Saturday, January 25, 2020

At Health Action 2020: Once more unto the breach, dear friends

I've had my yearly fix from Health Action 2020, Families USA's annual conference for healthcare advocates, policy people, scholars, and, most importantly I think, front-line ACA enrollment counselors.

I attended my first Health Action conference in January 2017, days after Trump was "sworn," aka perjured, into office. Republicans were promising swift ACA repeal -- "repeal and delay" was their watchword of the moment, meaning they would sunset the marketplace and Medicaid expansion swiftly and fill in the details later. The conference was composed of several hundred people devoted to preventing that. "Our action should lead to their inaction," declared incoming FUSA president Frederick Isasi. And mirabilis, that's exactly what happened.

In 2017 I felt keenly that the conference was run and attended by people who had devoted years or decades to expanding healthcare access in the U.S. -- all now faced with the prospect that their work would be unraveled. I wrote about an emanation of collective strength, institutional and individual, from the participants.  And this year I kept flashing back.

Since the impeachment process got into gear this year, I have often felt that American democracy is going down. It's terrifying to watch the entire Republican party fall in behind Trump to neuter Congress's power to hold a corrupt would-be autocrat accountable for on-the-record abuse of power.  Once again, the people on the stage and in the room reminded me that despite the grave threat to democracy posed by a party in power that's given up on democracy, the country has huge reserves for resistance: people who know how to be free; institutions that know how to wield political influence in service of the common good; courts that at least sometimes uphold the rule of law.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

No mandate penalty, no problem? The jury's still out

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The Kaiser Family Foundation is peerless as a source of data and analysis of the ACA marketplace, and indeed of all U.S. healthcare markets. So it's probably foolish of me to question a simple, unequivocal and important conclusion by KFF president and CEO Drew Altman. Still...

Altman, who has a regular column conforming to Axios' radically short format, begins his latest with this declarative:
The Affordable Care Act’s insurance market has not been materially affected by the elimination of the individual mandate penalty.
Evidence: premiums are down in 2020, marketplace insurers are profitable, the risk pool has not apparently worsened, enrollment is more or less stable, and the Medicaid expansion appears to have been "largely unaffected."

That's a lot of evidence in short space. The marketplace, and the Medicaid expansion are clearly functioning without the mandate. But still, I think it's too soon to declare the effect of zeroing out the mandate negligible.  Caveats:

Monday, January 13, 2020

Juice it, Jersey: What silver loading anemia looks like

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I have noted before that New Jersey's implementation of an individual mandate and a reinsurance program in its ACA marketplace in 2019 illustrates the tradeoffs involved in reducing premiums in the ACA marketplace. In brief: unsubsidized premiums down, subsidized premiums up.

I have also noted that in New Jersey, silver loading is underpowered -- that is, it has produced weaker-than-average discounts in bronze plans and no discounts in gold plans, which accounted for an anemic 2% of enrollment in 2019.

Last week, David Anderson and Coleman Drake published a study indicating that the widespread availability of free bronze plans, a major byproduct of silver loading*, has had a particularly strong impact on enrollment.  The authors noted that this effect is conspicuously lacking in Jersey, and suggested a reason:
New Jersey restricts cost-sharing variation within metal levels. In 2019 New Jersey bronze plans were required to have an actuarial value of 64 percent—higher than the 58.5 percent minimum allowed by federal law. This regulation limited the financial exposure of existing enrollees by preventing them from selecting plans with higher cost sharing. However, it also limited the premium spread between the benchmark silver plan and bronze plans, which reduced the availability of zero-dollar premium plans in the state and thereby reduced enrollment. A trade-off thus exists between reducing enrollees’ financial exposure by increasing minimum actuarial value levels and increasing insurance coverage via the zero-price effect.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Has silver loading reduced mortality?

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In early 2017, the IRS sent letters to 3.9 million taxpayers who had paid the ACA's individual mandate penalty in 2015, encouraging the recipients to obtain health insurance and avoid the penalty.  A study of the results* published last month found that 1) those who received the letter were 1.3 percentage points likelier to enroll in coverage in the year following than penalty payers who did not receive it, and 2) that receiving the letter reduced mortality  over the next two years among 45-64 year-olds -- by about six deaths per ten thousand, a significant result.

Drilling into the data-set of millions, the authors infer that in this heart attack and cancer-prone age group, "each month of coverage (on average) reduces baseline mortality among those who enroll in coverage by approximately 2.4%." As to how insurance might have this effect among 45-64 year-olds who lacked coverage in the previous year, the authors posit:
For coverage to reduce mortality over this time horizon, it must affect conditions that: (1) can cause death quickly if left untreated or unmanaged, and (2) for which treatment or management can prevent or delay mortality. For example, individuals lacking health insurance may delay seeking care when experiencing symptoms of acute conditions (e.g., heart attack or stroke), and such delays increase the likelihood of short-term mortality (Smolderen et al., 2010; Medford-Davis et al., 2016)... Separately, obtaining coverage may reduce mortality by causing the diagnosis of certain chronic conditions for which treatment has rapid protective effects. For example, cardiovascular drugs have been observed to reduce mortality from heart disease within months of beginning treatment.
While attracting young adults into the ACA marketplace would improve the risk pool and so put downward pressure on premiums, attracting older adults saves lives. It is likely that silver loading, the pricing practice that's generated windfall discounts in bronze and gold plans in the ACA marketplace since 2018, has boosted enrollment more among older enrollees than among younger ones.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Is "free" a magic word in the ACA marketplace?

