CBO Evaluates Amended Health Care Bill

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In an earlier post, I summarized the Congressional Budget Office’s “scoring” of the American Health Care Act proposed by House Republicans. After that analysis revealed how many people would lose their insurance under the House plan, House Republicans amended the bill and quickly passed it, without waiting for the CBO to evaluate the new version. Yesterday, the CBO released its revised report, which for the most part reinforces the objections that made the bill so unpopular in the first place.

The amended bill differs from the original mainly in allowing the states to obtain waivers releasing them from certain provisions of the law. According to the CBO,

One type of waiver would allow states to modify the requirements governing essential health benefits (EHBs), which set minimum standards for the benefits that insurance in the nongroup and small-group markets must cover. A second type of waiver would allow insurers to set premiums on the basis of an individual’s health status if the person had no demonstrated continuous coverage.

In other words, people would still be entitled to health insurance, but it might not provide the benefits previously regarded as essential. In particular, “out-of-pocket spending on maternity care and mental health and substance abuse services could increase by thousands of dollars in a given year….” In addition, even insurers who did provide such benefits would now be allowed to put a lifetime cap on how much they would pay out for them. The second type of waiver would allow insurers to charge much higher premiums for people with preexisting conditions, unless they were already covered for them and never experienced a break in coverage.

Effects on insurance coverage

The previous CBO estimate was that the number of uninsured Americans would rise by 24 million over ten years if the House bill became law. For the amended version, the estimate is now 23 million. Some of the uninsured would be healthy people who voluntarily gave up health insurance because the law eliminated the penalties for not carrying it. Others would be forced out of the market because they found insurance less affordable. That could be because policies became too expensive for people with a certain health condition or need, or because they lost more in Obamacare subsidies than they gained from the new law’s tax credits.

The biggest reason the law would insure fewer people is because it dramatically cuts spending on Medicaid. That accounts for 14 billion of the 23 billion who would no longer be covered. Cutting Medicaid or Medicare is something that candidate Trump promised not to do, but he has enthusiastically embraced the House bill anyway.

Effects on premiums

The effects of the legislation on insurance premiums is now harder to project, since it depends on whether states seek and are granted the waivers described above. For states that do not, the effects would remain essentially as the CBO described them before. Premiums would be expected to rise for older people and fall for younger people, since the law allows insurers to use a 5-to-1 rather than a 3-to-1 ratio between the two. Average premiums would probably rise for the first few years, since the elimination of the individual mandate would allow younger, healthier people to drop out of the market, forcing insurers to raise premiums on the older, less healthy people who remained. In later years, insurers might lower premiums, as older people who cannot afford the high cost are the ones to drop out. Average premiums could also fall because policies are no longer required to cover 60% or more of health care costs. Advocates of the bill like to talk about how premiums could fall, but not how out-of-pocket expenses could rise.

In states that take the waivers, opting out of the mandatory coverage for preexisting conditions and/or the essential health benefits, the effects would be more dramatic. Average premiums could fall more, since the policies cover less. But premiums and benefits would vary widely, since people with particular health needs could face much higher premiums and/or out-of-pocket costs. If large numbers of people with health problems were priced out of the market, insurers could lower premiums for the healthy who remained. But low premiums would be achieved at the cost of excluding from health insurance the people who need it most.

Giving states the “flexibility” to go their own way really means letting them return to something like the situation before Obamacare, when good health insurance was much less affordable for the poor and the sick.

Effects on the federal budget

The CBO’s previous estimate was that the American Health Care Act would cut health care spending by $1.2 trillion dollars, but that would be offset by $883 billion in lost revenue, due to elimination of Obamacare taxes and penalties. The result was a $337 billion reduction in federal deficits over the next ten years. The Republicans wanted that reduction not just because they would like to move toward a balanced budget, but because they would like to justify additional tax cuts later.

The CBO’s new estimate is that the legislation would cut spending by $1.1 trillion dollars, and revenue by $992 billion, resulting in only a $119 billion saving.

In either case, the Republican repeal and replacement of Obamacare represents a big gain for the rich and a big loss for the poor. The Obamacare taxes fell heavily on the wealthy, but the Republican cuts in health care spending will fall heavily on the poor, since they are the ones who depend on Obamacare to make insurance affordable. So the bill as amended remains consistent with the Republican agenda of reducing taxes on the wealthy while reducing benefits for the needy.

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