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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

drug treatment artwork

Aging Minorities Struggle in Drug Treatment

For baby boomers who have abused drugs or alcohol for years or decades, the negative health consequences of addiction are particularly damaging.

But information about older Americans’ success in substance abuse programs is sparse, even though people between 55 and 75 now make up 22 percent of all U.S. overdose deaths, up from 9 percent in the late 1990s. And virtually no racial breakdown of treatment outcomes is available for this age group.

A new study by Jevay Grooms at Howard University and Alberto Ortega at Indiana University fills this gap. The researchers find that the number of older Black, white and Hispanic Americans admitted to treatment facilities and programs is steadily increasing.

The biggest growth in Black admissions was in cocaine and heroin treatment, while the rise for whites was concentrated in prescription opioids and alcohol treatment. The largest increase for Hispanics was for heroin addiction.

Amid rising admissions, however, the share of people 50 and older who completed treatment has generally trended down for each group during the period of this analysis, 2006 through 2017, though the rates bounce around quite a bit from year to year.

To gauge how each group fared over the period, the analysis controlled for various factors that determine success or failure, including education levels, employment status, and past attempts at treatment.

Older Blacks – and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics – are not as likely as older whites to successfully finish a substance abuse program. One reason is that minorities are more likely to be terminated by a treatment facility or program. Just as worrisome, however, are the widening disparities in the rates of treatment completion between each older minority group and their white counterparts – even as the disparities were closing for Blacks and Hispanics under 50.

The researchers did not dissect the reasons for treatments being terminated but noted that “lack of insurance, social stigma, distrust, lack of diversity and cultural incompetence among providers” are likely contributing factors in the racial differences. …Learn More

2.2 million Workers Left Out of Medicaid

The Affordable Care Act gives a carrot to states that expand Medicaid from a health insurance program mainly for poor people to one that also includes low-income workers.

Under the 2010 law, the federal government initially paid the full cost of adding more people to the Medicaid rolls, and a large majority of states have signed up. The federal funding for new expansions dropped a bit in 2020 to 90 percent and will remain there.

Yet 11 states are holdouts and haven’t expanded their programs, leaving nearly 2.2 million workers and family caregivers in what the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities calls the Medicaid coverage gap.

Medicaid Map

The workers falling in the gap, who would qualify for coverage if their states expanded Medicaid, do not have health insurance at their places of employment and can’t afford to buy subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

The bulk of the uncovered workers are in the South, with half in Texas and Florida. Missouri had been a holdout. But last week, the Missouri Supreme Court ordered the legislature to comply with a voter ballot initiative and fund expansion of the state’s Medicaid. Expansion was also controversial in Oklahoma, but it went into effect on July 1 after voters there approved the measure.

An analysis by the Center sketched a picture of who is in the gap, based on 2019 Medicaid data, the most recent available. People of color comprised about 40 percent of the working-age population but made up 60 percent of the people in the gap in the non-expansion states, the Center estimates.

Nationwide, one in four who lack access to Medicaid are lower-paid essential workers on the front lines during the pandemic. …Learn More

ACA Proves Itself but Race Disparity Persists

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to reject another challenge to the Affordable Care Act was widely seen as the final word: the law is here to stay.

But it was COVID-19 that underscored how important it is.

Racial disparities in uninsured populations

The federal government said nearly 10 million people signed up for Medicaid health coverage during the pandemic year that ended in January 2021. A decade after passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which expanded Medicaid to include more low-income Americans by increasing the income limit for eligibility, the new sign-ups pushed total Medicaid enrollment to a record high of 80 million.

The recent increase was largely due to the spike in sign-ups among the unemployed or workers who saw their hours reduced and lost some of their wages. The relief packages passed by Congress in March 2020 and this year encouraged Medicaid enrollment by giving states additional funding to pay medical costs and sign up more people.

