Health Insurance Less Affordable under Senate Bill

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Senate Republicans have finally unveiled legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Now they are in a great rush to pass it without the benefit of hearings or any reasonable time for debate and amendments. That’s a clue about how much public interest and reaction they welcome. Hopefully, we will have an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office at least a day or two before the vote, but we can’t afford to wait for that before informing as many people as possible about what’s in the bill.

What the legislation does, essentially, is deprive the government of the revenue needed to accomplish the law’s original aim. It eliminates most of the new taxes imposed by the Affordable Care Act to cover the cost of subsidizing health insurance. Those taxes primarily affected the wealthy since they targeted investment income and wages above $200,000. Repealing those taxes (except for the “Cadillac tax” on unusually expensive employer health plans) shifts much of the cost of health care from the government back to the buyers of insurance, whether they can afford it or not. Some of the law’s provisions designed to protect the quality of coverage remain–although they are weakened–but the central aim of the Affordable Care Act is seriously undermined.

Benefits continue, but with a catch

Obamacare required all health insurance policies to include ten essential health benefits: Ambulatory (outpatient) care, emergency services, hospitalization, maternity care, mental health and substance abuse services, prescription drugs, rehabilitative and habilitative services, laboratory services, preventive and chronic disease management services, and pediatric services. These requirements would continue, except that states would now be able to apply for waivers of the rules. The same is true for the rule prohibiting annual or lifetime limits on what insurers must pay. Comprehensive coverage will probably be available to most people, but it’s no longer a sure thing.

Dependents could still remain on their parents’ insurance until age 26. Insurers would still have to accept patients with pre-existing conditions and charge them no more than other customers. But as the New York Times noted, “Patients with serious illnesses may find that their coverage is less valuable if they live in a state that eliminates benefit requirements or allows limits on coverage.”

Mandates are repealed

Large employers would no longer be required to offer insurance plans to their employees. I’ll have to leave it to the CBO to estimate how many workers would lose their insurance as a result of that change. Those who did would probably face higher costs in the individual market.

The Senate bill would also eliminate penalties for individuals who choose not to carry health insurance at all. The winners here would be healthy and wealthy people who can afford to pay their health costs out-of-pocket. The bill increases the amounts that people can put into Health Savings Accounts to save for future expenses. That’s a good deal for those who can afford it, since any returns on the investment are tax-free.

Medicaid is slashed

The biggest losers in the Senate bill are the 69 million Medicaid recipients, especially the 14 million who signed up under Obamacare’s new rules. Thirty states chose to participate in the Medicaid expansion, which raised the threshold for eligibility to 138% of the federal poverty level. Funding for that expansion would be reduced starting in 2021, with drastic reductions in 2024. That’s where the bill creates the biggest potential for lost insurance.

In addition, the bill would put a per-capita cap on future payments for all Medicaid recipients. Here is how Drew Altman of the Kaiser Family Foundation describes it:

The Senate plan imposes a harsher formula for its cap than the House plan, which already cuts Medicaid spending by $834 billion over 10 years. Because states have to balance their budgets every year, unlike the federal government, many will struggle to compensate for reductions in federal aid caused by a spending cap. Many states will be forced to choose between Medicaid and other priorities, like education, law enforcement and prisons. The inevitable result will be a reduction in health care spending on low-income people. And you cannot cut over $800 billion from Medicaid without adversely affecting health services for the poor.

Because the Senate bill not only rolls back the Medicaid expansion, but takes a good whack at Medicaid as a whole, the poor could wind up worse off than they were before health care reform was passed in the first place.

I suppose it’s a good thing that much of the damage will be postponed for a few years, giving the political winds time to blow in a different direction. On the other hand, maybe the motivation for dragging it out is to postpone the political fallout, so that the perpetrators of the crime can remain in office as long as possible.

Premiums and credits

The effect of all the changes on insurance premiums could be complicated, and I’ll be interested to see how the CBO sorts it out. Some of what I wrote about the House bill would presumably still apply:

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.

For states that obtain waivers to weaken the quality of coverage–by declining to cover certain benefits, for example–premiums could fall, but only because policies aren’t worth as much.

What is more certain is that the tax credits that offset the cost of insurance would be less generous under the Senate plan. Ezra Klein has provided a good analysis. Under the Affordable Care Act, the credit is based on the cost of a “benchmark plan,” a plan available in your geographic area that covers 70% of expected health costs. Then, depending on your income, you are only expected to spend a certain percentage of that income on the premium, while the government picks up the rest. The credits phase out entirely for incomes over 400% of the poverty threshold.

The Senate plan cuts the credits in three ways: requiring the benchmark plan to cover only 58% of expected costs instead of 70%, raising the percentage of income that you have to spend on premiums, and phasing out the credit at 350% of the poverty threshold. Credit recipients would have to pay a larger share of premiums, plus pay higher deductibles when they need to file a claim.

Obamacare also includes additional subsidies to defray out-of-pocket costs–deductibles and copayments–for low-income people. The Senate bill eliminates these entirely after 2019, although people might need them more than ever.

Klein summarizes:

The new world created by the Senate health care bill will be based around higher-deductible plans that cover fewer health benefits and cost people more. The plan degrades Obamacare’s insurance regulations, and cuts insurance subsidies so that Americans won’t be able to afford plans as generous as the ones they purchase now. If the Medicaid expansion really does die out in 2024, then the poorest of the poor will be pushed from comprehensive, low-cost health insurance to extremely high-deductible plans.

To put it most simply: Obamacare was a transfer of wealth mainly from high-income taxpayers to lower-income health insurees. The Republican bill transfers it back again, inevitably making comprehensive coverage less affordable. And as Klein notes, “In a particularly Orwellian flourish, the name of this bill dedicated to diminishing the quality of the insurance coverage Americans can afford is “The Better Care Act.” (You know it’s Trumpcare if the name of the act itself is a shameless falsehood.) It would more accurately be called “The Less Affordable Care Act.”

Underlying this tragedy is the assumption that we as a nation cannot afford to provide the universal health coverage that other developed countries have achieved. Instead we have a wealthy class who resist being taxed, a government too weak to control health care costs–the bill specifically prohibits the government from negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical companies–and private companies that must have their big profits.

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