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California appears headed toward bifurcated individual health insurance market in 2014

California’s individual health insurance marketplace is shaping as a bifurcated one for 2014 and beyond based on household income and whether coverage is purchased through the state’s health benefit exchange marketplace, Covered California, or outside of it.

California households earning 400 percent or less of federal poverty level will be eligible for advance tax credit subsidies that can be applied toward Covered California plan premiums.  While those with incomes above this level ($45,960 for singles; $92,200 for a family of four) can purchase unsubsidized coverage thorough state exchanges, health plans appear to be preparing to offer plans outside the exchange aimed at households earning above 400 percent of federal poverty.  Without directly referring to the Covered California plans, Charles Bacchi, executive VP of the California Association of Health Plans, said there may be more variation among these plan products than Covered California plans, which are based on standard benefit designs for each of the metal tier plan values (bronze, silver, gold and platinum).  Bacchi, who spoke on a panel of speakers at the annual State of Health Care Conference held earlier this week in Sacramento, added there may be “certain advantages” to plans purchased outside of Covered California but didn’t elaborate.

Bacchi’s comments came the same day Covered California Executive Director Peter V. Lee reported at the organization’s board meeting that plan issuers were invited to submit alternative benefit designs and those alternative plans differed significantly from the standard plan designs Covered California adopted in February, 2013.  Plan issuers and Covered California continue to negotiate to the terms of the contract that will govern qualified health plans sold in the Covered California marketplace for coverage effective in 2014.  The Covered California board has scheduled a special meeting in Sacramento for May 7 to discuss the contract.

A 2011 paper by The Commonwealth Fund warned of the possibility of higher cost individuals concentrating in the exchange market, noting that exchanges could face adverse selection if predominantly high-risk individuals and groups enroll in the exchange while younger, healthier people and groups purchase coverage in the individual or small-group markets outside of it:

This type of market-level adverse selection would primarily stem from the existence of different rules for health plans inside and outside of the exchange. If non-exchange plans are permitted greater flexibility around benefit design and rate setting, those plans could offer lower prices to attract lower-risk individuals.

While the Affordable Care Act consolidates individuals and small employers into a single state risk pool, thus barring plan issuers from segmenting their exchange population risk, adverse selection against the exchange marketplace could reduce plan issuers’ interest in exchange participation despite tax subsidies for individuals and potentially jeopardize the market’s long term viability.

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“Loophole” has potential to delay health insurance market rules, disrupt exchange marketplace in 2014

April 24, 2013 1 comment

Health insurers could have the option to take an extra year to overhaul their individual and small group offerings to meet Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requirements effective in 2014 and to decide if they want to participate in the state exchange marketplace.  Such are the startling implications of a Los Angeles Times story early this month that reported that some health plan issuers are considering waiting until 2014 to revamp their plans to comply with the law.  The Times story cites “a little-known loophole” in the Affordable Care Act “that enables health insurers to extend existing policies for nearly all of 2014.”  The story quotes Timothy Stoltzfus Jost, a law professor and health policy expert at Washington and Lee University as saying that insurers have discovered the loophole, raising the question of “how many will try to game the system.”

The likely loophole?  The Affordable Care Act qualifies certain health plan requirements as applying in “plan years beginning on after January 1, 2014.”  So when does a plan year – the key operative term – begin?  45 Code of Federal Regulations 144.103 defines “plan year” relative to employer-sponsored coverage (such as would be offered through the exchange marketplace Small Business Health Options Program) as follows:

Plan year means the year that is designated as the plan year in the plan document (emphasis added) of a group health plan, except that if the plan document does not designate a plan year or if there is no plan document, the plan year is—

(1) The deductible or limit year used under the plan;

(2) If the plan does not impose deductibles or limits on a yearly basis, then the plan year is the policy year;

(3) If the plan does not impose deductibles or limits on a yearly basis, and either the plan is not insured or the insurance policy is not renewed on an annual basis, then the plan year is the employer’s taxable year; or

(4) In any other case, the plan year is the calendar year.

For individual coverage:

Policy Year means in the individual health insurance market the 12-month period that is designated as the policy year in the policy documents (emphasis added) of the individual health insurance coverage. If there is no designation of a policy year in the policy document (or no such policy document is available), then the policy year is the deductible or limit year used under the coverage. If deductibles or other limits are not imposed on a yearly basis, the policy year is the calendar year.

Here’s my read on how the loophole might come into play.  The italicized text basically allows plan issuers to define the plan or policy year as they choose.  Theoretically, they could issue coverage on December 31, 2013 and designate it for plan or policy year 2013, thereby avoiding Affordable Care Act requirements for plan years beginning on or after January 1, 2014.

If health plan issuers opt exploit the loophole, there could well be litigation over how the relevant provisions of law are to be interpreted and applied, creating uncertainty and delay in the application of the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance market rules as well as the planned rollout of the exchange marketplace in 2014.  The uncertainty also has the potential to complicate contract negotiations currently underway between “active purchaser” state exchanges and health plans seeking qualified health plan status with those exchanges.  Plan issuers could opt to exercise the so-called loophole and issue “plan year 2013” coverage as late as December 31, 2013 if they are unable to reach negotiated contracts with these exchanges.

