Friday, November 15, 2019

I almost got snared in the short-term health insurance market

Sarah Gantz, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, has done some great work spotlighting people who were snared by sales pitches for short-term health plans that left them with huge bills when they got seriously ill or injured. Her latest concerns a woman who got stuck with a $36,000 bill when her fixed indemnity plan covered only a small fraction of the tab for surgery after she broke her wrist and back (!) -- (the latter doesn't seem to have caused lasting damage):
Martin thought she’d bought a comprehensive health insurance plan through the government-regulated Affordable Care Act marketplace, healthcare.gov. But she really visited a website cunningly crafted to look like an ACA portal, which put her in contact by phone with a salesman. He sold her plan that turned out to offer only minimal coverage, and when Martin needed help, his number was disconnected.
The larger point is that since the Trump administration changed the rules to enable so called short-term, limited duration (STLD) plans to extend plan terms to up to a year, and touted them as a cheap alternative to ACA-compliant plans, deceptive marketing for such plans has exploded. Robocalls, websites meant to snare people seeking HealthCare.gov (with help from Google ads), and hard-sell-quick-sell phone techniques are well chronicled by Gantz.

Louise Norris, a broker of individual market insurance who puts her clients' interests first (and has compiled a virtual encyclopedia on the subject at healthinsurance.org), acknowledges that there is a role for STLD plans, and that not all of them are terrible. But the market is honeycombed with coverage traps.  In fact, Louise helped me, and someone I was helping, avoid perhaps the subtlest of snares in the STLD market.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Elizabeth Warren crosses a rhetorical Rubicon

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For almost two years, I have complained at intervals that Elizabeth Warren is faking it on healthcare --- that is, blaming U.S. healthcare dysfunction entirely on the rapine of health insurers and pharma, while giving healthcare providers a pass.

In presenting her plan to finance Bernie-brand Medicare for All, Warren leads with this rhetorical reflex but then, finally, departs from it. She has to, as the plan's viability depends on cutting off providers' most lucrative revenue sources.

Warren's first rhetorical strike in this manifesto is against the usual suspects:

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Elizabeth Warren's healthcare two-step

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I owe a debt of gratitude to a Jacobin writer, Tim Higginbotham, who lambastes Elizabeth Warren for a) going into what he regards as unproductive detail about the financing of Medicare for All and b) signaling that she doesn't intend to enact M4A any time soon.

It's the latter that interests me. It solves something of a riddle. And unlike Higginbotham, I approve of this message. I think there may be a kind of deep realism in it, not severable from real commitment to major structural change.

Higginbotham notes that Warren's pay-fors depend in part on enacting other major legislation, and that her language accordingly projects Medicare for All into an..eventuality:
Warren’s remaining financing methods bring us to the biggest problem with her plan: its clear lack of urgency. Warren argues that her plan for comprehensive immigration reform could free up $400 billion toward Medicare for All over ten years, while cutting the dangerous military slush fund will free up another $798 billion.

On their own these are important goals, but using major political fights like these to cobble together funding for Medicare for All is a fairly good tell that Warren’s plan is not designed to be implemented anytime soon. This is further evidenced by the language in Warren’s Medium post about her plan: she describes Medicare for All as a “long-term” goal seven times, while couching the rest of the post in similar language (such as saying she wants to move to a Medicare for All system “eventually”).
That's absolutely right. And in fact, near the end of her Medium piece introducing her M4A funding plan, Warren makes it explicit that she won't be fighting to enact BernieCare from day 1, 2021:
Of course, moving to this kind of system will not be easy and will not happen overnight. This is why every serious proposal for Medicare for All contemplates a significant transition period.

Friday, November 01, 2019

How would a 20% drop in base ACA marketplace premiums affect enrollment?

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My last post delved into the paradox of reinsurance in the ACA marketplace: lower base premiums tend to produce higher premiums for subsidized buyers who select plans that cost less than the benchmark (second cheapest silver) plan. Lower premiums also tend to reduce bronze plan discounts generated by silver loading* -- though potentially increasing gold plan discounts.

Just how much do premiums reductions reduce discounts in below-benchmark plans? The effects can be sampled with reference to the average premium nationwide for the lowest cost plan (LCP) at each metal level in 2020, courtesy of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Below, I compare net-of-subsidy premiums for those averages to net-of-subsidy premiums when those base premiums are cut by 20%. That's the average reduction effected by the seven state reinsurance programs already in operation, according to Avalere. The 20% reduction is compared to what premiums would have been absent the reinsurance, not what they were in the previous year.  In New Jersey, for example, reinsurance cut premiums by 15% in 2019, and a state individual mandate by an additional 7% -- but premiums were 9% below 2018 levels.) Still, let's stick with 20% to make the effect easily visible.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Should states pursue reinsurance for their ACA marketplaces?

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While sabotaging the ACA marketplace on multiple fronts, the Trump administration has from the beginning supported one means of keeping premiums down: encouraging states to submit waiver proposals seeking federal funding for reinsurance programs.

These programs partially reimburse insurers for costs incurred by individual enrollees that cross a certain threshold. In New Jersey for example, the program pays 60% of an enrollee's costs exceeding $40,000 per year, up to a threshold of $250,000. To date, CMS has approved 12 state reinsurance waiver proposals, 7 of them implemented by 2019.