Beyond Medicaid, sales of regular health insurance policies sold on the state insurance exchanges also rose last year, as COVID-19 raced through the population. A 5 percent increase in enrollment in the policies, which are often subsidized, pushed total enrollment to 12 million.

Earlier this year, the American Rescue Plan continued to shore up health coverage by reducing insurance premiums for people who buy the policies. Unfortunately, these and earlier federal supports were temporary measures put in place for the pandemic, and some progress will be reversed when the supports expire at the end of this year or next year.

Despite the recent coverage gains, it has been a bumpy ride. Prior to COVID-19, sales of ACA policies had been slowing after years of marked progress in reducing the U.S. uninsured rate. And in the states that have not expanded Medicaid to reach more residents, the uninsured rates are nearly double the rates in the expansion states – 15.5 percent vs 8.3 percent. …Learn More

Man running up the stairs

Economic Opportunity Reduces Disability

Add upward mobility – an individual’s success in surpassing parents’ economic circumstances – to the factors that can keep federal disability payments in check.

A substantial body of academic research has already established that when the economy is growing, unemployed and marginally employed people have better luck on the job market, and their applications for disability insurance start to decline.

But booms and busts aren’t the only influence on disability. A new study finds that economic conditions of a different type – the ability of low-income people to move up the economic ladder – can reduce disability by improving their health. People who earn more money tend to be healthier for a variety of reasons, ranging from access to better medical care to the lower rates of depression and obesity that exist in higher-income populations.

In a recent study, Yale University sociologist Rourke O’Brien used the data from another researcher’s study that mined IRS tax records to find people born in the 1980s to parents whose incomes were at the lower end – the 25th percentile – of the U.S. income distribution. The children were followed into adulthood to see if they earn more or less than their parents did.

It’s very difficult for children in low-income families to improve on their parent’s circumstances, but the odds are better if they grow up in areas with better schools, less inequality, and more two-parent families.

O’Brien’s research found that counties in which young adults earn more, on average, than their parents were less likely to one day report having a disability in U.S. Census surveys and less likely to be receiving disability benefits.

In a more in-depth analysis, the researcher found some evidence that upward mobility also blunts the well-known tendency of rising unemployment to increase disability applications.

Taken together, the findings indicate that whether someone ends up on disability benefits depends, at least in part, on where they grew up. …Learn More

Home Care Reform’s Outcome a Surprise

Image of nursing home staff

Medicaid pays for care for six out of 10 nursing home residents.

To reduce the program’s costs, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) encouraged states to expand the care that people over 65 can receive in their homes or through community organizations. The hope was that they would delay or – even better for them – avoid moving into a nursing home if they had easier access to medical and support services.

Many states historically did not use Medicaid funding to pay for home care. The ACA’s Balancing Incentive Payments Program required the 15 states that chose to participate in the reform, including Nevada, Texas, Florida, Illinois, and New York, to increase spending on home and community care to half of their total Medicaid budgets for long-term care. By the end of the program, the states had met their goals of more balanced spending on home care versus nursing home care.

But four years after the reform went into effect in 2011, the states’ nursing home population had not changed, compared with the states that did not expand their services, according to a University of Wisconsin study for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium. The researchers said one possible reason the reform didn’t reduce nursing home residence was that people who were never candidates for this care were the ones taking advantage of the alternative forms of care.

The analysis did find other unintended consequences of the shift in Medicaid funds to home and community care. First, somewhat more older people moved out of a family member’s house and were able to live on their own.

Second, as more people moved into their own place, costs may have increased for a different federal program: Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for low-income people. The increase had to do with how this program calculates financial assistance. SSI’s monthly benefits are based on an individual’s income. When retirees decide to live on their own, the housing, meals and other supports the family once provided are no longer counted as income. The drop in a retiree’s income means a bigger SSI check.

On the other hand, the Medicaid reform may have financial benefits for caregiving families, the researchers said.

The greater availability of home and community care for seniors – whether they live with family or on their own – frees up time for their family members to earn more money at paying jobs. …
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