Lingering recession fallout: Medicaid grows to cover nearly one third of Californians

Enrollment in California’s Medicaid program, Medi-Cal, is projected to grow in the new fiscal year that began July 1 to cover about 30 percent of the state’s population, with total enrollment expected to rise from 7.9 million before implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to 11.5 million in fiscal 2014-15, according to a summary of the budget.

The growing importance of Medi-Cal was highlighted in the release today of results of a California Field Poll of registered voters showing respondents assigning growing importance to Medi-Cal. Twenty-nine percent of voters surveyed rated the program as “very important” in a 2011 Field Poll; that number rose to 40 percent this year. “This is a safety net program (for the poor) that has now reached the masses,” noted Mark DiCamillo, senior vice president of the Field Research Corporation, calling the increase “very significant.”

The high percentage of Californians covered by Medicaid appears to coincide with the 2007-09 recession. As the downturn began to bite, data compiled by Kaiser Family Foundation show California having about the same percentage of its population in Medi-Cal in 2010 – 31 percent that year – and among the highest proportion of its population in Medicaid compared to other states. Only Maine and Vermont equaled California’s 31 percent in 2010 and those three states were exceeded only by the District of Columbia at 35 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. (Comparative year to year data are not available)

The growth in Medi-Cal spending all but wiped out an unanticipated surge in state tax revenues, the Ventura Star quoted Gov. Jerry Brown as saying. Consequently, Brown’s revised $107.8 billion general fund budget proposal contains little new spending beyond covering the additional costs of providing health care to 307,000 more low-income residents than anticipated when the 2014-15 budget was released in January, the newspaper reported. Another account appearing in The Sacramento Bee quoted Brown as saying California faces $1.2 billion in unanticipated costs in expanded Medi-Cal enrollment in the new fiscal year.

As Medi-Cal grew to cover 1 in 3 Californians in 2010 as tax revenues declined in the recession, the administration of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger bluntly declared the state could no longer afford to fund the program as it sought cost relief though program reductions and federal rule waivers. The heavy fiscal burden of program clearly continues to vex the current Brown administration. “As we are paying for this that will be at the expense of other government priorities,” said Health and Human Service Secretary Diana Dooley at today’s Sacramento briefing on the Field Poll results.

A final takeaway worth pondering: With more people being covered by Medicaid, might California and eventually the United States as a whole be moving toward the German “Kaiser system” where the government provides a safety net of basic health coverage for all?

 


The ACA health insurance market reforms are at hand. Need help understanding and preparing for the new regulatory landscape and the health benefit exchange marketplace -- and explaining them to your key stakeholders?  Pilot Healthcare Strategies can help with expert analysis and clear communications. For a free initial consultation, email me at fpilot@pilothealthstrategies.com or call 530-295-1473. 

California’s continuing Medicaid woes

Five years ago as California stared down a severe budget gap as the economy cratered, the state drew up plans to cut $1.2 billion from its Medicaid program, Medi-Cal, through program reductions and federal rule waivers.

At the time, then-California Health & Human Services Agency Secretary Kim Belshé warned that even with a $10 billion infusion of supplemental federal cost share funding provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, “California cannot afford the Medicaid program as currently structured and governed by federal rules and requirements.”

Now with the budget crisis in the past amid an uneven economic recovery, the Golden State faces renewed concerns that it can fund a sustainable Medicaid program given its acceptance of expanded family status and income eligibility guidelines under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. As a result of the expansion, a staggering 3 in 10 California residents are expected to obtain health coverage though the program. In addition to budgetary concerns, there is also the practical matter of whether Medi-Cal beneficiaries will have adequate access to providers given the state’s low reimbursement rates.

Kaiser Health News provides an analysis of the situation here.

 


The ACA health insurance market reforms are at hand. Need help understanding and preparing for the new regulatory landscape and the health benefit exchange marketplace -- and explaining them to your key stakeholders?  Pilot Healthcare Strategies can help with expert analysis and clear communications. For a free initial consultation, email me at fpilot@pilothealthstrategies.com or call 530-295-1473. 

