Wednesday, August 30, 2017

"Just a little procedural easing" those ACA innovation waiver guardrails!

The Senate HELP Committee's efforts to pass an ACA stabilization bill are likely to hinge on the ACA's Section 1332 innovation waivers, according to Axios' David Nather:
How they'll give states more flexibility: They want to beef up the ACA's "Section 1332" waivers, but Democrats don't want to do anything that undermines the "guardrails" in those waivers — They can't reduce the number of people with health coverage, make insurance less comprehensive or affordable, or increase the deficit.
  • Instead, they'll just try to ease the procedural rules, according to a Senate Democratic aide. The question is whether that will be enough for Republicans.
Just a little procedural easing, ladies and gentlemen! Recall, though, that the BCRA nominally left the ACA guardrails in place -- but effectively gave states carte blanche to knock them down "procedurally." Tim Jost explained back in June (my emphasis):

Thursday, August 24, 2017

ACA marketplace remake: Iowa leverages Wellmark's warm cooperation

This week the Iowa Insurance Division formally filed an ACA innovation waiver request to radically remake the state's individual market for health insurance.

The plan is cast as an emergency stopgap for a market said to be collapsing -- facing a 53% average requested rate increase for silver plans from its sole remaining insurer. The waiver submission forecasts a loss of 18-22,000 unsubsidized enrollees should the plan not be implemented.

The basic tradeoff in the proposal, dubbed the Iowa Stopgap Plan, seems to be to exchange Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) subsidies for reinsurance and a more generous premium subsidy structure, which makes subsidies available to enrollees at all income levels and yields lower net premiums to almost all comers. Harsh as the loss of CSR for enrollees under 200% FPL would be, the repurposed dollars seem to yield a disproportionate dividend in premium reduction.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Not throwing away our Schatz: What kind of public option in the ACA marketplace?

Senator Brian Schatz's proposal to allow any American to buy into Medicaid is frustratingly vague: we don't know the plan design and how it would be integrated into the ACA marketplace, as David Anderson and Loren Adler point out in this Vox roundup of expert assessment.

Two disclosed details are salient, though -- and to me, point toward two essential features of an ACA redesign from the progressive side. The first is the provider payment rate: bumped up to Medicare. The second is a cap on premiums as a percentage of income -- 9.5% -- for any buyer. (Larry Levitt mentions that feature in the Vox roundup; it's apparently not yet part of any published plan outline.)

Those features bring me back to the compromise package floated by the Urban Institute's Linda Blumberg and John Holahan back in January (which in turn built on their 2015 ACA enrichment plan, with concessions to Republicans salted in). That plan included an 8.5% of income cap on premiums for any buyer -- and a cap on payment rates paid to providers (in concert with reinsurance):

Sunday, August 20, 2017

If I had $194 billion...spending the federal funds that CSR cutoff would waste

The CBO report on the effects of the federal government ceasing reimbursement of insurers for the Cost Sharing Reduction subsidies they are required to provide to qualifying ACA marketplace enrollees includes two projections tantalizing to Democrats.

First, if not executed until 2018, not mishandled by states and not coupled with other forms of sabotage (a lot of ifs!), CSR defunding need not harm individual market enrollees and will in fact provide a windfall to many (by about a million as of 2020, sustained through 2026).*

Second, this means of boosting coverage is colossally inefficient, in fact outright profligate. CBO projects that ending the CSR reimbursements will cost the Treasury $194 billion over ten years, $37 billion in 2026 alone (and so imagine the 20-year cost).

That's a lot of money for Republicans to spend to spite Democrats. To review, the ACA instructs the Treasury to reimburse insurers for CSR and built the cost of reimbursement into the funding baseline, though it quaintly leaves it to Congress to appropriate the money. Doing so has no impact on the deficit; refusing swells it by said $194 billion.

This suggests to me a rather perverse deal: Republicans, pay the money budgeted, and use the $194 billion in "savings" for tax cuts. The "savings"should just about cover the ACA's surtax on investment income for the wealthy, as CBO pegged the 10-year cost of repealing that tax at $172 billion). Sure, that's deficit-funded, but as Dick Cheney told us, deficits don't matter when Republicans are in control.

Of course, those who want the ACA to work and who want to expand coverage can think of better uses for the (otherwise wasted) money. We now have $194 billion in sugarplums dancing in our heads. I canvassed a handful of healthcare scholars as to what they'd do with the money.  A few possibilities:

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Can Democrats afford to stand pat on the ACA?

A while back, I anticipated that Republicans would demand a steep price for passing legislation that would guarantee federal funding for the ACA marketplace's Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) subsidies and possibly for a reinsurance program. I asked what Democrats should be willing to give up to secure those obviously necessary measures -- the first simply an end to sabotage, the second an individual market essential that Republicans bestowed liberally in their ACA replacement plans.

David Anderson counters that "this model of leverage is wrong" and that Democrats should be willing to give up...nothing.  The rationale is not "if you break it you own it" (i.e., Republicans will be blamed for market collapse),  but rather that forcing insurers to fund (and price for) the CSR subsidies as of 2018 would hand Democrats "an incredible policy victory."

