Multiple articles in recent weeks have outlined the ways Democrats intend to use Obamacare as a wedge issue in November’s midterm elections. While only a few states have released insurer filings—and regulators could make alterations to insurers’ proposals—the preliminary filings to date suggest above-average premium increases have been higher than the underlying trend in medical costs.
Democrats claim that such premium increases come from the Trump administration and Republican Congress’s “sabotage.” But do those charges have merit? On the three primary counts discussed in detail below, the effects of the policy changes varies significantly.
End of Cost-Sharing Reduction Payments
Last October, the Trump administration ended cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers (CSRs). Those payments reimburse insurers for providing discounted co-payments and deductibles to certain low-income beneficiaries, as they must under the Obamacare statute. The administration claimed that Obamacare lacked a valid appropriation to make the CSR payments, and courts have thus far agreed.
The administration’s decision meant most insurers increased premiums for 2018, to recoup their costs for discounting cost-sharing indirectly (i.e., via premiums) rather than through direct CSR payments. However, as I previously noted, most states devised strategies whereby few if any individuals would suffer harm from those premium increases. Low-income individuals who qualify for premium subsidies would receive larger subsidies to offset their higher costs, and more affluent individuals who do not qualify for subsidies could purchase coverage away from state exchanges, where insurers offer policies unaffected by the loss of CSR payments.
These state-based strategies mean that the “sabotage” charges have little to no merit, for several reasons. First, the premium increases relating to the lack of direct CSR payments already took effect in most states for 2018; this increase represents a one-time change that will not recur in 2019.
Second, more states have announced that, for 2019, they will switch to the “hold harmless” strategy described above, ensuring that few if any individuals will incur higher premiums from these changes. Admittedly, taxpayers will pay more in subsidies, but most consumers should see no direct effects. This “sabotage” argument was disingenuous when Democrats first raised it last year, and it’s even more disingenuous now.
Eliminating the Individual Mandate Penalty
The tax law Congress passed late last year set the penalty for Obamacare’s individual mandate to purchase coverage to $0 beginning next year—effectively repealing the penalty (even though Senate rules meant Congress could not repeal it outright). I opposed this move at the time, not because I support the mandate, but because I feared that repealing it without repealing Obamacare’s new federal insurance requirements would only accelerate premium increases.
Repealing the mandate will raise premiums for 2019, although questions remain over the magnitude. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) last month officially reduced its estimate of the mandate’s “strength” in compelling people to purchase coverage by about one-third. However, another recent study suggests that, CBO’s changes notwithstanding, the mandate had a significant impact on getting people to buy insurance—suggesting that many healthy people could drop coverage once the mandate penalty disappears.
To insurers, the mandate repeal represents an unknown factor shaping the market in 2019. In the short term at least, whether or not people will drop coverage in 2019 due to the mandate’s repeal matters less than what insurers—and, just as important, insurance regulators—think people will do in response. If insurers think many people will drop, then premiums could rise significantly; however, if insurers already thought the mandate weak or ineffective, then its repeal by definition would have a more limited impact.
New Coverage Options
The Trump administration’s moves to expand access to association health plans and short-term insurance coverage, while still pending, also represent a factor for insurers to consider. In this case, insurers fear that more affordable coverage that does not meet all of Obamacare’s requirements will prove attractive to young and healthy individuals, raising the average costs of the older and sicker individuals who remain in Obamacare-compliant plans.
The effects of these coverage options on premiums depends on two distinct factors: Whether they prove popular, and whether they attract the already insured or the previously uninsured.
If association plans and short-term coverage do not entice many enrollees—or if most of those enrollees had not purchased coverage to begin with—then the market changes will not affect exchange premiums that much. By contrast, if the changes entice millions of individuals to give up exchange coverage for a non-compliant but more affordable plan, then premiums for those remaining on the exchanges could rise significantly.
Estimates of the effects of these regulatory changes vary. For instance, the administration’s proposed rule on short-term plans said it would divert enrollment from exchanges into short-term plans by only about 100,000-200,000 individuals. However, CBO and some other estimates suggest higher impacts from the administration’s changes, and a potentially greater impact on premiums (because short-term and association plans would siphon more healthy individuals away from the exchanges).
But the final effect may depend on the specifics of the changes themselves. If the final rule on short-term plans does not allow for automatic renewability of the plans, they may have limited appeal to individuals, thus minimizing the effects on the exchange market.
On the effects of the Trump administration’s regulatory changes, some Republicans have shown a distinct willingness to speak from both sides of their mouths. Supporters of a proposal to codify changes regarding short-term plans have cited an Urban Institute study to claim that 4.3 million individuals could enroll in this new insurance option.
However, those same proponents seem less interested in advertising the same study’s premium impact. The Urban researchers believe short-term plans will draw roughly 2.6 million individuals away from exchange coverage, raising premiums for those who remain by as much as 18.3 percent.
Why Prop Up Obamacare?
The selective use of data regarding short-term plans illustrates Republicans’ problem: On one hand, they want to create other, non-Obamacare-compliant, options for individuals to purchase more affordable coverage. On the other hand, if those options succeed, they will raise premiums for individuals who remain on the exchanges.
But some might argue that fixating on exchange premiums for 2019 misses the point, because Republicans should focus on developing alternatives to Obamacare. The exchanges will remain, and still offer comprehensive coverage—along with income-based premium subsidies for that—to individuals with costly medical conditions. But rather than trying to bolster the exchanges by using bailouts and “stability” packages to throw more taxpayer money at them, Republicans could emphasize the new alternatives to Obamacare-compliant plans.
Of course, if that stance presents too much difficulty for Republicans, they have another option: They could repeal the root cause of the premium increases—Obamacare’s myriad new federal insurance requirements. Of course, in Washington, following through on pledges made for the last four election cycles seems like a radical concept, but to most Americans, delivering on such a long-standing promise represents simple common sense.