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Healthcare scholars David M. Anderson and Coleman Drake have published a study that analyzes the impact of free bronze plans, which became available to millions of prospective ACA marketplace plans in 2018, on enrollment.

Ubiquitous free bronze is one result of "silver loading," 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. As a result of silver loading, $0-premium bronze plans available to millions.

Perhaps the most striking finding in Anderson and Drake's paper is the sheer ubiquity of free bronze plans, particularly for enrollees over age 45 (since premiums rise with age, and the benchmark plan costs subsidized enrollees a fixed percentage of income regardless of age, older enrollees have larger subsidies to cover plans that cost less than the benchmark). The authors divined the availability of free bronze by matching enrollment data, which CMS breaks out by county, income, age and metal level in the 38 states that use, with pricing data, which CMS also provides. 

Free bronze, they found,was available in 2019 to almost every marketplace enrollee with an income below 150% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) -- that is, to about 3 million enrollees in states, more than a third of all enrollees. It was available to most enrollees at 150-200% FPL, and to a large majority of enrollees over age 45 in the 200-250% FPL income bracket.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019: Medicare at Will, Warren in the whirlpool, silver loading Year 2....

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Below, a look back at some xpost focal points in 2019. Short version: the posts below index multiple posts on recurring themes:

Elizabeth Warren's healthcare toggle switch
Two years of rather quavery support for Medicare for All

Medicare for all who want it: Potential and pitfalls 
Scrutinizing the Medicare for America bill

Silver loading and 2019 enrollment
What impact has silver loading had so far? What can be done to increase its impact -- that is, to further boost ACA subsidies?

*          *          *

Early this year, I assumed that as the Democratic presidential candidate field was winnowed, the surviving candidates would converge on a "Medicare for all who want it" model for next-gen healthcare reform.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Whither humanity? Three NYT snapshots

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*         *         *
The front page of today's print New York Times greeted Sunday breakfasters with what feels like a typical trio of world-going-to-hell headlines above the fold:
  • Nearly 80 Die As Blast Strikes Somali Capital
  • As It Detains parents, China Weans Children From Islam
  • Trump Eroding Role Of Science In Government
As antidote, in the op-ed pages Nicholas Kristof offered up his annual reminder that by quantitative material measures the human condition continues to improve; extreme poverty, debilitating disease and child mortality are declining, literacy is growing, hundreds of thousands climb out of extreme poverty daily. 

In the same op-ed section, Ross Douthat leads with a truly arresting take on the last decade:

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Assessing 2020 ACA marketplace enrollment? Don't forget Virginia's 2-year Medicaid expansion shakeout

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In assessing total ACA marketplace enrollment for 2020, it's important to keep in mind that the fallout from Medicaid expansion expansion in Virginia continued into a second year.

As I've noted before, that's generally been the case in states that have enacted belated Medicaid expansions after the ACA's core programs launched in 2014.

Marketplace enrollment drops when a state implements the Medicaid expansion (rendered voluntary to states by the Supreme Court in 2012) because the lowest-income marketplace enrollees become eligible for Medicaid -- and therefore no longer eligible for marketplace plans, at least theoretically.

In expansion states, people with incomes up to 138% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) are eligible for Medicaid -- and so, not for marketplace subsidies. In states that have refused the expansion (e.g., Virginia until Jan. 2019), eligibility for marketplace coverage begins at 100% FPL.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Michael Bloomberg's healthcare plan eats its own tail

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Michael Bloomberg's just-released health coverage plan would do some good if enacted. It's introduced, however, with a false premise.

Deeming "a Medicare-like public option" the "first step," the plan outline pronounces:
A public insurance option would improve consumer choice and increase competition in the private insurance market, pushing down everyone’s premiums. People of modest means who buy the public option would be eligible for the same subsidies that would apply on the health insurance exchanges.
As students of the ACA marketplace know, however, within the marketplace structure, when base (pre-subsidy) premiums shrink, the premiums paid by subsidized enrollees tend to go up. That's because the subsidies are designed so that the enrollee pays a fixed percentage of income (rising with income) for the benchmark (second cheapest silver) plan. If you buy a plan that's cheaper than the benchmark, your subsidy goes further (and these days, thanks to silver loading*, may cover the whole premium). When premiums go down, price spreads between the benchmark and cheaper plans tend to shrink, reducing discounts for the cheapest silver plan and for bronze plans. If a public option reduces premiums, as Bloomberg promises, it will increase them more often than otherwise for subsidized buyers. Ditto for reinsurance, proposed to reduce premiums another 10%.

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Cadillac Tax: An idea whose time never came

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To the surprise of no one, it looks like the ACA's long-postponed Cadillac ax, an excise tax on employer-sponsored health plans that exceed a certain cost threshold,  is slated for legislative execution, along with the medical device tax.

Against the vociferous opposition of unions and employers, Obama fought to preserve the Cadillac Tax, a linchpin of the ACA's efforts to control healthcare costs. CBO estimates that repeal will cost the treasury $200 billion over ten years.

On one level, it's sad that Congress can't make taxes with powerful opponents stick. Medical device tax repeal is a dead giveaway.  But the Cadillac Tax was based on two false premises.