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Travels In Hyperreality: What If Bipartisan ACA Fixes Were Possible?


April 23rd, 2014
by Billy Wynne

Since enactment of the Affordable Care Act in March 2010, a strange, relatively unnoticed phenomenon has occurred: Congress has passed bipartisan changes to it. These amendments were generally to such esoteric components of the law that they dodged the political block-aid that otherwise surrounds it.

But what would happen if things were different? If Congress could act to change the ACA in a meaningful way, what would it do? Here we briefly review the previous sub rosa changes to launch into a broader examination of macro ACA reforms that have a fighting chance of enactment in the not too distant future.

Tinkering. Most recently, in the Medicare “doc fix” in March, both parties acted to repeal the section of the ACA that capped deductibles for small group health plans. That legislation also delayed, again, implementation of the ACA’s Medicaid cuts to disproportionate share hospitals.

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Implementing Health Reform: The Latest Affordable Care Act Coverage Numbers (Updated)


April 18th, 2014
by Timothy Jost

On February 17, 2014, the White House announced that 8 million Americans have signed up for private health insurance coverage through the health insurance marketplaces, or exchanges. This significantly exceeds the White House’s original goal of 7 million enrollees. It is far more than the Congressional Budget Office’s recent projections of 6 million.

The number of actual enrollees will be smaller than this number. The CBO’s projections are for the average number of those actually enrolled in coverage over the course of a calendar year. To calculate the average number of enrollees, one must subtract from the 8 million the number of individuals who fail to pay their premiums and thus are never actually enrolled in coverage, as well as those who will drop coverage at some later point during the year. To that reduced number, then, must be added back the number who become newly covered through special enrollment periods during the remainder of the year. In the end, 6 to 7 million average enrollees is probably a reasonable estimate.

This does not, however, exhaust the number of Americans who are now covered under the Affordable Care Act. The fact sheet states that 3 million young adults are covered under their parents’ plans because of the ACA. This number is probably high, but it is clear that the ACA has dramatically increased coverage of Americans between the age of 19 and 25 — the age group most likely to lack health insurance prior to the ACA (and still).

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Implementing Health Reform: CBO Projects Lower ACA Costs, Greater Coverage


April 15th, 2014
by Timothy Jost

On April 14, 2014, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, together with the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, released an updated estimate on the Effects of the Insurance Coverage Provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The CBO report brings good news for the ACA. The CBO projects now that the ACA’s coverage provisions will cost $5 billion less for this year than it projected just two months ago. Over the 2015 to 2024 period, CBO projects that the ACA will cost $104 billion less than it projected in February. At the same time, the CBO projects that the number of uninsured Americans will in fact decrease by an additional one million over the next decade, by 26 rather than 25 million, as it estimated in February.

The CBO report estimates that the net cost of the ACA’s coverage provisions will be $36 billion in 2014, $1,383 billion over the 2015 to 2024 period. This estimate consists of $1,839 billion for premium tax credits and cost-sharing reduction payments, Medicaid, CHIP, and small employer tax credits, offset by $456 billion in receipts from penalty payments, the excise tax on high-premium insurance plans, and the effects on tax revenues of projected changes in employer coverage. The CBO report does not include an estimate of the total reduction in the federal deficit attributable to the ACA, as the CBO has concluded that it is no longer possible to estimate the net effect of ACA changes on existing federal programs, but the most recent CBO estimate from 2012 projected that the ACA would reduce the federal deficit over the 2013 to 2022 period by $109 billion. Given projected further reductions in Medicare spending projected in a CBO budget report also released on April 14, it is reasonable to believe that the ACA’s impact on the budget may be even greater than earlier estimated.

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Implementing Health Reform: Medicaid & CHIP February 2014 Report


April 5th, 2014
by Timothy Jost

On April 4, 2014, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released their Medicaid & CHIP February 2014 Monthly Applications, Eligibility Determinations, and Enrollment Report. (Blog post here.) For the first time, the February monthly report provides meaningful data on enrollment.

Like previous reports, the report gives the total number of applications received by all reporting state agencies (2,207,513) and total number of individuals determined eligible for Medicaid and CHIP by state agencies (2,249,120). For comparison, the numbers of applications is down from initial January reports (2,266,778), but the number of determinations is up (2,436,879).

