Tuesday, August 31, 2021

NHIS: No shift from private to public insurance?

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The annual early release estimates from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) came out today. The NHIS recorded a decrease in the uninsured rate for all ages from 2019 to 2020, from 10.3% to 9.7%, but deemed the change statistically insignificant. Among adults aged 18-64, the uninsured rate  dropped from 14.7% to 13.9% -- also deemed not significant. Similarly, the Urban Institute survey report that I wrote about last week found essentially no change in the uninsured rate from March 2019 to April 2021 -- but also recorded a statistically insignificant drop. 

Directionally, as I noted last week, most surveys, including the Census's experimental Household Pulse Survey, point to a modest drop in the uninsured population during the pandemic. Big picture: huge gains in Medicaid enrollment, driven largely by a pause in disenrollments effectively mandated by pandemic relief legislation, appear to have outstripped drops in access to employer-sponsored insurance (ESI), which according to various sources fell less than the massive job losses triggered by the pandemic might have led one to expect. But there are a lot of moving parts that may have canceled one another out. 

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Is the uninsured rate flat since 2019, or down a bit?

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See 8/31 update from NHIS survey at bottom

The Urban Institute, in an analysis of results from its own ongoing Heath Reform Monitoring Survey, found that the uninsured rate among adults aged 19-64 did not change significantly from March 2019 to April 2021. 

That's at least a backhanded tribute to the U.S.'s kludgy health insurance safety net as bolstered by the Affordable Care Act. Big picture: in Urban's estimate, as a result of the pandemic, employer-sponsored insurance  fell by 3 percentage points (from 65% to 62.3%) in the survey period, while insurance through public programs (mainly Medicaid) increased by 4 percentage points (from 13.6% to 17.5%). 

You could read these results as a paean to the ACA Medicaid expansion (which Republicans almost repealed in 2017). In states that have expanded Medicaid, Urban found that the uninsured rate actually dropped two percentage points for people with incomes below 138% FPL, the Medicaid eligibility threshold. According to CMS, total Medicaid enrollment (including children) increased by 11 million -- 15.6% -- from February 2020 to March 2021.  Enrollment among adults rendered eligible by the expansion increased by about double that rate.

Urban recorded a much more modest and ambiguous impact for the ACA marketplace -- though the huge enrollment surge during the emergency Special Enrollment Period open from February 15 through August 15 of this year, turbo-charged by subsidy increases enacted in the American Rescue Plan, which appeared on HealthCare.gov on April, was mainly missed by Urban's study period. I'll return to that in a bit.

I speculated in May that the U.S. uninsurance rate might be at an all-time low, powered by huge gains in Medicaid enrollment, significant gains in marketplace enrollment, and relatively modest losses in employer-sponsored insurance during the pandemic. My methods (and math) are far less sophisticated than Urban's, and this is not to question their results (no source ever has a really complete picture of insurance in the U.S.).  That said, a few comments and caveats below.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

What's the effect of a gold benchmark in the ACA marketplace? Three states tell a tale. And a platinum benchmark is coming.

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Bloomberg's Sara Hansard reports that six states have now taken action to require insurers in their ACA marketplaces to price plans in strict proportion to their actuarial value -- that is, to increase the effects of silver loading. (Actuarial value (AV) refers to the percentage of the average enrollees costs the plan is designed to cover, in percentages fixed by metal level.)

Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia required strict silver loading in 2021 (and some or all in years prior). New Mexico and Colorado have new regulations going into effect in 2022. Texas has passed a law requiring the state insurance commissioner to take the value of Cost Sharing Reduction (added to silver plans only) into account during rate review.

Silver loading as mandated in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia makes gold plans at least marginally cheaper than silver plans, increasing value for enrollees with incomes above 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($25,520 for an individual in 2021). Below that income threshold, Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) raises the actuarial value of silver plans to a roughly platinum level.

Friday, August 13, 2021

On staying out of the coverage gap: expert advice

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I have a post up on healthinsurance.org addressing a subject near my heart: how to help more people avoid the "coverage gap" in states that have refused to enact the ACA Medicaid expansion.  That is, how to avoid being denied any help paying by estimating next year's income at a level below 100% of the Federal Poverty Level.

