Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Healthcare reformers can't leave employer-sponsored insurance untouched

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Presidential candidates and other Democrats who want to patch or build on the ACA rather than create a substantially new system generally neglect, to varying degrees, an attendant problem: employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) is also in dire need of reform.

A Kaiser Family Foundation's report on large employer coverage released this month found that health spending by families in large employer plans has grown twice as fast as wages over the past decade. The employer share of costs in family coverage (premium plus out-of-pocket) has downticked only slightly:  it was 68% in 2008 and 66% in 2018.  But families and employers alike are tapped out: total costs increased 67% over those ten years. The total cost of large group coverage for a family of four now averages $22,000 per year. Reducing healthcare costs is among voters' top priorities.

Beyond the steady-but-high yearly increases recorded by Kaiser, yesterday NYT reporters Reed Abelson and Katie Thomas spotlighted a recent development that could be destabilizing: the proliferation of specialty drugs for rare diseases, which can carry price tags in the millions per patient per year. As Abelson and Thomas note, about 10% of the population is afflicted with rare diseases,  and more than half the drugs approved in 2018 targeted such diseases.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Who pays for astronomically expensive orphan drugs? Some questions prompted by the NYT report

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The Times' Reed Abelson and Katie Thomas have a major story exploring a key factor in rising healthcare costs: specialty drugs for rare diseases, which increasingly can carry price tags in the millions per patient per year. The trend and the impact are laid out succinctly:
Rare diseases, however, aren’t all that rare. There are an estimated 7,000 of them, and about 30 million Americans have one — roughly the same number of people in the United States with diabetes. And although there are no treatments for most rare diseases, new therapies are coming on the market nearly every month,  with some reaching beyond $2 million a year for a single treatment. Of 59 new drugs approved in 2018, more than half, or 34, were for rare diseases. 
Leaving aside the broad question of how the U.S. might contain costs for these drugs without choking off their development, the story prompted a few thoughts and questions about how these costs are currently distributed, and how that might change. Some factors to consider:

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Surprise! New Jersey ACA marketplace outperforms the national market

When CMS reported enrollment totals in the ACA marketplace at the end of Open Enrollment last December, the news for New Jersey was disappointing.

Despite (or per below, partly because of) a 9% average reduction in premiums last year, fruit of a new reinsurance program and a state-enacted individual mandate, on-exchange enrollment dropped 7.1% -- a performance that lagged the national marketplace (down 2.7%) and the 39 states that rely on the federal HealthCare.gov platform (down 3.8%) -- though right at the median for HealthCare.gov states that have expanded Medicaid (and so get less juice from silver loading)*.

When the state released off-exchange numbers in June, the results provided a measure of consolation. Off-exchange enrollment was up 3%, shrinking the total individual market enrollment loss to 4% from Q1 2018 to Q1 2019.

The main cause of the contrary results is not hard to find. Three quarters of on-exchange enrollment in New Jersey is subsidized.  In David Anderson's pithy formulation, "Reinsurance, all else being equal, helps the unsubsidized and hurts the subsidized." That's true of any measure or market force that reduces average premiums. When the benchmark (second cheapest silver) plan premium goes down, subsidies are reduced accordingly, and price spreads between the benchmark and cheaper plans tend to shrink, reducing discounts.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The retentive ACA marketplace, revisited

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In my last post, I noted that enrollment drops in the ACA marketplace recorded in each year of the Trump era at the end of Open Enrollment more or less evaporate in yearly comparisons of average monthly enrollment, or end-of-year enrollment.

That is, it seems that fewer people in the last two years drop out without paying, and perhaps a higher percentage remain enrolled all year (many people in the ACA marketplace do have good reasons not to remain enrolled all year -- one of the marketplace's vital roles is as a stopgap). That's congruent with another change recorded in 2019: new enrollments down (-15.7%), re-enrollments up (2.3%), as of the end of Open Enrollment.

Why have apparent enrollment drops as of the end of OE in each of the last three years either shrunk or eroded entirely over the course of the year? A few possibilities:

Friday, August 16, 2019

CMS subtext: The ACA marketplace is in recovery

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The CMS report on long-term enrollment trends in the ACA marketplace has a stark lede:
During two successive years of declining enrollment, from 2016 to 2018, unsubsidized enrollment declined by 2.5 million people, representing a 40 percent drop nationally. 
That's bad. But the report includes data that leads to a clear conclusion: The ACA-compliant individual market has stabilized. It is rife with problems and there are many enrollees whom it does not serve well, but it's passed through a crisis. Consider the following points (some derived from the report, others not):
  1. Subsidized enrollment was higher in 2018 than in 2016, generally understood to be the enrollment peak. In fact, total on-exchange enrollment was higher in December 2018 than in 2016. (Off-exchange enrollment, where the bulk of unsubsidized enrollment occurs, did drop sharply in those years.)

  2. Subsidized enrollment is higher in 2019 than in 2018, as of February of each year, when all enrollees have had at least one payment due (see CMS's  (2018 and 2019 Effectuated Enrollment Snapshots). 

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Is subsidized enrollment in the ACA marketplace really up since 2016?

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CMS's report on long-term enrollment trends in the ACA marketplace released this week emphasized the 40% drop in unsubsidized enrollment from 2016 to 2018. But the counterpoint came as something of a surprise: subsidized enrollment, according to CMS, is up since 2016.

If you look at the most often cited enrollment numbers for each year -- total plan selections reported by CMS annually at the end of the open enrollment season  -- total subsidized enrollment is down substantially -- 7.1% from 2016 to 2018, and 7.7% from 2016 to 2019. But average monthly enrollment was higher in 2018 than in 2016 -- and probably will be slightly higher this year.