Health plan issuers concerned individual mandate being weakened

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act aimed to remedy market failure in the individual health insurance market segment by effectively forcing sellers and buyers to get together. On the sell side by requiring health insurers to accept all applicants for coverage regardless of their medical condition or history and providing premium subsidies to make coverage more affordable. And on the buy side by mandating all U.S. citizens obtain individual coverage if they are not covered by a private or public health plan under pain of a tax penalty.

However, individual health plan issuers worry that the mandate is being weakened by a growing list of exemptions, according to this Wall Street Journal item. In particular, they are concerned that too many younger individuals who tend to use fewer medical services and cost less to cover will be exempted from the mandate, undermining the actuarial viability of the market.

“To make these new reforms work, there needs to be broad participation in the system,” Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans, told the newspaper.

 


The ACA health insurance market reforms are at hand. Need help understanding and preparing for the new regulatory landscape and the health benefit exchange marketplace -- and explaining them to your key stakeholders?  Pilot Healthcare Strategies can help with expert analysis and clear communications. For a free initial consultation, email me at fpilot@pilothealthstrategies.com or call 530-295-1473. 

If Halbig becomes law of the land, flight to bronze and cat plans could result

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One potential outcome should the federal courts ultimately determine that advance income tax credit premium subsidies are available only to eligible households purchasing individual coverage in state-based health benefit exchanges and not in states that have opted to have the federal government run their exchanges is a flight to bronze. Bronze as in the metallic value of qualified health plans that have around a 60 percent actuarial value (AV), meaning they cover on average 60 percent of expected costs in a plan year. (Click here for more background the Halbig ruling)

Individuals may find the only way to comply with the requirement they have some form of health coverage or pay a tax penalty is to buy a bronze-rated plan since these plans offer the lowest premiums compared to richer plans with silver (70 percent AV), gold (80 percent AV) and platinum plans (90 percent AV). For many individuals and families not covered by employer-sponsored or government health plans, bronze plans may be the only ones they can afford without the offsetting effect of the premium subsidies — particularly older people in the top one third of the age rating bands who pay the highest premiums.

In addition to bronze plans, there could also be a growth market in catastrophic plans that are rated below 60 percent AV. These plans are available to those aged 30 and under and households that would have to spend more than eight percent of their income to buy the lowest cost bronze plan offered. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act also provides an exemption from the tax penalty for these households, which could result in some requesting the exemption and going without coverage, undermining the law’s policy goal to reduce the number of medically uninsured Americans.

A flight to bronze plans could also give a boost to direct primary care (DPC) where patients pay advance monthly or annual fees for primary care since bronze and catastrophic plans aren’t designed for those who are frequent users of primary care services.

 


The ACA health insurance market reforms are at hand. Need help understanding and preparing for the new regulatory landscape and the health benefit exchange marketplace -- and explaining them to your key stakeholders?  Pilot Healthcare Strategies can help with expert analysis and clear communications. For a free initial consultation, email me at fpilot@pilothealthstrategies.com or call 530-295-1473. 

Contradictory exchange language in Affordable Care Act causes latest uncertainty over law

Today’s 2-1 ruling by the District Of Columbia Circuit U.S Court of Appeals in Halbig, et al v. Burwell holding that the Internal Revenue Service incorrectly interpreted Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act provisions governing advance tax credits for individual health plans purchased though state health benefit exchanges — regardless of whether a state has opted to operate its own exchange or defaulted to having the federal government do so — stems from two contradictory provisions in the law.

Section 1311(b)(1) of the law requires all states to establish an exchange, stating that “Each State shall, not later than January 1, 2014, establish an American Health Benefit Exchange (referred to in this title as an ‘‘Exchange’’) for the State…” (Emphasis added)

When the word “shall” appears in a statute, it’s a mandate or obligatory requirement. It’s not an option or a suggestion.

However, the Court of Appeal also reviewed another section of the Affordable Care Act at Part 3 that gives the states flexibility in implementing the exchange mandate. This is where the trouble lies. Section 1321(b) states:

 (b) STATE ACTION.—Each State that elects, at such time and in such manner as the Secretary may prescribe, to apply the requirements described in subsection (a) shall, not later than January 1, 2014, adopt and have in effect—

(1) the Federal standards established under subsection (a);
or
(2) a State law or regulation that the Secretary determines implements the standards within the State. (Emphasis added)

Among the federal standards established under subsection (a) is the establishment and operation of exchanges.

