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Implementing Health Reform: The Latest Affordable Care Act Coverage Numbers


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: Changing Focus, And Changing Leadership, At HHS (Updated)


April 11th, 2014
by Timothy Jost

With the March 31, 2014 deadline for applying for qualified health plan coverage through the health insurance exchanges behind us, and the April 15, 2014 deadline for completing those applications upon us, Affordable Care Act implementation has quieted considerably. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have been very active on the Medicare front, releasing in recent days their 2015 Medicare Advantage Rate Announcement and Call Letter and publishing data on Medicare payments to 880,000 Medicare providers. But on the exchange and insurance market reform side, CMS has only one major proposed rule pending at this time, the Exchange and Insurance Market Standards Rule proposed in March, and nothing pending for regulatory review at the Office of Management and Budget.

I am unaware of any major regulatory issuances expected in the immediate future from the Departments of Treasury or Labor, although Treasury does have a number of proposed rules on the table that have yet to be finalized dealing with issues such as minimum value of employer coverage or premium tax credit reporting requirements for exchanges.

On April 10, the media reported two major Health and Human Services developments. First, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced at a Senate Hearing that 7.5 million Americans have now signed up for health plans through the exchanges. Although opponents of the ACA continue to quibble about how many of these individuals have actually paid their premiums and how many were uninsured previously, the number far exceeds earlier estimates of how many would enroll in health insurance through the exchanges. A recently released Rand survey, which does not fully take into account the late surge that increased exchange enrollment by over 70 percent in the last month, indicates that in fact the ACA has made a significant dent in the number of uninsured in the United States.

The second announcement was of the resignation of Secretary Sebelius herself, and of the nomination of Sylvia Mathews Burwell as her replacement.

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Medicare Advantage Rolls On


April 11th, 2014
by Billy Wynne

Monday afternoon, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released the final rates and other reimbursement policies for Medicare Advantage (MA) plans, referred to as the Final Call Letter. Once again, the Administration took pains to ameliorate planned cuts to MA, demonstrating the program’s increasing popularity with seniors and, by extension, its robust political strength.

For my money, we’ll look back at this year as the final hurdle the program jumped on its path to dominating the Medicare benefit for a generation to come. It’s already well on its way, covering 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries and growing. So let’s take a quick tour of the MA program’s initially volatile history and the winning streak it’s been on of late, culminating with the breaks the Administration cut it this go round.

The history. First there was the growth and then precipitous decline of managed care in the 90s, a wave that the program – then called Medicare+Choice – rode alongside the commercial sector.

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Clinical Nuance: Benefit Design Meets Behavioral Economics


April 3rd, 2014

On Capitol Hill, there’s a growing chorus of support from both sides of the aisle to move the focus of health care payment incentives from volume to value. Earlier this month, legislators introduced proposals that would have fixed the sustainable growth rate in Medicare, as well as made other changes, including allowing for clinical nuance in Medicare benefit designs. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, too, is embracing this trend, recently asking for partners in a demonstration project to used value-based arrangements in benefit design. These efforts of policymakers and agencies to innovate Medicare’s benefit design are crucial both for the health of seniors and to ensure value in the Medicare program.

The concept of clinical nuance, implemented using value-based insurance design (V-BID), is a key innovation already widely implemented in the private and public payers. It recognizes two important facts about the provision of medical care: 1) medical services differ in the amount of health produced, and 2) the clinical benefit derived from a medical service depends on who is using it, who is delivering the service, and where it is being delivered.

Today’s Medicare beneficiaries face little clinical nuance in their benefit structure. Medicare largely uses a “one-size-fits-all” structure that does not recognize that some treatments, drugs or tests are more important to health than others. Not only does it create inefficiencies in the health system, it can actually harm the health of beneficiaries.

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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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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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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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Nine Questions About My New Medical Home


March 17th, 2014
by Matthew Anderson

Sometime in the past five years — it’s hard for me to say exactly when — I suddenly found myself living in a new home. I must admit I am still a bit disoriented by how this happened. But it did. People keep telling me that everything will be ok but I am not entirely sure.

