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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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Part D: More Retirees Face High Drug Costs

Pharmacist selling prescriptions Several million retirees have spent so much on their prescriptions in recent years that they crossed over into the “catastrophic” phase of their Medicare drug plans.

Once catastrophic coverage kicks in, Part D drug plans require retirees to pay only 5 percent of their medication costs out of their own pockets. But there’s a catch: there is no cap on total annual spending, which can quickly rise to thousands of dollars if they need chemotherapy or a brand-name designer drug for a rare medical condition.

Juliette Cubanski, deputy director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Medicare policy program, said that could change, because proposals to place a cap on total out-of-pocket spending in Part D plans have a bipartisan tailwind behind them. Democrats in the House recently reintroduced a bill that would limit spending to $2,000. Last year, the Republican-controlled Senate Finance Committee approved a $3,100 cap, which is currently part of a Republican prescription drug bill.

Now, President Biden says he wants to limit retirees’ spending in their Part D plans. However, the bills circulating on Capitol Hill could also become tangled up in a more complex debate about a related issue: the best way to control drug prices.

A flat dollar cap – if it passes – would be simpler than the current system for determining out-of-pocket drug costs, though it would mainly help people with extraordinarily high spending. Cubanski said most people on Medicare spend less than $2,000 out-of-pocket annually.

But in a given year, she said, “that could be anybody.” And as baby boomers stampede into retirement, more people will be pushed into catastrophic coverage at a time of continually rising drug prices. …Learn More

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

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

Employers Want Help with Health Costs

The cost of employer health insurance has skyrocketed, and workers are picking up some of that growing tab. Amid employees’ grumbling, employers are loath to push more of the cost onto their workers.

That’s why the consensus view among major employers, expressed in a recent survey, sounded like a cry for help. Calling rising insurance costs “unsustainable,” the vast majority said they need help from the government either to provide alternative forms of coverage or control health care and prescription costs.

Employers “have reached their limit,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, chief executive of the Purchaser Business Group on Health, an employer advocacy organization that collaborated with the Kaiser Family Foundation on the survey.

Employers, she said, “are tired of pouring tons of money into a broken health care market that delivers uneven quality at bloated costs.”

And these are the major corporations and non-profits with more than 5,000 employees. They have some leverage to negotiate with insurers and more financial wherewithal to pay for the plans. Smaller employers – if they provide health insurance at all – pay roughly the same premiums as large employers, and their workers shoulder a larger share of the cost for family plans.

Last year, employers with more than 50 workers paid $21,342 in premiums to cover employees with family plans – that’s still 50 percent more than a decade ago, despite a recent slowdown in health care inflation, according to Kaiser.

When employers’ insurance costs rise so quickly, that squeezes out money they might use for wages and other benefits. Workers are also paying more, though each employer decides how much of the added costs to pass on to workers.

In 2020, employees paid nearly $5,600 – more than a quarter – of employers’ total costs for family plans. To curb their health insurance expenses, employers increasingly are offering high-deductible plans, and the deductibles workers pay for these plans are also rising.

The major employers said in the survey that they’re open to a range of federal policies that would either cut health care costs or get the government more involved in providing health care. …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

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Happy Holidays!

Next Tuesday – New Year’s Eve – we’ll return with a list of some of our readers’ favorite blogs of 2019. Our regular featured articles will resume Thursday, Jan. 2.

Thank you for reading and posting comments on our retirement and personal finance blog. We hope you’ll continue to be involved in the new year. …
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