As the ad hoc committee of 13 Republican senators rethinks the increasingly unpopular American Health Care Act, Congress and the administration face a more pressing question. Will they stabilize the individual insurance market for 2018?
Preliminary rate filings for next year suggest that some states are entering the first phases of the much-dreaded death spiral, where rising rates and declining enrollments feed on each other to climax in a collapsed market. Where last year it was mostly rural areas that suffered from a dearth of carriers offering exchange plans, major urban areas like Kansas City and Knoxville, Tenn., are now among the regions reporting no insurers interested in offering coverage.
Meanwhile, carriers are requesting double-digit rate hikes in many areas of the country. Increase requests as high as 50% have been reported.
Republicans blame the Affordable Care Act. But, in fact, blame rests squarely with the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress, who've created tremendous uncertainty around the policies that make the ACA's individual market work.
The biggest single problem is Congress' failure to appropriate the $7 billion owed insurers for underwriting cost-sharing reductions for low-income plan purchasers. That affects about 7 million of the 13 million people who signed up for individual plans.
Last year, Congress also put a one-year hold on the surcharge on health insurance premiums that supports ACA subsidies. Without further action, the tax, which was slated to raise about $100 billion over the next decade, will go into effect in 2018.
From a budgetary perspective, the move is a wash. The increased tax collection will be offset by the increased subsidies given low-income people who buy plans. People who are unsubsidized—those most likely to be bitter opponents of Obamacare—will be hit dollar-for-dollar with the rate hike.
President Donald Trump also contributed to uncertainty over next year's enrollment period. First, he halted media promotion of the 2017 open enrollment. Then, in February, he issued an executive order waiving the individual mandate, which is key to getting millions of younger, relatively healthy people into the individual market pool.
While Politico reported last month that the Internal Revenue Service didn't carry out the president's order this year, the atmospherics around these pronouncements will ensure that fewer people sign up for individual plans in 2018. Insurers are assuming they will be covering an older, sicker population, a surefire path to higher rates.
Last week, Bradley Wilson, CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, dissected how these compounding uncertainties contributed to its request for a 22.9% rate hike. About half the increase came from the missing cost-sharing reduction subsidies; about a third from an expected increase in medical losses, driven by rising costs and a sicker pool; and the rest from the expected tax.
This Republican Congress and the administration could quickly solve these problems without sacrificing their political principles. The administration could signal it will enforce the mandate since it is still the law. Congress could appropriate the money for the cost-reduction subsidies. This would preserve the House's lower court victory in its suit challenging the Obama administration's lacking an appropriation.
And, in a nod to their goal of protecting people with pre-existing medical conditions, Congress could create a reinsurance program to cover the extraordinary expenses of high-cost patients in the individual market. Unlike state-run high-risk pools, which have never worked, a federally funded reinsurance program would preserve everyone's access to health insurance in the individual market at affordable rates.
It's up to Congress now. Insurers face a June 21 deadline for notifying HHS about participation in the exchanges, and final rates are due from states by Aug. 16; there's not much time to act. We'll soon find out if Trump and this Congress intend to deny millions of people access to affordable health insurance next year.