For example, in my old home we had occasional family meetings; things are different now. We now have weekly (and monthly) meetings. The many new administrators ask us to complete personality surveys. Once we had to figure out what items we should take from a sinking yacht in the South Pacific (hint: the $100 bill will be useful). Another time we had to decide if we were a “Wow” or a “Thinker.” We are asked to figure out how we can do a better job for them. I guess, like all forms of therapy you don’t get better unless you change.

Despite all these meetings there are a series of things I still don’t understand. I am afraid to raise my hand at the meetings and give the impression I’m a bad sport so I have written my questions down. Please, please don’t think I am a Luddite who wants to go back to the old home. In fact, what I dislike most about the new home is precisely the way — even in its differences — it resembles the old home.

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Implementing Health Reform: Exchange And Insurance Market Standards Proposed Rule


March 16th, 2014
by Timothy Jost

On March 14, 2014, the Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, published a proposed rule titled “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: Exchange and Insurance Market Standards.” The rule was accompanied by a bulletin on product discontinuance, one of the issues addressed by the rule. The proposed rule was one of a number of March 14 ACA issuances, the rest of which were addressed in earlier posts.

The Exchange and Insurance Market Standards proposed rule addresses a grab bag of issues that all relate loosely to exchanges or to the ACA’s insurance market reforms. Some of these — like QHP quality reporting — are issues that HHS had failed to address earlier because these issues did not rise to the urgency of other issues that needed to be resolved immediately for health reform to proceed. Others — like regulation of navigators — are issues that had been addressed earlier, but where it has become apparent that mid-course corrections are necessary. Still others, like modifications in the premium stabilization programs, are issues that have arisen in the unfolding course of events as problems developed in implementation.

Most of the issues are largely unrelated to one another; thus this description of the rule will proceed like the rule itself, addressing seriatim a catalog of largely unrelated issues. (A list of topics addressed by the rule is included in a note at the end of this post.)

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Implementing Health Reform: Ryan White Third-Party Payments, 2015 Letter To Issuers, And Other ACA Developments


March 15th, 2014
by Timothy Jost

On March 14, 2014, the Department of Health and Human Services released a flood of regulations, proposed regulations, and guidance addressing a host of Affordable Care Act implementation issues. From all indications, HHS has cleared the decks of all the regulatory issuances it had under consideration– nothing involving ACA implementation remains pending at the Office of Management and Budget. Perhaps someone made a promise that all would be completed by the end of the winter (or by Saint Patrick’s Day). More likely the necessity of having the ground rules for 2015 in place so that insurers could proceed with their 2015 forms and rates, and states with approving them, drove the deluge. In any event, it will take several posts to cover it all.

Yesterday’s post covered a notice on extending the federal preexisting condition high risk pool and a frequently asked questions document on coverage of same-sex spouses. The Internal Revenue Service also released a set of general Tax Tips for Same-Sex Couples (which covers general tax information and will not be discussed here), while HHS issued a blog post summarizing its frequently asked questions document.

This post will cover several other issuances released late in the day on March 14, 2014. These include an interim final rule (with comment period) dealing with third party payments for qualified health plans (QHPs) and stand-alone dental plans (SADPs); the 2015 final annual letter to issuers in the federally facilitated marketplace; a set of frequently asked questions on retroactive coverage, and a set of frequently asked questions on the use of exchange grants and no-cost extensions.

A final post will examine a proposed rule on exchange and insurance standards for 2015 and beyond and an accompanying bulletin on product discontinuance.

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Implementing Health Reform: The 2015 Health Insurance Marketplace Blueprints And More ACA News


March 14th, 2014
by Timothy Jost

In its final 2015 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) noted that state applications to operate exchanges for 2015 would be due on June 30, 2014. On March 7, 2014, CMS released at its Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) website the blueprints that states are to use to apply to operate an exchange (called a marketplace in the blueprint). The PRA listing also includes a helpful crosswalk between the proposed and final blueprint.