A study prepared for the health plan industry group America’s Health Insurance Plans by the actuarial consulting firm Milliman would appear to support the notion of having plans designated plan year 2013 still in force in 2014 and exempt from Affordable Care Act provisions such as offering essential health benefits (EHB) and minimum actuarial value of 60 percent of projected claims costs.  “The final market and rating regulation released by the (federal) HHS at the end of February made clear that individual policies can stay in place until their scheduled renewals in 2014 instead of requiring all individual plans to convert to an ACA-compliant EHB plan on January 1, 2014,” Milliman opined in its projection of factors affecting premium rates in 2014 dated April 25, 2013.

Limited tax subsidy could diminish market power of active purchaser health benefit exchanges

April 6, 2013 2 comments

An underlying economic principle of the health benefit exchange marketplace that kicks off this fall with open enrollment for 2014 is demand aggregation in the individual health insurance market.  Individuals and families who would otherwise have no negotiating power with health plan issuers will be able to pool their purchasing power via the government-chartered purchasing mechanism of the state exchanges. That power will be strongest in those states – California, Oregon, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont according to an April 1 Kaiser Family Foundation compilation – that have opted to be “active purchaser” exchanges.  Those exchanges will act as gatekeepers, using an actively managed competitive selection process to determine which plans will be offered on their exchanges — and which will not.

As voluntary markets, neither health plan issuers nor individuals are required to transact individual coverage through the state exchanges.  Therefore to help concentrate the purchasing power of individuals in the exchange marketplace, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act provides for subsidies in the form of advance tax credits applied toward plan premiums to create incentive for individuals and families not covered by employer or government-sponsored plans to purchase coverage through the exchanges.

Those subsidies are not offered for individual coverage sold outside state exchanges. And as I recently blogged, the subsidies are unavailable to those earning more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level.  Those individuals and families would have little incentive to purchase coverage in the exchanges, thus reducing the exchanges’ potential purchasing power relative to health plan issuers and by extension, their ability to bargain with plans for lower premium rates.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see how this policy manifests in states with active purchaser exchanges.  Will it lead to a bifurcated individual market where plan issuers offer products exclusively outside the exchanges aimed at a higher income demographic such as high deductible, health savings account compatible plans?  Or plans that bundle pre-paid direct primary care with insurance to cover high cost care?  (Such plans would likely also have sold in the exchanges since the Affordable Care Act specifically recognizes them as qualified health plans eligible for sale through the exchanges.)

We are the 401%: Middle class households ineligible for exchange subsidies could reignite health reform

March 30, 2013 1 comment

A little more than three years ago, steep premium increases in California’s individual market sparked outrage from Sacramento to Washington, providing a political tipping point for the enactment of the then-moribund Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). This fall and into 2014, those without government or employer-sponsored health coverage who earn more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) ($45,960 for singles; $92,200 for a family of four) may find themselves outraged yet again by sharp double digit premium increases.  Under the PPACA, those earning in excess of 400 percent of FPL are ineligible for income tax subsidies available for qualified health plans purchased through state health benefit exchanges.  They will bear the full amount of higher premiums on their own.

Projections of the impact of the PPACA individual market reforms issued this week by the Society of Actuaries (on the medical cost impact of those newly insured under the law) and the actuarial consulting firm Milliman (on premiums in California) suggest premiums for plan year 2014 will rise significantly for these relatively higher income middle class households.  The Society of Actuaries estimates the PPACA individual market reforms will drive up claims costs by an average of 32 percent nationally by 2017 and by double digits in as many as 43 states.  The Milliman study commissioned by the California exchange, Covered California, estimates those currently insured with incomes exceeding 400 percent of FPL purchasing the lowest cost “bronze” rated plan covering 60 percent of expected costs can expect a 30.1 percent premium hike for 2014.   “Currently insured individuals with incomes greater than 400% of FPL will experience the largest increases,” the Milliman study notes.

Those in this income range likely to be hit with the biggest increases are middle class people in their 50s and 60s – the large Baby Boomer demographic not yet Medicare eligible and not covered by employer-sponsored plans.  A major potential implication of higher premiums on top of the already relatively high rates paid by this age group (new age rating rules under the PPACA will provide some relief) is many of them may find even bronze-rated coverage unaffordable and go uninsured, contrary to the policy goal of the PPACA to increase affordability and access to coverage.

If 2014 rate increases for 401+ percent FPL households boost the price of the cheapest plans too high, tax penalties built into the law for those without public or private coverage won’t provide incentive for these individuals to purchase coverage.  The PPACA’s individual mandate expressly exempts those who have to spend more than eight percent of their incomes to purchase the cheapest bronze plan offered in their geographic rating region. The law also provides for a financial hardship exemption.