Eligibility for subsidized coverage (now free at incomes in the 100-150% FPL range, e.g., for anyone just over the eligibility threshold) is based on an estimate of next year's income. A lot of variables go into such estimates, especially for people with low incomes, who are often self-employed or work variable and unpredictable hours, or rely on tips, or do seasonal work. In this piece, brokers and enrollment counselors who have been at work since the ACA marketplace launched explain in detail how to maximize a good-faith estimate when necessary.

In many, many cases, failing to qualify for subsidized coverage is a matter of ignorance. The application does not tell you that there's a minimum income threshold you need to cross. Accordingly, the first step in helping low-income people seeking coverage is to spell out the minimum qualifying income:

This point can't be emphasized enough, according to Shelli Quenga Director of Programs at the Palmetto Project, a nonprofit health insurance brokerage in South Carolina.  "You need to know what amount you're shooting for," Quenga says. "You need to know where that line is. HealthCare.gov does not tell you."

Paradoxically, the application does recognize income uncertainty, and in fact positively invites applicants to take it into account:

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Total marketplace enrollment likely approaches 13 million

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Axios reports that Vice President Harris will announce today that more than 2.5 million people have signed up for marketplace coverage during the emergency Special Enrollment Period that began on February 15 and ends on August 15. (Yesterday, Charles Gaba estimated 2.57 million total SEP enrollments as of July 31.) [Update: CMS's SEP report through July 31 is out and cites the 2.5 million total.]

Just for fun, let's take a stab on where total marketplace enrollment likely stands right now. 

We know that effectuated enrollment totaled 11,290,546 in February, and that about 2.5 million additional enrollees have been logged since then. The wild card is disenrollments during those months. To estimate them, our best hints come from monthly enrollment tallies in 2020, recorded in the effectuated enrollment snapshot for February 2021.

Thursday, August 05, 2021

Maximizing the ACA Innovation Waiver: Biosimilar silver loading, anyone?

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Ask, and it shall be given

The advocates for more affordable health insurance at Families USA are asking the Biden administration to loosen up the Catch-22 that confronts states seeking to take advantage of the ACA's section 1332 innovation waivers.

1332 waivers enable states to propose alterations to virtually every feature of the ACA marketplace in pursuit of more affordable and effective coverage. The alternative scheme must cover at least as many people at least as comprehensively as the existing marketplace, and must do so without increasing the federal deficit. 

As currently interpreted, the deficit-neutral requirement presents a Catch-22: if the state's alternative scheme ends up costing more because more people sign up, the state is responsible for the excess costs, even if the coverage costs less (or no more) per person than the exiting ACA marketplace. 

Monday, August 02, 2021

ACA enrollment under ARPA: The view from near 100% FPL (and San Antonio)

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The ACA's tragic coverage gap confronts poor people in the 12 states that have refused to date to enact the ACA Medicaid expansion with a cruel logical absurdity: they may earn too little to qualify for government-supported health coverage.  Adults in households with incomes below the Federal Poverty Level (100% FPL) do not qualify for subsidized coverage in the ACA marketplace.

A few weeks ago, I noted that on May 5 CMS put a modest patch on the coverage gap by rescinding a Trump era policy of demanding income verification from marketplace applicants in nonexpansion states if "trusted data sources" indicated that the applicant's income was likely below 100% FPL -- i.e., ineligible for subsidies -- and the applicant had estimated an income above that threshold. (Since HHS's computer systems can't be retooled instantly, CMS explained, the exchanges will continue to request documentation in these circumstances for some time -- but in followup communication, they will "notify those consumers that they need not provide the requested information.")

In effect, a low-income applicant can make a good faith estimate of a household income in the coming year above 100% FPL and qualify for subsidized coverage (now free through 2022, if income is below 150% FPL, thanks to the subsidy boosts in the American Rescue Plan enacted on March 11). Documentation will not be required (though awkwardly, it will be requested for some time).  If income for the year in question ultimately proves to fall below the 100% FPL threshold, there is no clawback of subsidies granted, unless the applicant's income estimate is made with "intentional or reckless disregard for the facts."* 

The opportunity for low-income applicants to estimate their way into free coverage is the sort of regulatory forbearance that inspires high moral dudgeon from conservative adversaries of the ACA. In fact, though, poor or near-poor people in nonexpansion states who get as far as applying for health coverage - many don't, as ignorance of ACA programs is pervasive -- are likelier to underestimate their income than overestimate it.