The ACA marketplace began life with a national federally funded reinsurance program, but it sunset after three years (2014-2016). Not coincidentally, premiums nationwide rose by about 25% in that year -- a year of correction, in which insurers also recognized that they had significantly underpriced coverage in the ACA's first three years. They recovered profitability in 2017.

By reducing premiums, reinsurance also reduces premium subsidies. Trump's HHS has proved willing to pass much of the savings through to the states, providing tens-to-hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the approved programs.

The case against reinsurance

Some progressives, however, have concluded that reinsurance is a poor use of state resources. The ACA benefit structure subjects these programs to a Catch-22: Reducing base premiums tends to raise premiums for subsidized enrollees.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Looks like New Jersey's reinsurance trade-off paid off

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New Jersey's Department of Banking and Insurance has published second quarter enrollment numbers for the state's individual market for health insurance. Some upside surprises:

New Jersey Individual Market Enrollment, Second Quarter 2018 to Second Quarter 2019
Venue
Q2 2019
Q2 2018
# change
% change
On-exchange
220,217
222,696
(2,479)
-1.1%
Off-exchange
  92,798
  85,361
 7,437
+8.7%
Total
313,015
308,057
 4,958
+1.6%

  • Off-exchange enrollment is up from the first quarter -- unusual, because anyone enrolling after December 15, 2018 would have to qualify for a Special Enrollment Period. In Q1, off-exchange enrollment was up 2.98% year-over-year. In Q2, it's up 8.7% over Q2  2018, to 92,798. 

  • On-exchange enrollment, which was down a disappointing 7.1% as of the end of Open Enrollment, has had much lighter attrition than in previous years. It's down just 1.6% since Q1, compared to an average Q1-to-Q2 drop of  6.8% in the three previous years. Accordingly, it's down just 1.1% from Q2 2018.

  • Total individual market enrollment is up 1.6% compared to Q2 2018.  That's all in ACA-compliant plans, as New Jersey bans the lightly regulated, medically underwritten short-term plans promoted by the Trump administration.
New Jersey's 2019 experience is something of a case study for what you might call the reinsurance tradeoff.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Silver loading 2020 update: The sky isn't falling

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Last week I noted that the discounts for subsidized ACA marketplace enrollees generated by silver loading (see explanation at bottom)* are likely to be somewhat reduced in 2020, given that a) average unsubsidized premiums are down 3-4%, b) and average premiums for the benchmark silver plan are down more sharply (-4%) than average premiums for the cheapest plan at each metal level (-3%).

Let's see how price spreads and discounts at each metal level have changed in the counties with the highest marketplace enrollment nationwide. Together, these 9 counties hold 16% of all on-exchange ACA marketplace enrollment.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Oscar throws a wild card into the 2020 ACA marketplace

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Re the premise of my prior post -- that discounts in bronze and gold plans will be weaker in the 2020 ACA marketplace:  I've stumbled on a wild card, and it's pretty wild. Let's start where we did yesterday:
CMS has published ACA marketplace premiums for 2020.  The top-line news is that premiums have dropped 3-4%.  The key point for subsidized enrollees (69% of the ACA-compliant market) is that silver loading has gone into reverse -- and consequently there will be fewer discounted plans available. That's because benchmark silver plan premiums -- the second-cheapest silver plan in each market, which determines subsidy size -- have dropped more sharply (-4%)  than average premiums for the cheapest plan at each metal level (-3%).
Okay, so discounts stemming from silver loading* may be reduced on average, and in particular, discounts in cheapest silver may be the most impaired. Now for the wild card: Oscar is offering a $0 deductible bronze plan in Florida and Texas (and maybe elsewhere, but those two states account for a quarter of all ACA marketplace enrollment). In Miami, for a 40 year-old at an income of $17,300 -- about 140% FPL -- it's zero premium too; at $24,900 income (just below 200% FPL) it's $79/month.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Silver loading goes into reverse in 2020


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CMS has published ACA marketplace premiums for 2020.  The top-line news is that premiums have dropped 3-4%.  The key point for subsidized enrollees (69% of the ACA-compliant market) is that silver loading has gone into reverse -- and consequently there will be fewer discounted plans available. That's because benchmark silver plan premiums -- the second-cheapest silver plan in each market, which determines subsidy size -- have dropped more sharply (-4%)  than average premiums for the cheapest plan at each metal level (-3%).

Silver loading, recall, is the byproduct of Trump's October 2017 cutoff of direct federal reimbursement to insurers for the Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) subsidies they are required to provide to low income marketplace enrollees who select silver plans. Faced with the cutoff at the brink of open enrollment for 2018, most state insurance departments allowed or encouraged insurers to price CSR into silver premiums only. Since premium subsidies, designed so that the enrollee pays a fixed percentage of income, are set to a silver plan benchmark (the second cheapest silver plan), inflated silver premiums create discounts for subsidized buyers in bronze and gold plans.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

What is Elizabeth Warren cooking up?

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Quick, what's the difference in the way the Des Moines Register and the New York Times quoted Elizabeth Warren's recent I'll-have-a-plan promise?

Des Moines:
"Right now, the cost estimates on Medicare for All vary by trillions and trillions of dollars. And the different revenue streams for how to fund it — there are a lot of them," she said to a crowd of about 475 at Simpson College. "So this is something I’ve been working on for months and months and it’s got just a little more work until it's finished."
New York:
“I plan over the next few weeks to put out a plan that talks about, specifically, the cost of Medicare for all and, specifically, how we pay for it,” she told the crowd at the event, held at Simpson College.

On Trump's fight to uninsure people

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