Note the use of the word “elects.” Elect means to choose or opt to take (or not take) an action. It is not a requirement unlike the clear “shall” of a mandate. That implies that despite the clear mandate of Section 1311(b)(1), a state could theoretically opt not to establish an exchange under Section 1321(b).

The Court of Appeal apparently picked up on this distinction in its ruling:

The crux of this case is whether an Exchange established by the federal government is an exchange established by the State under section 1311 of the [ACA].” We therefore begin with the provisions authorizing states and the federal government to establish Exchanges. Section 1311 provides that states “shall” establish Exchanges. 42 U.S.C. § 18031(b)(1). But, as the parties agree, despite its seemingly mandatory language, section 1311 more cajoles than commands. A state is not literally required to establish an Exchange; the ACA merely encourages it to do so. And if a state elects not to (or is unable to), such that it “will not have any required Exchange operational by January 1, 2014,” section 1321 directs the federal government, through the Secretary of Health and Human Services, to “establish and operate such Exchange within the State.” Id. § 18041(c)(1).

This is likely to be a critical analysis determining the fate of the subsidies in the three dozen states that have elected not to operate their own exchanges as the case moves forward to a potential en banc review by the District Of Columbia Circuit U.S Court of Appeals.  The matter could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court after another circuit of the Court of Appeals panel today unanimously upheld the IRS’s interpretation of the advance tax credit subsidies as applying to all states, regardless of whether they elected to establish their own exchanges. That ruling was in King et al v. Burwell. The conflicting rulings leave a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the federally operated exchanges that is unlikely to be resolved in the less than four months remaining to plan year 2015 enrollment that opens November 15.

The potential for the Supreme Court to intervene increases in light of this analysis by the law firm of Epstein Becker Green noting similar cases pending before other federal appellate courts that could leave the issue unresolved:

The Obama administration has already indicated it will seek en banc review of the Halbig decision by the entire D.C. Circuit. If the full D.C. Circuit reverses the Halbig panel decision, the existing “circuit split” would be resolved, potentially making Supreme Court review less likely. It should be noted that there are similar cases pending in district courts in the 10th and 7th Circuits, that if decided in favor of the challengers could create a circuit split even if the full D.C. Circuit reverses Halbig.

If issue comes before the Supreme Court and it upholds Halbig, it would throw the individual health insurance market in the majority of states with federally-operated exchanges back into market failure since without the advance tax credit subsidies that are propping it up, low and moderate income earners would once again be priced out of the market, especially those in the highest age rating band. It could also severely erode the Affordable Care Act’s shared responsibility provisions by exempting individuals from the coverage mandate based on unaffordable premiums and mooting fines levied on large employers that don’t offer minimum affordable coverage and an employee obtains subsidized individual coverage in a state health benefit exchange since the subsidies would no longer be available in the federally-operated exchanges.

 


The ACA health insurance market reforms are at hand. Need help understanding and preparing for the new regulatory landscape and the health benefit exchange marketplace -- and explaining them to your key stakeholders?  Pilot Healthcare Strategies can help with expert analysis and clear communications. For a free initial consultation, email me at fpilot@pilothealthstrategies.com or call 530-295-1473. 

AHIP’s catastrophic plan proposal needs rethinking

America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) has proposed the creation of a new Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act-compliant catastrophic individual health plan. (Link here) According to AHIP:

The new catastrophic plan would offer an AV (actuarial value) just below the current minimum requirement (covering an average of 60 percent of medical utilization costs) allowing for lower premiums, but would still include coverage of the law’s mandated essential health benefits, have no annual or lifetime benefit limits, and cover all preventive health services with zero cost-sharing for consumers. This would allow individuals and families eligible for premium subsidies to use that financial assistance to purchase the new plan, an option currently unavailable to consumers purchasing the ACA catastrophic plan.