It might appear that retention has improved -- more people stay in their plans for more of the year. But that's not clear, as average monthly enrollment in 2018 is not quite the same measure as in years prior.  Let's look at the numbers:

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

CSR attrition vs. silver loading stimulus, 2017-2019

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In my last post, I noted that in the Trump era, ACA marketplace enrollment has shifted toward the middle of the income distribution. While enrollment has cratered for the unsubsidized, and eroded by 16% since 2016 among low income enrollees (100-200% FPL, in HealthCare.gov states), it's stayed basically flat at the upper end of the subsidy-eligible income scale, 201-400% FPL.

In brief, the market got much worse for the unsubsidized, as premiums spiked 21% in 2017 and 26% in 2018, and marginally worse for low income enrollees, as out of pocket costs rose yearly in plans with fixed actuarial values. It got better, however, for many enrollees in the 200-400% FPL income range, since a) rising premiums made more people at the upper end of the range subsidy eligible, and b) Trump's cutoff of direct CSR reimbursement for insurers in fall 2017 induced "silver loading" that created discounts in bronze and gold plans (see note below if you're unfamiliar with silver loading).

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

ACA marketplace enrollment is down at low incomes as well as at high ones

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[Update, 8/15: CMS data on average monthly enrollment in each year appears to suggest that apparent year-over-year enrollment drops among the subsidized as of the end of Open Enrollment may have evaporated (in 2018, and perhaps 2019) as the year progressed. See this post.]

CMS is out with a report highlighting, not to say gloating over, a steep decline in unsubsidized enrollment in the ACA-compliant individual market from 2016 to 2018.  Nationally, while subsidized enrollment was up 1.3% in that period, unsubsidized enrollment crashed 40%, from an average monthly enrollment of 6.27 million in 2016 to 3.77 million in 2018.

That's not surprising, given premium increases averaging 21% in 2017 and 26% in 2018, and the obvious fact that the ACA marketplace was under-subsidized from the start and essentially unaffordable for many people with incomes modestly above the 400% FPL subsidy cutoff, as Urban Institute scholars Linda Blumberg and John Holahan pointed out in 2015:

Here I'd like to add a corollary: Enrollment since 2016 has declined not only at the top of the income scale, among those with incomes above 400% FPL, but at the bottom, among those with incomes up 200% FPL. It's shifted toward the upper end of subsidy eligibility, into the 200-400% FPL income range. The percentage of enrollees with incomes in that range has risen from 29.5% in 2016 to 34% in 2019 in HealthCare.gov states, and from 40.4% to 44.1% in California.

Monday, August 12, 2019

New Jersey individual market premiums set to rise, bucking national trend

Surprise...while individual market premiums for 2020 are up an average of just 0.7% in the 40-odd states tracked so far* by Charles Gaba, requested rates are up a weighted average of 8.6% in New Jersey -- after a 9% drop last year, the product mainly of a new reinsurance program and a state-enacted individual mandate.

AmeriHealth, which gained market share this year and currently enrolls 41% of the total NJ individual market, is requesting increases averaging 11%. Horizon Blue Cross, with 62% market share, is requesting increases averaging 6.2%. Oscar, with 4.4% market share, is requesting a 16.3% average increase.

Here are the rate requests (from https://ratereview.healthcare.gov/). Enrollment is negligible in Horizon Health of New Jersey, Horizon's HMO. AmeriHealth HMO accounts for 11.4% of AmeriHealth's Q1 2019 enrollment. Oxford Health enrollment is negligible.

Some context, presented without attempt at causal explanation:

Saturday, August 03, 2019

Triage: A moderate healthcare reform proposal

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Prescript (8/7/19): it occurs to me that this rather kludgy patch to our current system boils down to a simple rule: no one pays more than 8% of income for less than 80% AV insurance.  Paid for in part by expanding the footprint of Medicare payment rates.
*          *          *
I want to float here a path to healthcare system reform that starts a gear shift or two below the Medicare for America bill, which creates a strong public option that anyone can buy into at an income-adjusted price. I am mindful of David Anderson's warning that a Democratic president who goes for sweeping healthcare reform (assuming at best a narrow Senate majority and abolishment of the filibuster) will have bandwidth for little else -- and I think other imperatives, like attacking global warming, should come first.

First, a set of working assumptions (and background on current bills) that undergird where I land (skip to the subhead, where the proposal starts, if you're so inclined).

1. The U.S. healthcare system is outrageously expensive, unjust, and inefficient, distorted by two related structural flaws:

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Should the U.S. ditch private insurance?

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Elizabeth Warren has gotten tight with Ady Barkan, a brave ALS patient and advocate for Medicare for All. In the July 30 debate, she told his tale:
The guy who has ALS, this isn’t this is somebody who has health insurance and dying. Every month he has about $9,000 in medical bills that his insurance company won’t cover. His wife Rachel is on the phone for hours and hours and hours begging the insurance company please cover what the doctors say he needs.
Barkan, in his turn, tweeted during the next night's debate: 
Fair enough. Whether to preserve private insurance, and how to reform it if so, are the questions that divide Democratic candidates' approaches to healthcare reform, at least theoretically (what each of them would truly aim to accomplish via legislation introduced in 2021, and how they would balance their healthcare goals with other priorities, are questions they should be asked). 

In any case, let's look at the rap sheet against insurance companies -- and set it against their claims to add value to our healthcare system.

The raps
  • Divided and conquered: All but uniquely among wealthy countries, the U.S. leaves private insurers to each separately negotiate payment rates with healthcare providers. The fragmented payer universe gives providers outsized bargaining leverage, particularly in areas with dominant hospital systems or provider shortages.  Accordingly, commercial insurers pay hospitals about 189% of Medicare rates, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate, and 241% Medicare according to a more recent RAND study. Commercial rates for doctors are about 128% Medicare, according to MEDPAC