This post discusses these blueprints as well as other news related to Affordable Care Act implementation, such as an additional one-month extension of coverage in the federal Preexisting Condition High Risk Pool.

The biggest change in the 2015 blueprint is that plan management state partnership exchanges are no longer available. States that decide to assist in plan management functions will do so on an ad hoc basis and are not required to file a blueprint. This change apparently recognizes the reality that many of the states assisting in plan management are not able politically to identify themselves as partners, and thus there is little point in requiring some to do so and not others. States do also not need to file a blueprint regarding their decision on whether to use the federal exchange to assess or determine Medicaid eligibility.

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A Lifetime Value-Based Proposal For Medicare Payment Reform


March 14th, 2014
by Zhou Yang

urrent Medicare reform policy proposals mainly focus on lowering annual cost or cost increase per capita, but they fail to recognize Medicare as a lifetime plan that covers each beneficiary from age 65 to death. I propose a Lifetime Value-Based Payment Plan (LVBPP) for Medicare reform. LVBPP aims to achieve efficient use of the government contribution to Medicare for each beneficiary from age 65 to death and features shared responsibility among beneficiaries, providers, and federal government.

LVBPP includes six major components to create incentives for chronic disease prevention and efficient use of medical care resources by promoting market-based competition on quality of care and innovations in medical technology and care delivery models. Preliminary results indicate that LVBPP could lead to better health in terms of longer longevity and lower disability rate, save up to $70 billion over 10 years, and save up to $164 billion for the federal government over the lifetime of the cohort of upcoming beneficiaries age 55 to 59, as of the 2010 census. (The bases for these savings estimates, as well as suggested values for the expenditure thresholds and copayment rates involved in LVBPP, are provided in the Simulation Appendix below.)

The challenge. There is wide consensus that chronic disease is the leading cause of mortality and rapidly increasing health care costs in the US. Lifestyle choices have been found to be a major factor behind the increasing prevalence of chronic disease. It is estimated that 60 percent of deaths and 70 percent of health care spending in the US are related to lifestyle choices. However, despite volumes of science-based clinical trial results demonstrating positive effects of behavioral change on patients’ long-term well-being, and continuous public media campaigns promoting lifestyle change, there is no sign of reduction in the prevalence rate of chronic disease in the US population.

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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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Implementing Health Reform: A February Exchange Enrollment Report


March 12th, 2014
by Timothy Jost

On March 11, 2014, the Department of Health and Human Services released its Health Insurance Marketplace March Enrollment Report covering the period of October 1, 2013 through March 1, 2014. The Report covers, that is to say, five of the six months of the 2014 open enrollment period, which ends on March 31, 2014.

As of March 1, 4,242,300 individuals had selected a health plan through the federal and state exchanges, including 1,621,239 who signed up through the state exchanges and 2,621,086 who signed up through the federal exchange. New plan selections were down somewhat in February, with 942,000 individuals selecting a plan as compared to 1,146,000 in January, but February was a short month and the January report included a few days from December, so this does not necessarily indicate a drop in momentum.

There is every reason to believe, moreover, that enrollment will climb sharply in March, the last month of open enrollment. Experience with programs with open enrollment periods, such as Medicare Part D, Massachusetts Commonwealth Care, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program indicates that people tend to put off signing up for coverage until the last moment. During the 2012 FEHBP open enrollment period, 22 percent of those who changed enrollment did so in the last two days. The administration and partner organizations are also continuing to ramp up enrollment efforts, while exchanges continue to expand capacity.

It is quite likely, therefore, that the exchanges will sign up 6 million individuals—the revised Congressional Budget Office estimate—by March 31, perhaps more. Moreover, even after March 31, millions of additional Americans will qualify for special enrollment periods, for example because they lose Medicaid or employer coverage; thus, the total number of enrollees could easily exceed CBO estimates by the end of 2014.

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