Since bronze plans and catastrophic plans are quite close in actuarial value, have the actuaries found any potential for meaningfully lower premiums for these proposed catastrophic plans? In other words, is the medical services utilization of a population covered at 57 percent AV, for example, significantly lower than one covered at 60 percent such that it can produce meaningfully lower premiums? Especially given that the Affordable Care Act limits annual maximum out of pocket costs for in-network providers?

Not likely. But the apparent goal isn’t so much to reduce premium rates but rather to make catastrophic plans eligible to become qualified health plans (QHPs) sold in the state health benefit exchange marketplace and thereby eligible for advance premium tax credit subsidies. That has raised criticisms from some quarters that proposed catastrophic plans would not be beneficial to lower income individuals and families since the plans’ high cost sharing (deductibles, co-insurance and co-pays) would discourage their getting necessary care. But lower income people and especially those who utilize a lot of non-catastrophic (i.e. hospital inpatient) care aren’t likely to choose catastrophic plans and instead opt for plans with at least 70 percent AV (this level includes additional cost sharing subsidies for lower income earners).

If the goal however is to bring more relatively healthy people into state risk pools who are comfortable covering their own out of pocket costs for non-catastrophic care and using tax deductible health savings accounts to cover them, a more appealing catastrophic plan would be one that provides lower cost sharing for hospitalizations and other unexpected high cost medical events. Even with annual out of pocket cost limits of $6,350 for an individual plan and $12,700 for a family plan, a hospitalization can result in large medical bills, particularly for out of network hospitals used in an emergency situation that can double those limits.

 


The ACA health insurance market reforms are at hand. Need help understanding and preparing for the new regulatory landscape and the health benefit exchange marketplace -- and explaining them to your key stakeholders?  Pilot Healthcare Strategies can help with expert analysis and clear communications. For a free initial consultation, email me at fpilot@pilothealthstrategies.com or call 530-295-1473. 

3 predictions on California’s Proposition 45

In November, California voters will decide whether to subject individual and small group health insurance premium rates to prior regulatory approval. California requires property/casualty insurance rates to be approved by the state’s elected insurance commissioner under a ballot initiative approved in 1988, Proposition 103. If voters approve the initiative statute, titled the Insurance Rate Public Justification and Accountability Act (Proposition 45), California would join the majority of states that require prior regulatory approval of health insurance rates before they can be used. Although the November General Election seems a long way off in the middle of summer, it will arrive quickly enough. Accordingly, here are some predictions on what’s likely to happen with Proposition 45:

1) Proposition 45 will be approved by at least a 55 percent yes vote margin. Like rising auto insurance rates in the 1980s that provided impetus to Proposition 103, rapidly rising health insurance rates since the early 2000s have set the stage for voter approval. This time around, the voters are in a far crankier and distrustful mindset following the 2008 economic downturn than they were in 1988, which is likely to result in a larger margin of yes votes than for Proposition 103 that squeaked by with a tiny margin of approval. Demographics will also play a role. Members of the boomer generation who rebelled against rising auto insurance rates in the 1980s are now in their 50s and 60s and pay the highest rates for health coverage under Affordable Care Act provisions that permit health plan issuers to base premium rates on age. Many boomers are also what I’ve dubbed “401 percenters” who earn above the 400 percent federal poverty level eligibility cutoff for income tax credits to defray premiums for plans purchased through the state’s health benefit exchange, Covered California. They must bear the full brunt of higher premiums on their own.

2)  Proposition 45 will serve as a de facto 6.9 percent cap on premium increases. Increases of 7 percent or greater would entitle the public to petition the California Department of Insurance to hold a hearing proposed increases to determine if they would result in charges that are excessive, inadequate or unfairly discriminatory. There are a host of consumer groups waiting in the wings that would likely petition for a hearing, particularly since they stand to be compensated if the insurance commissioner determines they have made a substantial contribution to the proceeding including but not limited to Health Access California, the Western Center on Law and Poverty, Consumers Union, the Greenlining Institute and Proposition 45’s proponent, Consumer Watchdog. As long as the underlying health care utilization cost trend stays around 7 percent, health plan issuers will be able to pass along higher costs in premium rates and cost sharing. If the trend exceeds that amount, plan issuers will likely argue that they need higher rates in order to remain solvent and to continue to do business in the state.