As with previous reports, however, these numbers are subject to so many qualifications as to be little use for determining growth of the Medicaid program. The data do not include numbers from New York and Washington, while Tennessee only reported CHIP data. They are also very preliminary — the January determinations figure was revised upwards by about a fifth in February.

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Implementing Health Reform: First Marketplace Open Enrollment Ends With More Than Seven Million Enrollees


April 2nd, 2014
by Timothy Jost

The White House announced on Tuesday April 1, 2014 that as of the end of open enrollment, 11:59 p.m. on March 31, 2014, 7.1 million Americans had signed up for health plans under the Affordable Care Act. Tens of thousands more will be added from individuals who attempted to apply during the open enrollment period but were unable to complete their applications. And many more will be enrolled through special enrollment periods as they undergo life changes over the coming year.

Of course, arguments will continue as to how many of those who selected a plan will pay their premiums (which they must do before they are covered); how many were previously uninsured; and whether those who enrolled are young, healthy, and male enough to offer insurers a risk pool like that they anticipated when they set their rates. There is ample evidence that many have not yet paid, but it is reasonable to expect that the payment rate will pick up as enrollees figure out how to pay their insurers and insurers figure out who their enrollees are. There is also evidence that many of those who signed up were previously covered. Of course, one of the purposes of the ACA was to make insurance affordable, so if someone who was struggling to afford coverage (and might have had to drop it in the near future) can now afford it, that is also a success. Moreover, millions of the uninsured have also signed up for Medicaid and some have also obtained coverage in the individual market outside the exchange or from their employer. Finally, the size of the risk pool suggests that it is reasonably balanced demographically.

In any event, 7 million enrollees was the number that has constantly been held up as the unobtainable goal for the exchanges, and it has been reached–indeed surpassed. Pictures all over the web today of long lines and full waiting rooms of people eager to enroll in coverage demonstrate that in fact people want health care coverage and the ACA is allowing them to get covered.

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Health Reform And Criminal Justice: Advancing New Opportunities


April 1st, 2014
by Chris Fleming

Community Oriented Correctional Health Services (COCHS) and Health Affairs invite you to join thought leaders from public safety, health care, philanthropy, and all levels of government to further explore the intersection of health reform and criminal justice. As implementation of the Affordable Care Act continues, it is time to take stock of how far we have come in addressing the needs of the jail population through policy and planning, and to set our direction for the future.

This national event will take place on Thursday, April 3, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., at the Columbus Club in Union Station, Washington, D.C. It is being organized with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Jacob & Valeria Langeloth Foundation, and Public Welfare Foundation. Registration for in-person attendance is closed, but a live webcast is available.

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Health Policy Leader Alan Weil To Become New Health Affairs Editor-in-Chief


March 31st, 2014
by Chris Fleming

Health Affairs and its publisher Project HOPE are pleased to announce that Alan Weil will become the journal’s new editor-in-chief on June 2, 2014.

Weil, a highly respected expert in health policy and current member of Health Affairs’ editorial board, will lead the journal after serving as the executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP) since 2004. His work with state policymakers of both political parties put Weil at the forefront of health reform policy, implementation, innovation, and practice. Prior to his leadership of NASHP, he served in both the public and private sectors. He directed the Urban Institute’s “Assessing New Federalism” project; served as the executive director of the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing and a health policy advisor to Colorado’s then-governor, Roy Romer; and was the assistant general counsel in the Massachusetts Department of Medical Security.

“We’re delighted to welcome Alan to the Project HOPE family,” said John P. Howe III, M.D., President and CEO of Project HOPE. “He comes to Health Affairs with more than 24 years of experience in health policy development and a stellar record of leadership and innovation in this field. I’m confident he will lead the journal’s talented staff on a new and successful path forward. I am extremely grateful to John Iglehart, the Founding Editor of Health Affairs for his stewardship of the journal for more than 25 years, ensuring its coveted rank as the leading health policy journal of our time.”

