Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Will 60-64 year-olds have a choice between Medicare and Obamacare? What will that look like?

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I turned 62 recently. Yesterday, for the first time, I took seriously the possibility that my wife and I might be enrolled in Medicare before we turn 65.

According to the Wall Street Journal's Stephanie Amour and Kristina Peterson, the Democrats' next healthcare initiative, envisioned for spring 2022, is likely to contain

measures to reduce drug prices and expand health coverage, lawmakers said. Proposals to expand Medicare eligibility from age 65 to 60 and to enable the federal government to negotiate drug prices in the health program for seniors—both of which President Biden supported on the campaign trail—are also likely to be included.

I can think of a lot of reasons these measures -- paired so that the prescription drug savings will finance the expanded eligibility -- may not happen.  But the odds that they will be enacted are not negligible. Democrats' success holding together to pass the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package have made a lot of bold initiatives seem possible.

If Democrats do manage to drop the Medicare eligibility age, they are also likely to make permanent the major increases to premium subsidies in the ACA marketplace enacted through 2022 in the Covid relief bill, the American Rescue Plan Act. And the two initiatives could overlap -- or clash -- to some degree.

The possibility of passing all of the above raises questions: will Medicare be offered to 60-65 year-olds on the same terms as Medicare for people over age 65?  Will enrollment delayed past age 60 be penalized on the same terms as enrollment delayed past age 65 at present? If enrollment at 60-65 is optional, will those who lack access to employer-sponsored insurance also be eligible for subsidized ACA marketplace coverage? -- will they have a choice between the two programs?

If Medicare is indeed subsidized as heavily at ages 60-64 as at age 65 and over, and if enrollment is optional, and if the ARPA subsidy schedule for the ACA marketplace (or something close to it) becomes permanent, some 60-65 year-olds will have a tough choice to make between Medicare and marketplace coverage. 

Broadly speaking, those with incomes up to 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) will likely find lower costs in the marketplace -- if they're not dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid. Those with incomes over 400% FPL will likely favor Medicare.  In between is a gray area, with tradeoffs that are charted and discussed below.

Friday, March 26, 2021

An American Rescue Plan benefit you'll have to wait for

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UPDATE: On April 9, the IRS solved the problem described, announcing that 2020 marketplace enrollees who received APTC do not have to file Form 8962. 

The Internal Revenue Service announced today that taxpayers with excess APTC for 2020 are not required to file Form 8962, Premium Tax Credit, or report an excess advance Premium Tax Credit repayment on their 2020 Form 1040 or Form 1040-SR, Schedule 2, Line 2, when they file.

Those who filed prior to the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act and paid back excess APTC do not have to file an amended return; the IRS will reimburse them.


In addition to increasing premium subsidies for 2021 and 2022 in the ACA marketplace, the American Rescue Plan Act signed into law by President Biden on March 11 provides an important benefit to 2020 marketplace enrollees. Section 9662 of ARPA stipulates that those enrollees who underestimated their income and so would normally have to pay back some the Advanced Premium Tax Credits (APTC) received will not have to pay back the excess APTC. 

That includes people who estimated their incomes at below 400% of the Federal Poverty Level, the cap for APTC eligibility, but ended up with a declared income above that threshold. Normally, they would have to pay back all APTC received. This year, they owe nothing.

That is not a trivial benefit. According to IRS estimates,* in 2019 3.2 million tax filing households paid back a portion of the APTC they received in 2018, with paybacks totaling $4.4 billion, or about $1,375 per household.  Estimating 1.7 enrollees per filing household** suggests payback of about $800 per enrollee. Similarly, the CBO report*** on the costs of ARPA estimated that APTC forgiveness for 2020 (when total enrollment was nearly identical to that of 2018) would cost $4.7 billion in 2021. (See Charles Gaba's detailed analysis here.)

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Should younger enrollees in the ACA marketplace be more heavily subsidized?

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Enrollment in the ACA marketplace skews old.  In 2020, only 26% of enrollees were in the 18-34 age range, while 28% were over age 55. That creates two problems: 1) a lot of uninsured young adults, and 2) a high-cost risk pool, which means higher costs for the federal government in premium subsidies.

The healthcare provisions in the American Rescue Plan (ARP) signed into law by President Biden on March 11 radically reduce the percentage of income paid by ACA marketplace enrollees for a benchmark silver plan (the second cheapest silver plan in each rating area). But the reductions are most stark at the bottom and top of the income scale, as the table below (from the CBO's February analysis of the legislation in progress) illustrates.

Enrollees with incomes ranging from 250% FPL up to, say, 600% FPL may still find premiums a heavy lift -- and younger adults are disproportionately likely to forego them. A bill introduced in the House by Florida Democrats Stephanie Murphy and Donna Shalala, HR 6545, the Health Insurance Marketplace Affordability Act, aims to entice younger adults into the marketplace by increasing subsidies for younger adults in inverse ratio to the increase in premiums as age rises. The bill will soon be reintroduced to mesh with the ARP.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Medicaid expansion enrollment grew nearly 30% year-over-year in 19-state sample

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Time for an update on Medicaid expansion enrollment growth since the pandemic struck. Below is a sampling of 19 expansion states through January of this year, and 14 states through February.