3) Because of the uncertainly of intervenor challenges of premium rate increases at or exceeding 7 percent, health plan issuers that want to sell Covered California Qualified Health Plans (QHPs) will negotiate premium increases below that amount. They will do so with two negotiating partners, each with the power to make or break the deal: the exchange as well as the insurance commissioner. Since both Covered California and the elected regulator share an interest in holding down premiums and cost sharing, health plan issuers could find themselves double teamed in a tough negotiating dance. As with now, the dance will begin in early summer once plan issuers have a reasonable amount of data on the prior year’s claim experience and the expected cost trend for the upcoming plan year. The negotiations will culminate in late summer. If they are successful, health plan issuers will make formal 60-day advance filing of rates as required by current California law. If they are not, health plan issuers will have to decide whether they can go without the increase or forgo offering a given plan or plans through the exchange marketplace. That could result in some plan issuers opting to instead offer the proposed plans in the off-exchange market but with the downside of sacrificing access to individuals eligible for advance income tax premium tax credits.

 


The ACA health insurance market reforms are at hand. Need help understanding and preparing for the new regulatory landscape and the health benefit exchange marketplace -- and explaining them to your key stakeholders?  Pilot Healthcare Strategies can help with expert analysis and clear communications. For a free initial consultation, email me at fpilot@pilothealthstrategies.com or call 530-295-1473. 

Multi-state plan paradox

Because the BCBSA is offering at least two plans in each of the states, the requirements of the law are met even though the OPM has a contract with only one issuer. The OPM did not publicly state how many applicants applied to the MSPP. The selection of the BCBSA, although not surprising, may not do much to increase plan choice or competition in heavily concentrated markets. In all but a handful of states, the BCBSA-affiliated plans are already the most dominant plans in the individual market.

via Health Policy Briefs.

A paradox of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is explained in this Health Policy Brief by the journal Health Affairs. Multi-state plans were intended to increase competition in individual health insurance, particularly in state markets with only a small number of plan issuers.  However, the market dominance of Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan issuers in most states — plan issuers affiliated with the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) — allows an affiliated plan issuer to designate two plan offerings as multi-state plans without altering the market share of the blue plan issuers.

 


The ACA health insurance market reforms are at hand. Need help understanding and preparing for the new regulatory landscape and the health benefit exchange marketplace -- and explaining them to your key stakeholders?  Pilot Healthcare Strategies can help with expert analysis and clear communications. For a free initial consultation, email me at fpilot@pilothealthstrategies.com or call 530-295-1473. 

California exchange undertakes review of November ballot measure calling for prior approval of individual and small group health plan premium rates, cost sharing

California’s health benefit exchange marketplace, Covered California, is undertaking an analysis of the potential impact of a November 2014 ballot measure that would institute prior regulatory approval of individual and small group health insurance rates. The initiative statute, titled the Insurance Rate Public Justification and Accountability Act, would subject these rates to an initiative statute ratified by voters in 1988 that placed most types of property/casualty insurance under prior rate approval regulation.

An outline of the analysis raises various questions as to how prior approval will jibe with Covered California’s annual schedule to select and finalize qualified health plans (QHPs) to be sold through the exchange and on what terms and conditions within Covered California’s standardized benefit framework. Under the schedule, health plan regulators review QHPs and their coverage terms and conditions in a two month window in the late summer and early fall for QHPs effective January 1 of the following year. But the scope of that review does not give regulators the final word on what plans can charge for premiums and out of pocket costs.

The ballot measure would afford California’s elected insurance commissioner that oversight authority as well as the authority to hold hearings to obtain public testimony. The Act would overlay federal regulations issued under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at 45 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 154 authorizing federal and state regulators to jointly review (or the federal Department of Health and Human Services alone if a state opts out) small group and individual rates and require health plan issuers justify rate increases of 10 percent or more per year.