“Alan Weil’s extensive background in health and health care policy will serve him well in his new role as Health Affairs’ editor-in-chief,” noted John Iglehart, who currently leads the journal. “With his position on the front lines of health system change, he is an experienced leader who has deep familiarity with and longstanding connections to the health policy, research, and health care leadership communities. In particular, in his role as NASHP’s executive director, Alan worked on complex issues of critical importance to leaders in state and federal government and the private sector. This background will serve Health Affairs well as it continues to grow in influence both in the US and globally.”

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Exhibit Of The Month: More HIV Testing With Medicaid Expansion


March 28th, 2014
by Tracy Gnadinger

Editor’s note: This is the second post in the new “Exhibit of the Month” series. Readers who’d like to highlight other noteworthy exhibits from the same issue are encouraged to make their pitch in the comments section below.

This month’s exhibit examines the potential impact of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion on HIV testing from 2013-2017, comparing a nationwide eligibility expansion with one limited to the eighteen states that had committed to expansion as of July 2013.

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A March Madness Health Wonk Review


March 27th, 2014
by Chris Fleming

Welcome to the “March Madness” edition of the Health Wonk Review. The NCAA college basketball tournament seemed like a natural theme for a health care policy blog post: huge amounts of money floating around in ways that only sometimes correlate with performance, and head-to-head match-ups that can yield results no one expected (though in the tournament those unexpected results produce quicker and more certain changes than is often the case in health care).

We considered illustrating each blog post with pictures of a college basketball team from the author’s home state celebrating a championship, but we thought better of that after seeing this cautionary tale. So let’s get to the great collection of posts from our Wonkers.

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Implementing Health Reform: Additional Enrollment Opportunities And ACA Litigation (Updated)


March 26th, 2014
by Timothy Jost

On March 26, 2014, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services drew the 2014 open enrollment period toward a close with a flourish, releasing a series of guidance documents regarding opportunities that remain to enroll in coverage after the open enrollment period. The Department of the Treasury also released a guidance, a fact sheet, and letter addressing the situation of domestic violence victims who apply for premium tax credits but are unable to file taxes jointly, as generally required by the ACA.

Extended Enrollment Opportunities

The first CMS Guidance addresses the situation of people waiting “in line” for enrollment in the federally facilitated marketplace or exchange (FFM) on the final day of the 2014 open enrollment period, March 31. CMS anticipates that application traffic will be very high during the last week of open enrollment—over a million individuals visited healthcare.gov on Monday, March 24. Individuals who applied by March 31, but did not complete their application, will be allowed to complete it—effectively given a special enrollment period to finish enrolling. CMS does not specify how long consumers may continue to do so beyond saying that they will have a “limited amount of additional time.” If applicants pay their first month’s premium by the time required by their insurer, they will be able to being coverage on May 1.

Paper applications that are received by April 7, or that were filed by March 31 but uncompleted because they were pending submission or review of documents, can also be approved for coverage beginning May 1 for consumers who choose a plan by April 30. Consumers who take advantage of this special enrollment period may also apply for a hardship exemption to avoid paying the individual responsibility tax for the additional month they are uninsured. The guidance applies only to the FFM, but it clarifies that state based marketplaces can apply similar policies.

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HA Web First: New Medicaid Recipients Healthier Than Pre-ACA Enrollees


March 26th, 2014
by Tracy Gnadinger

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) gives states the option of expanding Medicaid coverage to individuals and families with incomes of up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. A new study, being released today as a Web First by Health Affairs, used simulation methods to compare nondisabled adults enrolled in Medicaid before the ACA with newly eligible adults and those previously eligible but not enrolled in the program.

According to the study’s analysis, both the newly eligible and those not previously enrolled were healthier than the pre-ACA Medicaid enrollees. Authors Steven Hill, Salam Abdus, Julie Hudson, and Thomas Selden found that the pattern of results was similar for physical and mental health. They also determined that in states not expanding Medicaid under the ACA, adults in the income range for the law’s Medicaid expansion were healthier than pre-ACA enrollees.

