Small group most voluntary market segment under ACA – and faces unique viability risks

Of the three major health insurance market segments – large group, small group and individual – small group is the most voluntary market under Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act rules that take effect January 1, 2014.

Large employers, defined by the ACA as employing 50 or more full time workers, are subject to the employer shared responsibility requirement to offer coverage to nearly of these employees. All individuals must have some form of health coverage under pain of a tax penalty for going bare. Small employers on the other hand have the greatest degree of freedom of choice as to whether to play in the small group market.

The ACA strengthens the functionality of the small group market with several provisions. It eliminates risk rating of small employers by health plan issuers. The ACA also enhances the risk pooling power of small employers by combining them into single statewide risk pools. Finally, the law affords small employers the purchasing power of large employers through the Small Employer Health Options Program (SHOP) of the state health benefit exchange marketplace. The SHOP also serves as a benefit administrator of sorts for small employers, helping them select plans and billing them for monthly premiums.

The extent to which these reforms work as intended to shore up the small group market will become clearer over the next few years. There are several factors that could result in the leakage of potential covered lives out of the small group market, potentially adversely affecting the viability of the small group pool and the SHOP, particularly if a significant number of small employers now offering health coverage to their employees adopt them. They include:

  • Opting to participate in “private” exchanges set up by health benefit plan administrators and insurance brokerages instead of the SHOP
  • Offering a defined contribution benefit or stipend to help workers buy their own coverage on the state exchange individual marketplace instead of directly offering coverage
  • Self-insuring for employee health care costs.

Need a speaker or webinar presenter on the Affordable Care Act and the outlook for health care reform? Contact Pilot Healthcare Strategies Principal Fred Pilot by email or call 530-295-1473. 

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Frederick Pilot

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