Both Covered California as an active purchaser exchange and regulators negotiate final QHP rates, which also affect plans sold outside the exchange since plans must offer the same plans both inside and outside the exchange marketplace. If approved by voters, the November ballot measure would increase the negotiating leverage of the insurance commissioner, who could opt to hold up rate approval pending a public hearing. That could potentially complicate Covered California’s annual QHP negotiation and approval process (and by extension its marketing and enrollment functions) and result in some plans being withdrawn before they take effect the following January if their premium rates and cost sharing are deemed excessive by the commissioner and disapproved.

In addition, since the underlying cost trend of annual health insurance rate increases has generally exceeded 7 percent in recent years, most if not all proposed plan rates would trigger a provision of the proposed law that allows the public and consumer groups to request the commissioner to hold a public hearing to determine if rate increases at or above 7 percent would result in rates that are unfair, discriminatory or excessive, introducing the prospect of further delay before the rates could be used. Further complications could come under a provision in the ballot initiative creating a transition period where plan issuers could hit the reset button and issue new plans that the commissioner could opt to exempt from prior rate approval provided they use rates in effect on or before January 1, 2014.

Proponents of the measure — including the current insurance commissioner — are likely to downplay the issues raised in the Covered California operational analysis. They will likely argue that premium rates are a matter between the plans and consumers (and not the exchange) and plans are responsible for ensuring they are using only approved rates and refunding any excess rates. However, if premium rates and cost sharing for the next to lowest cost silver actuarial value plan are involved in a lengthy challenge and hearing process, it could seriously affect the exchange marketplace since advance premium tax credits are keyed to that plan.

While a majority of states require prior approval of rates in the individual health insurance market (California is in a minority that employ a “file and use” scheme) according to this Kaiser Family Foundation chart, a half dozen states including California have state-based health benefit exchange marketplaces that actively select QHPs and negotiate with health plan issuers according to this Kaiser Family foundation compilation. Of those six states, all are prior approval states except California. Covered California’s analysis should undoubtedly examine how those state-based exchanges navigated their states’ prior approval regulatory schemes for plan year 2014.

 


The ACA health insurance market reforms are at hand. Need help understanding and preparing for the new regulatory landscape and the health benefit exchange marketplace -- and explaining them to your key stakeholders?  Pilot Healthcare Strategies can help with expert analysis and clear communications. For a free initial consultation, email me at fpilot@pilothealthstrategies.com or call 530-295-1473. 

Hospitals Begin Subsidizing Exchange Premiums via Third Parties

Hospitals are concerned the carrot of advance premium tax credit subsidies for individual coverage offered in the state health benefit exchange marketplace and the stick of a tax penalty for being medically uninsured may not be enough incentive to ensure every patient coming through their doors is insured. Particularly for households earning between 100 and 150 percent of federal poverty, even though they pay no more than 2 to 4 percent of their incomes for an exchange qualified health plan and are eligible for cost sharing subsidies for plans with 70 percent actuarial value.

Cheryl Clark of Health Leaders Media reports hospitals in Wisconsin and Florida are teaming up with charities to supplement the exchange premium subsidies and have received approval from the federal Health and Human Services Department to do so. Click here for the story.

Apparently the hospitals’ economic calculation is it’s a better deal to get a tax write off to contribute to the charities to help cover premiums for exchange coverage than to run the risk some patients will allow their exchange coverage to lapse. That in turn increases the risk hospitals will have to retain collection agencies to dun patients for charges arising from uninsured care or write them off.

While it’s still early going with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s individual market reforms, this development shows hospitals — a primary beneficiary of expanding coverage to reduce those lacking health coverage — aren’t completely confident in the law’s ability to achieve this goal. Some observers note that while the Affordable Care Act provides low income people access to health insurance, many have never had coverage and have habitually sought care in hospital emergency rooms where federal law requires their medical condition be assessed and stabilized if necessary regardless of ability to pay for services.

 


The ACA health insurance market reforms are at hand. Need help understanding and preparing for the new regulatory landscape and the health benefit exchange marketplace -- and explaining them to your key stakeholders?  Pilot Healthcare Strategies can help with expert analysis and clear communications. For a free initial consultation, email me at fpilot@pilothealthstrategies.com or call 530-295-1473. 

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