Monthly Archive: July 2014

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 bands. 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.

 


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 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 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.

 


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 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.

 


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 fpilot@pilothealthstrategies.com or call 530-295-1473. 

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