Friday, November 29, 2019

Just how poor is ACA marketplace takeup?

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If you hadn't looked at the Kaiser Family Foundation's Marketplace Enrollment as a Share of the Potential Population for a while, or the variant for subsidy-eligible enrollment, you would get the impression that the takeup of marketplace offerings has fallen sharply.

That's true, among the unsubsidized, who accounted for 42% of marketplace enrollment in 2016 vs. just 27% this year (see Figure 3 here).  And the picture has never been pretty. But marketplace failure is not as dire as these charts might lead you to believe. And the apparent falloff in enrollment takeup among the subsidy-eligible is an illusion, born of changing methodology and snapshots of different points in the yearly enrollment cycle.

The Kaiser charts that were live through 2017 (and maybe later) reflected enrollment as of March 31, 2016, i.e. after CMS's first-quarter effectuated enrollment snapshot for that year, at which point 87% of those who had selected plans as of the end of Open Enrollment had effectuated (and maintained) coverage. Reported takeup among the population estimated to be eligible for subsidies was 64%. Takeup among all who were eligible for marketplace coverage (i.e., lacking access to employer coverage or public programs like Medicaid and Medicare) was estimated at 40%.  In the current charts, based on enrollment in December 2018, takeup among the subsidy-eligible is estimated at 46%, and among all who might buy marketplace plans at 34%. 

Yow. But...

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Kaiser Family Foundation is shaping (or showing the shape of) our healthcare debate

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There is a subtext to Abby Goodnough's excellent overview of voters' preference for a public option or Medicare buy-in over Medicare for All:  the extent to which the Kaiser Family Foundation and its tracking poll of voters' healthcare concerns and perceptions are shaping the debate.

Voters cited in Goodnough's piece reflect the concerns about M4A flagged in Kaiser polls:
About two-thirds of voters like the idea of a public option or Medicare buy-in, according to several recent national polls. This month, the Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll, which has asked voters about the plan four times since July, found that 65 percent of the public favors the idea, compared with 53 percent who support “Medicare for all.” Large majorities of Democrats and independents favored a public option in Kaiser’s November poll, as did 41 percent of Republicans — roughly the same level as earlier Kaiser polls found but down from an unusual spike of 58 percent in October....

Friday, November 22, 2019

In Health Affairs: Silver loading goes into reverse, cont.

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A Health Affairs blog post by David Anderson, me, and Coleman Drake probes the likely impact of reduced silver loading effects in the ACA marketplace this year. In brief, there are fewer counties nationwide where plans below the benchmark are free to many enrollees, and fewer counties where gold plans cost less than benchmark silver. 

One profound impact may be where potential spreads are narrowest: between benchmark silver and the cheapest silver plan in each region.
The reduced silver spread, while small in dollars, may have a profound impact. At incomes up to 200 percent of poverty, the value of CSR—a free added benefit—exceeds the value of most bronze and gold plan discounts generated by silver loading. Accordingly, enrollees with incomes in the 100–200 percent of poverty range—56 percent of all enrollees in states in 2019—have mostly stuck to silver plans: According to Aron-Dine, 84 percent of enrollees in this income bracket selected silver in 2019, down slightly from 87 percent in 2017. In that same period, enrollees with incomes in the 200–400 percent of poverty range, for whom CSR is unavailable or negligible, took broad advantage of discounts in bronze and gold plans, reducing their silver selection from 60 percent in 2017 to 35 percent in 2019.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Another Hanukkah miracle due in Week 7 of ACA Open Enrollment for 2020?

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Last year, enrollment in the ACA marketplace in the 39 states using trailed the prior-year enrollment pretty dramatically in each of CMS's "weekly enrollment snapshots."  By the end of Week 6, enrollment was at 88.3% of the total at the same point in December 2017.  Then lo, at the end of Week 7 the gap had shrunk from 12% to 4%.  What caused the late surge?

The surge was illusory. Week 1 was a day short last year. That was no mystery, and trackers accounted for it, noting that first-week enrollments stood at about 125,000 per day. What was not fully accounted for in advance was that the extra day made up in Week 7, which had seven enrollment days last year vs. just six in 2017, carried a lot more weight than the shorted November day, as enrollment is much heavier at the end of the season. As I noted at the time:

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Hey blue states: How about offering a public option off-exchange only?

Louise Norris, clearest of expositors, has some mildly ambiguous wording here that set off a lightbulb:
Colorado enacted legislation in 2019 that directed the state to explore ways to create a public option health insurance program that could offer a lower-cost alternative for people who buy their own health insurance.
Eureka: Why doesn't a state offer a public option off-exchange only? That would solve the dilemma caused by the ACA's underfunded subsidies: measures that reduce ACA marketplace premiums for unsubsidized  buyers tend to raise them for subsidized buyers.  (Colorado is not moving toward this option.) N.B. in most states, ACA-compliant plans are offered off-exchange as well as on-exchange. This public option would be ACA compliant.

Friday, November 15, 2019

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

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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, 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 (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, 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.