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Health Insurance Coverage Is Just The First Step: Findings From Massachusetts


March 26th, 2014

As the rollout of coverage expansions under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) continues across the country, more Americans are gaining insurance coverage, with all the benefits that that implies in terms of health care access and financial protections. However, if, as President Obama has argued, affordable health care is a cornerstone of economic security for American families, findings from a survey of Massachusetts residents suggest that insurance coverage alone will not be enough.

Since its 2006 health reform initiative, Massachusetts has had the nation’s highest level of insurance coverage. But though there have been improvements in access to health care and health care affordability, insurance coverage has not eliminated the burden of high health care costs for Massachusetts families.

Health care costs are a problem for many insured adults. In 2012, more than one-third (38.7 percent) of Massachusetts adults with health insurance coverage for all of the past year reported problems with health care costs, with the level much higher for low-income insured adults (41.6 percent for those with family income at or below 138 percent of the poverty line—the income eligibility standard for the Medicaid expansion under the ACA) and middle-income insured adults (49.5 percent for those with income from 139 to 399 percent of poverty—the income group targeted by the new health insurance Marketplaces). Insured adults in Massachusetts report going without needed health care, cutting back on other spending, reducing savings, and taking on debt to deal with health care costs.

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The ACA’s Contraception Coverage Mandate: Constitutional Limits On Exempting Employers


March 20th, 2014
by John Kraemer

On March 25, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments over whether the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) requirement that for-profit companies cover contraception—commonly called the contraception mandate—is legal.  Thus far, most public debate, scholarship, and litigation over the ACA’s contraception mandate has focused on two questions: whether for-profit corporations are entitled to religious protections, and does the mandate so intrude on religious practice that the law should accommodate companies’ beliefs through an exemption from the law?

There is, however, a different, equally important question: to what extent does the law permit religious accommodations to impose health burdens on third parties?  Failing to accommodate owners’ religious objections to the contraception mandate will impede their sincere religious beliefs, but accommodating them will limit workers’ access to contraception and increase the frequency of unintended pregnancy and abortion.

Ours is a society that, in embracing Constitutional rule of law, protects the right to worship freely (or not at all) and simultaneously seeks to govern collectively for the public’s health and welfare.  Exemptions from the contraception coverage mandate place these values in tension.  When, however, the law creates religious accommodations that subordinate third parties’ important interests to someone else’s religious beliefs, the law violates the Constitution’s Establishment Clause and should be invalidated. 

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Why Are Hispanics Slow To Enroll In ACA Coverage? Insights From The Health Reform Monitoring Survey


March 18th, 2014

As the end of the ACA’s first open enrollment period approaches, there is a big push to get as many uninsured people signed up for coverage as possible. As of March 1, 2014, more than 4.2 million people had enrolled in a plan through a federal or state health insurance Marketplace, with 2.1 million having enrolled since January 1 alone. An additional 2.4 to 3.5 million people have enrolled in Medicaid through January 2014 as a result of the ACA.

However, recent media reports indicate that one group with historically high rates of uninsurance—Hispanics—have been slow to sign up for coverage so far, particularly in California. Low levels of Marketplace participation among this group and a delayed and poorly translated Spanish-language version of HealthCare.gov could explain, in part, why President Obama appeared at a town-hall-style event last week hosted by Univision and Telemundo, the nation’s two largest Spanish-language television networks.

Estimates from the Urban Institute’s Health Reform Monitoring Survey (HRMS) shed some light on why Hispanics might have low levels of Marketplace participation so far, and what policies may be needed to increase their enrollment in health plans or Medicaid.

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Incarceration And Release From Jail: Improving Re-integration Into Society Using A Health Information Exchange


March 17th, 2014
by Jeffrey Brenner

Editor’s note: This post is coauthored by Mary Darby, vice president for health policy at Burness Communications, working on issues related to health care and jails.

In the Narrative Matters essay, “To Improve Public Health And Safety, One Sheriff Looks Beyond The Jail Walls,” published in the March issue of Health Affairs, Michael Ashe, sheriff of Hampden County in Massachusetts, describes the county’s efforts to help break the cycle of reincarceration by ensuring inmates get quality health care in and out of jail. Here, Jeffrey Brenner reflects on efforts to bring jails in Camden, N.J., into a health information exchange.   

