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ACA Insurance in the Time of COVID-19

The urgency of the pandemic ushered in important changes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), including a steep reduction in premiums for health insurance policies purchased on the state and federal exchanges through the end of 2022. Now Congress is debating reforms such as making the larger premium subsidies permanent and broadening the reach of the federal-state Medicaid program beyond the expansion introduced in the 2010 ACA.

We spoke with Tyson Lester, an independent insurance agent in southern California, about what the changes so far have meant for consumers. Tyson is licensed to sell policies in California, Florida, and Texas.

Tyson LesterTyson Lester

Has the Affordable Care Act promoted disease prevention and care during the pandemic?

Some of the best feedback we got from our clients was about using the telehealth and remote options in their policies. It’s been an option for quite some time, but it was utilized more frequently during COVID-19. People were able to access primary care physicians, receive consultation and be diagnosed with COVID over the phone. It was amazing. It helped them because: 1) they were able to just make a phone call; 2) they were able to receive good consultation; and 3) if testing was necessary, they were able to go to a testing facility.

In response to COVID, did you see a rush into ACA policies last year?

ACA enrollment increased last year, but consumers’ response to the pandemic was mixed. In 2020, 12 states and Washington D.C. temporarily reopened their health insurance exchanges but people didn’t have the additional premium assistance to make it more affordable. In the remaining states, working people who lacked employer health insurance didn’t have the ACA as another option for coverage when the pandemic hit.

As for the workers who did have employer health insurance last year but then lost their jobs, they had to make a tough decision between whether they wanted to elect their employer’s COBRA, which is expensive, go uninsured, or go on the insurance exchange. But many people weren’t fully aware of the ACA’s longstanding option: when someone loses group health insurance from their employer, they can buy what’s known as a special enrollment ACA plan. In Texas, for example, part of the reason for last year’s increase in the uninsured population, in the midst of COVID-19, was that people who lost their jobs – and their employer coverage – weren’t even aware the ACA exchanges were available to them. We actually put a flyer together for this specific topic last year, because it was so important.

In March, the American Rescue Plan significantly increased the ACA premium subsidies through December 2022. What has been the effect?

For anybody who was previously enrolled, the American Rescue Plan significantly reduced premiums in California, Texas, and Florida and potentially their total out-of-pocket costs. As a result of the larger subsidies, I saw an influx of new customers throughout this year on California’s exchange, which – unlike most other states – opened a special enrollment for all of 2021. Earlier this year, the federal exchange opened, which caused an influx of customers too. This is where Texas, Florida and many other states sell their ACA policies. All states on the federal exchange shut down again in August but will reopen for 2022 in November. …
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Healthcare Deductibles: the Burden Grows

At $140 billion, the nation’s unpaid medical bills are the single largest form of past due debt. One thing driving this is no doubt rising deductibles for health insurance.

Health Insurance CartoonA third of insured Americans said in a survey that it is difficult to pay the deductibles in their employer health insurance plans and in the policies sold on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplaces.

Among employer-sponsored insurance plans, policies with high deductibles are becoming more pervasive, even in large corporations. Employers are choosing high-deductible plans in part to keep their workers’ monthly premiums at a reasonable level – a tradeoff that is inherent in health insurance.

But the sky-high cost of medical care can quickly run-up out-of-pocket spending in years when someone in the family becomes very ill or needs surgery. Average deductibles exceed $3,000 for a single worker’s policy in half of the U.S. companies with less than 200 workers. The family plan deductibles exceed $6,000 in more than 40 percent of small companies.

ACA plan deductibles are rising in almost every state and have surpassed $4,000 per year, on average, in 11 states from Arizona and Michigan to Oregon. A variety of plans are available on the exchanges, including plans with lower deductibles for people willing to pay higher premiums. But ACA premiums have also been rising, though the federal government has temporarily increased the premium subsidies as part of COVID-19 relief.

New research appearing in the July issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) estimates that medical bills made up more than half of all the consumer debt in collections last year. And the data are through June 2020 and don’t even reflect the full cost of caring for COVID patients. …Learn More

Family under an umbrella

5 Million Families Caught in an ACA Glitch

The states’ health insurance marketplaces will sell subsidized family policies to workers who have employer coverage on one condition: their employer premiums are deemed unaffordable.

But this condition has a quirk. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a worker is eligible to buy a subsidized family plan only if he can’t afford his employer’s premiums for an individual policy, defined in the law as exceeding 9.83 percent of his income. Policymakers argue this is the wrong standard, because the ineligible worker needs a family policy, and employers’ family policies usually have much higher premiums than their individual policies.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates some 5.1 million workers are in this predicament, which is known as the “family glitch.”

The majority of workers who are not eligible for the ACA’s family coverage are buying the policies at work, and they spend an average of 16 percent of their income on premiums, Kaiser said. The people who can’t afford the employer insurance are forced to go without.

Tina Marie Mueller’s family is caught in the family glitch. She recently wrote in Health Affairs that her husband pays $1,500 per month for employer health insurance for the family, including their two children. “So, after paying for our family insurance, my husband brings home $400/wk,” Mueller said. “We are beyond frustrated that this part of the ACA hasn’t been fixed.”

The COVID relief package passed in March did temporarily expand access to the exchanges for more middle-class Americans by dramatically increasing the premium subsidies. But “people in the family glitch will still not be helped,” said Krutika Amin, a health care expert at the Kaiser Foundation. …Learn More

ACA Eased the Financial Burden on Families

Woman and baby at the doctors

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has reduced families’ medical costs significantly.

The ACA’s main goal was to provide coverage for the first time to workers who lack employer health insurance. But the expansion of free or subsidized health care to millions of parents with low and modest incomes has improved their financial stability and freed up money for their families’ other critical needs, concluded a new University of California at Davis study.

The main way the ACA expanded coverage was by giving states the option of providing Medicaid to workers earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The law also increased the number of children with health insurance, because federal and state outreach during the Medicaid expansion raised parents’ awareness of two separate insurance programs that had long been available to children: Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. To help families with modest incomes, the health care law put a cap on their annual medical spending.

Prior to the ACA’s passage, out-of-pocket medical costs were a high financial burden for 15 percent of U.S. families. That has fallen to about 10 percent of families in the years since passage, the researchers said.

What qualifies as a high cost burden depends on the family’s income. One example: the researchers determined that a family earning $75,000 had a high cost burden if they paid more than 8.35 percent of their income for out-of-pocket deductibles and copayments.

However, the study is not a current picture of the situation, because it was based on data from health care spending surveys in 2000 through 2017, prior to the pandemic. During the past year, millions of people were laid off and lost their employer health insurance when they may need it most.

But the ACA’s benefits are clear, the researchers said. Another aspect of the reform was to allow workers who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid to purchase subsidized private health insurance on the state exchanges. The law capped the total that workers spend on health care – once they reach the cap, their care is fully covered. …Learn More