Maintaining the assumption, explained here, that relatively slow growth in California would push the national total down by about 2.5 percentage points, these tallies still point toward year-over-year enrollment growth pushing 30% from February 2020 to February 2021. If that's right, then Medicaid enrollment among those rendered eligible by ACA expansion criteria (adults with income up to 138% FPL) may exceed 19 million nationally and may be pushing 20 million.  That is, if this sampling of a bit more than a third of total expansion enrollment represents all expansion states more or less accurately, again accounting for slower growth in California.

Friday, March 12, 2021

The American Rescue Plan Act makes free coverage available to many below 100% FPL in nonexpansion states

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An odd provision  the American Rescue Plan Act that President Biden signed yesterday provides that anyone who receives any unemployment insurance income this year will be deemed to have income of no more than 133% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), qualifying them for a free silver plan in the ACA marketplace. 

Silver plans at that income come with the highest Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR), raising the plan's actuarial value to 94%, which translates to an average deductible of about $200 and an average cap on annual out-of-pocket costs of about $1100. The plan is free because ARPA zeroes out premiums for a benchmark silver plan at incomes up to 150% FPL.

When I first read about this provision, I thought that maybe it was intended in part as one more way to chip away at the "coverage gap" in the twelve remaining states that have refused to enact the ACA Medicaid expansion (rendered optional to states by the Supreme Court in 2012). In those states, eligibility for ACA marketplace subsidies begins at 100% FPL, and families with incomes below that threshold get no help obtaining coverage. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that about 2.2 million people in nonexpansion states (chief among them Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina) are in the coverage gap.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

In Memoriam: Jules B. Sprung

My father, Jules Sprung, died this past Saturday after a short hospital stay -- of kidney failure specifically, and old age generally. He was very frail, but alert and engaged until his very last days in the hospital. My mother has taken meticulous loving care of him as he very gradually lost the ability to take care of himself. 

We miss him dearly but are at peace with the conclusion of a life well lived. An obituary is below. Thanks to Dan Woog, author of the blog 06880, a chronicle of daily life in Westport, CT, for publishing a skillfully edited version.


Jules B. Sprung, a resident of Westport with his wife Barbara since 1976, died on March 6 in Norwalk Hospital. The cause was kidney failure. He was 92.

Jules founded and ran two mail-order office supply companies, Hudson Pen, Inc. and Sarand, Inc., selling the latter in 1988 and working afterward as a marketing consultant. Sarand, based in New York City, employed dozens of people from the mid-seventies through the 1980s.

In his retirement, Jules taught swimming classes for children for many years at the Westport YMCA, where he was an honored presence at the pool until the pandemic curtailed operations in 2020.  He was also president of the Indian River Green condo complex on Saugatuck Road in Westport, where he and Barbara moved in 2002.

Jules Sprung

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

The ACA as it should have been -- sort of, for a while at least

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Strictly speaking, by my my lights, "the ACA as it should have been" would be "Medicare for all who want it": a public plan paying Medicare rates to providers, accepted by all providers who accept Medicare, with competing private plans paying similar rates to providers and probably offering somewhat more generous coverage as a tradeoff for limitations in provider choice. These plans would be available to all, including those with access to employer-sponsored insurance. Oh, and add an OOP cap -- a cap on annual out-of-pocket costs -- to the public plan -- as we should do for traditional Medicare.

In the political universe we're bound by, however, "the ACA as it should have been" denotes the ACA more or less as is, but with subsidies generous enough to make coverage in the ACA marketplace truly affordable to most Americans who lack access to other insurance -- excluding (always, alas) undocumented immigrants.  

And that is about to happen! -- temporarily at least -- when Biden signs the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 later this week (see Section 9661).   It's an eye-rubbing moment for progressives who've dreamed fruitlessly for a decade of an Affordable Care Act offering affordable coverage to almost all comers.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

The Kaiser Family Foundation is trying to tell us something

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The Kaiser Family Foundation is one of the most reliable and comprehensive source of healthcare data and analysis in the U.S. Its authority rests in part on maintaining an implicit policy neutrality, letting facts speak for themselves. But sometimes facts speak loudly, and that's the case with a remarkable brief detailing the extent to which the United States' failure to set payment rates for providers, or compel all payers to negotiate common rates, drives our out-of-control spending on healthcare, and our failure to provide affordable access to all.

The brief is an emperor-has-no-clothes declaration, aggregating facts well known to healthcare scholars and simply spotlighting the consequences of our collective failure -- unique among wealthy countries -- to curb the market (and political!) power of hospitals and doctors by forcing them to deal with all payers as a unit. It's a slingshot aimed at an industry Goliath preparing a nuclear arsenal of lobbying and propaganda against any initiative that aims to expand the footprint of government payment rates.