Camden, N.J., is one of the nation’s poorest cities, with 38.6 percent of the population below the poverty line in 2010, according to Census Data.  With profound poverty comes a host of other problems, including high levels of crime, violence, pollution, and illness.  People here struggle to maintain decent health, and often it is a losing battle.

One day in 2002, at the family medicine practice in Camden where I worked, I opened an envelope from the Camden County jail.  It contained a letter from a patient, “James,” who told me he’d wound up in jail, a result of some bad choices on his part.  I knew James and his family quite well.  I’d seen his wife for prenatal care when she was pregnant and given his kids their routine well-child checkups.  James himself was a poorly controlled asthmatic with seizure disorder, so I had seen him pretty regularly in the clinic.

James’ letter distressed me.  He said that his asthma and allergies, already severe, were getting worse.  In addition to being sick, he felt overwhelmed, depressed, and afraid.  After reading his letter, I called the jail to find out what was happening.

Although the staff people with whom I spoke were very nice, I found it difficult to get the information I needed – and to share the important information I had concerning James’ medical history with the appropriate personnel.  After all, James had two potentially serious chronic conditions, and he took several medications.  The health care providers in the jail didn’t know James’ medical history and they didn’t know what medications he was taking.  They also had no connection to the primary care provider who knew him best: me.

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Continuous Coverage Improves Costs And Quality For Children And Low-Income Adults


March 13th, 2014
by Paul Cotton

The termination of Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) coverage due to short-term income changes or frequent reapplication requirements increases overall health care costs and negatively affects quality of care and quality measurement and improvement efforts. This may have a significant yet commonly overlooked impact on income-related health care disparities. By requiring at least twelve months of continuous coverage, we could prevent avoidable complications, reduce administrative burden, improve quality measurement and improvements efforts, and ultimately, reduce costs.

Current Medicaid Coverage Costs

One year of continuous adult Medicaid coverage costs, on average, 22 percent less per month than six months of coverage, and 42 percent less than just one month of coverage. That is because people who lose coverage have more emergency room visits, hospital admissions, and preventable problems such as the onset of asthma and diabetes; they also have more problems that could have been managed with ambulatory care and lower rates of cancer screening and early detection. Current re-enrollment requirements also contribute to additional administrative costs that will increase as people toggle back and forth between Medicaid/CHIP and the individual health insurance exchanges.

Less than twelve months of coverage also directly harms quality measurement and improvement efforts. Because accurate measurement requires at least twelve months of coverage, those with shorter coverage periods are excluded from performance evaluation. Most Healthcare Effectiveness Data & Information Set (HEDIS is a registered trademark of NCQA) measures, for example, require evaluation of at least twelve months of claims or record reviews to ascertain whether appropriate services were provided in a timely manner. As a result, plans and providers may not have enough people on which to report and do not get credit for high quality.

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Covered California: The Foundation of Obamacare, Success, Challenges, And The Road Ahead


March 13th, 2014
 
by Richard Scheffler and Jessica Foster

Editor’s note: This post is also coauthored by Jessica Foster, an MPH Candidate in Health Policy & Management at the University of California, Berkeley.

As the end of the open enrollment period on March 31 draws near, the Covered California state health insurance exchange is engaged in a final push for enrollees that will bring it beyond its baseline enrollment goals, launching a new advertising campaign and resolving application issues caused by a software glitch in February.

Throughout the open enrollment period, salient points and concerns have been raised about enrollment numbers, access to care, plan affordability, and benefit design in marketplace plans. These issues are being closely monitored and evaluated in California – the state which has the largest pool of subsidy-eligible individuals and accounted for 23 percent of national enrollments in 2013 – and are being discussed in forums nationwide.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation briefing and panel discussion, “Affordable Care Act: A Spotlight on California,” discussed the importance of Covered California as a barometer of the success of the Affordable Care Act, and released a snapshot of California coverage at the outset of health reform implementation.

“California is a giant state with a big and diverse uninsured population that has embraced the law, has political will, has money for outreach, … and has been out front implementing the Affordable Care Act,” said Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation in the briefing.  “So both its successes and its challenges, they really matter for other states, and they really matter for the country.”