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Compromise maybe a little? Urban Institute's Blumberg and Holahan on what's next for the ACA

In August 2015, Urban Institute healthcare scholars Linda Blumberg and John Holahan acknowledged that ACA marketplace subsidies were too skimpy to do all they were intended to and came up with a comprehensive proposal to enrich them.  In January 2016, staring down the barrel of Republican repeal vows, they remixed those improvements in a compromise package that included several concessions to conservative priorities. These included:
  • Repeal the employer mandate (requiring employers with more than 50 employees to offer insurance or pay a penalty)
  • Repeal and replace the individual mandate  (with a premium penalty for those who did not maintain continuous coverage)
  • Examine the Essential Health Benefits and look for responsible ways to lighten them
  • Allow states to drop the income threshold for Medicaid eligibility to 100% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). At present, the threshold is 138% FPL in states that have accepted the ACA Medicaid expansion. 
As I noted recently, these concessions were embedded with offsets: reinsurance to mitigate the premium hikes likely to be triggered by individual mandate replacement, and lower out-of-pocket costs to cushion the substitution for enrollees in the 100-138% FPL range of private insurance for Medicaid (richer subsidies across all income levels would also offset the ill effects of a weaker mandate substitute).

Sunday, August 06, 2017

What price will Republicans extract for CSR funding and reinsurance?

If the current glimmers of bipartisanship in healthcare legislation take on any sustained shine, the primary agenda for Democrats is obvious: appropriate funding for Cost Sharing Reduction payments and for some kind of reinsurance program to replace the program that expired in 2017.

The first is simply a matter of ending sabotage: CSR is integral to the structure of the ACA marketplace and incorporated in its budget baseline. Republicans have simply exploited a drafting error to destabilize the individual market. As for reinsurance, Republicans made its necessity manifest by including generous "stability funding" in the main House and Senate "healthcare" bills -- in fact, overly generous funding designed to compensate for their various disfigurements of the market (e.g., repeal of the individual mandate and measures to reintroduce medical underwriting and non-comprehensive insurance).

To have any real hope of getting these measures passed in a Republican Congress, however, Democrats are going to have to face up to the question: What pound of flesh will they let Republicans extract as payment for these essential, common-sense fixes? It's a foregone conclusion from a progressive point of view that changes Republicans will demand will not improve the market. What concessions might actually win passage and do less harm than the fixes will do good?

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Are New York's Essential Plan and Minnesota's MinnesotaCare threatened by CSR fund cutoff?

A question hath arisen on Twitter: if federal Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) reimbursements to insurers are cut off, either by Trump administration fiat or court ruling, would New York and Minnesota's Basic Health Programs formed under the ACA lose the portion of their federal funding derived from CSR payments?

To review, the ACA gives states the option of establishing a Basic Health Program (BHP) for qualifying residents with incomes between 138% and 200% of the Federal Poverty Level -- the very population eligible for strong CSR in the ACA marketplace in a state with no BHP*.   A BHP is designed to have low premiums and high actuarial value -- though not necessarily higher than that provided by CSR. So far, Minnesota and New York are the only states to have formed BHPs.  New York's BHP, the Essential Plan, has minimal cost sharing and a maximum premium of $20 per month (for those in the 150-200% FPL range). MinnesotaCare premiums top out at $80 per month; the actuarial value is 94%, matching CSR for marketplace enrollees with incomes up to 150% FPL.

Section 1331 of the ACA provides for federal funding of BHPs according to this formula:
The amount determined under this paragraph for any fiscal year is the amount the Secretary determines is equal to 85 percent [amended to 95%] of the premium tax credits under section 36B of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, and the cost-sharing reductions under section 1402, that would have been provided for the fiscal year to eligible individuals enrolled in standard health plans in the State if such eligible individuals were allowed to enroll in qualified health plans through an Exchange established under this subtitle.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Peter Lee to HHS: Marketing makes the risk pool

Covered California, the golden state's ACA marketplace, released preliminary health plan rates for 2018 today. In a marketplace supported by political stability, the top line would be nothing to write home about -- a 12.5% average weighted increase, discounting a surcharge to be added to silver plans if the Trump administration or Congress does not guarantee CSR payments through 2018. 

But given the "unprecedented uncertainty" generated by active administration sabotage and a seven- month effort to repeal core parts of the ACA, those results are impressive. CoveredCA further claims that "If a consumer shops and switches to the lowest-priced plan in their same metal tier, they can reduce their 2018 rate change to an average increase of less than 3.3 percent." More on that in a bit.

In a telephone press conference, CoveredCA's executive director Peter Lee made a striking claim that speaks not only to the current market uncertainty but to the effects of seven years of unrelenting sabotage of the ACA marketplace by Republican senators, congressional reps, governors, state legislators and insurance commissioners. Asked how central marketing would be to enrollment in the coming year, Lee said (paraphrasing here):
If you don't sell, those who knock on the door are sick people.