Because of the sheer size of the Boomer demographic and Boomers’ willingness to seek political redress of their grievances, if the premium increases for the 401 percenters predicted indirectly by the Society of Actuaries and directly by Milliman materialize, it could create impetus for further reforms in 2014.

Health plans concerned ACA’s age rating rule could spawn adverse selection

February 17, 2013 Leave a comment

Health plans worry the limitation on using age as a basis for setting premiums in the individual health insurance market come January 2014 could jeopardize its financial viability and lead to adverse risk selection the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is intended to alleviate.

The ACA requires individual health insurers to deemphasize age as a rating factor by reducing the current five or six age rating bands currently used to a maximum of three, meaning the oldest plan members would pay premium rates not exceeding triple those of the youngest.  The goal under the ACA’s modified community-based rating scheme is to flatten out premiums to make them more affordable to middle aged people who over the past several years have seen them rise to a level rivaling the amount of a modest mortgage payment.

According to this Washington Post article, while older people would enjoy lower rates, younger people would consequently experience rate increases.  Particularly those under age 30 that modified community-based rating envisions balancing out state risk pools by bringing in a typically healthier population with lower medical utilization.

The Post article contains contrasting analyses on the how this so-called “young invincible” demographic will respond to higher premiums.  Consulting firm Oliver Wyman – which the article notes has been retained by the health plans’ dominant trade association – predicts the age rating limitation will result in 80 percent of those in their 20s paying more for tax subsidized coverage purchased through state health benefit exchanges than they now pay for even basic, low cost coverage.  But economist Jonathan Gruber – who consulted in the drafting of the ACA – expects plans sold on the exchanges notwithstanding higher premium rates will appeal to this cohort when income tax credits to offset premiums are taken into account. More so than going bare and paying a penalty — and even more than low cost, high deductible catastrophic plans available only to those under age 30.

Which prognostication ends up being more on target won’t be known until plan issuers release premium information this summer and the exchanges gear up for open enrollment in the fall for coverage effective in January 2014.

Aetna Offers Individual Plans to Costco Members in California | Aetna News Hub

January 26, 2013 Leave a comment

WALNUT CREEK, Calif.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Aetna (NYSE: AET) is now offering individual health insurance plans to Costco members in California. The Costco Personal Health Insurance program, of which there are five plans to choose from, offers broad major medical benefits; dental options; an extensive network of doctors and hospitals; and a variety of helpful services, tools and information, tailored to meet the needs of Costco members.

In addition to California, the Costco Personal Health Insurance program is also available to Costco members in Arizona; Connecticut; Georgia; Illinois; Michigan; Nevada; Pennsylvania; Texas; and Virginia. Aetna plans to expand the program to other markets in the coming months.

via Aetna Offers Individual Plans to Costco Members in California | Aetna News Hub.

Little noticed ACA provision has big implications for state health benefit exchange affordability

Individuals and families who purchase health coverage through state health benefit exchanges using advance tax credit subsidies under Section 1401 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will pay no more than 2 to 9.5 percent of their income towards premiums.  Section 1401 delineates a sliding scale range of income maximums in six brackets and percentages for each level.

In 2015 and future years, however, those percentages could rise under a little noticed and discussed provision at Section 1401 amending Section 36B(b)(3)(A)(ii) of the Internal Revenue Code. It states the maximum income amounts “shall be adjusted to reflect the excess of the rate of premium growth for the preceding calendar year over the rate of income growth for the preceding calendar year.”  Then for calendar years 2018 and beyond, should premium tax credits and cost sharing reductions reach .504 percent of the gross domestic product for the preceding calendar year, the maximum income amounts are subject to an additional bump.

In 2011, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) interpreted the clause to mean that “the maximum percentages of income that enrollees at a given income level will have to pay will increase over time.”  By how much, exactly? “CBO and JCT (Joint Committee on Taxation) interpret that adjustment (relative only to premiums) as being equal to the difference between (1) the percentage change in average premiums for private health insurance for the nonelderly nationwide between the prior year and the year before that and (2) the percentage change in average U.S. household income.” (Final U.S. Treasury Department Regulations issued in May 2012 governing the Premium Tax Credit are silent on the provision)

CBO explained the need for the adjustment mechanism as follows: “Because private health insurance premiums generally grow faster than income, the regular indexing provision will keep the share of the premium paid by an enrollee at a given income level and the government roughly constant from year to year.”  A report issued last month by the Commonwealth Fund noted that between 2003 to 2011, premiums for family coverage increased 62 percent across states—rising far faster than income for the middle- and low-income families comprising the population expected to buy coverage through the exchanges.

In conclusion, this means if premiums continue to rise as most observers expect, those purchasing subsidized coverage through state benefit exchanges won’t be protected from those increases and will have to pay a larger share of their incomes toward premium rates. (I apologize for a previous post in 2012 that asserted otherwise)  This has enormous implications for the exchanges since they must offer affordable coverage in order to attract and retain sufficiently large numbers of enrollees in order to restore a functional individual health insurance market.

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