA exchanges buy insurance with an actuarial value of 80% or higher - - coverage comparable to or more comprehensive than that offered by most employers. Without CSR, only 10% of exchange customers would access that AV level. CSR provides insurance with AV 87% or 94% to about half of ACA exchange customers.

CSR is a leaky vessel, however, Only about three quarters of those who are eligible access the benefit, including probably a bit over 80% of those eligible for "strong" CSR (AV 87% or 94%). Silver plan premiums can be a hard swallow for low income buyers. In 2015, somewhere between 15% and 20% of buyers under 201% FPL probably opted for cheaper bronze plans with their sky-high deductibles (usually over $5,000 per individual).

CSR takeup among all eligible buyers varies quite a bit from state to state, most commonly between 70% and 80%, more broadly between about 68% and 85% -- discounting a few states that have layered their own benefit structures on the national ACA template (e.g., Vermont and Massachusetts).  In various posts, I've spotlighted factors that have an impact (or may have an impact) on CSR takeup levels, though none form a basis for consistent predictions. Below, I've listed those factors in what I would guess to be descending order of likely impact.

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