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Health Affairs Web First: Medicaid/Marketplace ‘Churning’ State-By-State


March 12th, 2014
by Tracy Gnadinger

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires almost all Americans to have health insurance. For most lower-income Americans, this means coverage through Medicaid, employer-sponsored insurance, or health exchanges, depending on their income and state of residence. Approximately half of all low-income, non-elderly Americans experience a change of income or family circumstance in a given year, which may result in an involuntary shift in how they are covered from health insurance purchased through an exchange to Medicaid — or vice versa. This process, called “churning,” could lead to both gaps in coverage and disruptions in the continuity of care.

A new study released today as a Web First by Health Affairs provides state-by-state estimates of churning. Using data from two Census Bureau sources — its 2008 Survey of Income and Program Participation, and American Community Surveys from 2009–2011 — Benjamin Sommers, John Graves, Katherine Swartz, and Sara Rosenbaum found that every state is likely to have significant numbers of residents whose eligibility changes over time: at least 40 percent of eligible adults over the course of twelve months. They observed that higher-income states and states with more generous Medicaid eligibility criteria in place before the ACA’s expansion experienced a higher rate of churning, although differences between states were small. (The authors’ analysis assumes that all states had expanded Medicaid under health reform. At the moment, twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have done so.)

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New Health Affairs: ACA’s Impact On Americans With HIV/AIDS And Jail-Involved Individuals


March 3rd, 2014
by Chris Fleming

Health Affairs’ March issue, released today, explores how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could affect two key sectors of the population with unique public health needs—those living with HIV/AIDS and people who have recently cycled through local jails.

When it comes to HIV treatment, timing is everything. Dana Goldman of the University of Southern California and coauthors modeled HIV transmission and prevention based on when HIV-positive individuals started combination antiretroviral treatment (cART). They estimate that from 1996-2009, early treatment initiation in the US prevented 188,700 HIV cases and avoided $128 billion in life expectancy losses.

The authors highlight treatment at “very early” stages (when CD4 white blood cell counts are greater than 500, consistent with current treatment guidelines in the US) as responsible for four-fifths of prevented cases. Early treatment both reduces morbidity and mortality in people living with HIV/AIDS, and decreases the transmission of the disease to the uninfected. Goldman and coauthors conclude that early treatment has clear value for both HIV-positive and HIV-negative populations in the US.

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How Many Nongroup Policies Were Canceled? Estimates From December 2013


March 3rd, 2014
 
by Lisa Clemans-Cope and Nathaniel Anderson

Editor’s note: This post is co-authored by Lisa Clemans-Cope and Nathaniel Anderson of the Urban Institute.

Last fall, news reports focused on consumer discontent over “cancellation” notices of health insurance policies that did not meet the new minimum standards under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but it’s difficult to determine exactly how many consumers were affected.  Starting in 2014, most non-group health insurance plans and small employer group plans must offer a minimum set of benefits and consumer protections—for example, plans must not exclude coverage of pre-existing conditions and must offer minimal coverage of certain health benefits such as prescription drugs.

Prior to reform, the nongroup health insurance market suffered from a number of shortcomings, such as benefit exclusions, denials of coverage, premiums that varied greatly by health status, benefit limits, high cost-sharing, and lack of information on plan benefits and design prior to purchase. The new minimum benefit standards and consumer protections work together with additional insurance market provisions that took effect in 2010, expansions of Medicaid eligibility, and income-based subsidies in the new health insurance Marketplaces. Together, these new reforms expanded coverage options for millions of people, and raised minimum benefits and consumer protections for millions more.

Among nongroup plans offered in 2013 that were not compliant with ACA standards, some were amended, some were cancelled, and some were granted “grandfathered” status and are not required to comply with the new rules if enrollees were holding the policy continuously before and since the passage of the ACA and insurers did not substantially change benefits or costs. Some insurers, however, chose to cancel policies that would otherwise have been legally grandfathered for business reasons, such as low enrollment or an enrollee group with high average cost, leading to unsustainable premiums. In fact, the non-group market has historically been highly volatile, with just 17 percent retaining coverage for more than two years.

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