The biggest threat to the future financial sustainability of the state health benefit exchange marketplace may be declining economic prosperity and the resulting polarization of household income strata, particularly in the states that have elected to expand Medicaid eligibility to households earning up to 138 percent of federal poverty and to single adults.
The reason? Low income households that qualify for Medicaid generally cannot purchase qualified health plans (QHPs) offered on state health benefit exchanges. If the growing Medicaid eligible population isn’t able to purchase QHPs, the exchanges don’t derive fees assessed on health plan issuers – their main source of revenue as federal establishment grant funds dwindle — that are based on a percentage of premium or set amount for each “effectuated” enrollee. (In states that have opted not to expand Medicaid eligibility, households earning at least 100 percent of federal poverty are eligible to purchase exchange QHPs.)
A Rand Corporation analysis of 2013-15 health coverage enrollment trends issued in June 2015 reported 6.5 million newly enrolled in Medicaid as of February 2015, outpacing by 58 percent the 4.1 million that enrolled in exchange QHPs. According to federal data, 71.1 million Americans were enrolled in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program as of April 2015, 12.3 million more than the average for July to September 2013.
While exchanges realize no revenue from Medicaid enrollments, they do incur expense in handling them. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s “no wrong door” policy, exchanges are required to process eligibility and enrollment for both state insurance programs like Medicaid as well as QHPs. It’s also easier to enroll in Medicaid coverage. Unlike exchange QHPs that limit enrollment to part of the year during open enrollment periods, those eligible for Medicaid can enroll at any time of the year.
In California, an expansion state with the nation’s largest Medicaid program serving 12.2 million or about 1 in 3 Californians, enrollment grew by 41.4 percent between December 2013 and January 2015, according to the state’s Medicaid administrator, the Department of Health Care Services. Before that, a severe economic downturn added about 1 million new eligibles to the Golden State’s Medicaid rolls between 2007 and 2010.
Enrollment in California’s Medicaid program – known as Medi-Cal – far outstrips that of QHPs sold through the state’s health benefit exchange, Covered California. According to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, there were 1.4 million enrolled in Covered California plans as of February 2015 — about the same number for plan year 2014. To put that in perspective, there are roughly 61 Medi-Cal enrollees for every 7 enrolled in a Covered California QHP.
Colorado, a Medicaid expansion state that operates a state-based exchange, has seen burgeoning Medicaid enrollment tax the finances of its exchange. The state enrolled 1.2 million in Medicaid — an increase of 433,172 or 55 percent — between late 2013 and February 2015. For 2015, the state’s exchange, Connect for Health, enrolled 27,465 people in Medicaid or CHIP. That’s nearly twice the 15,566 enrolled in commercial plans, blowing a $7 million hole in its budget for increased call center costs handling complex Medicaid enrollments and prompting the exchange to seek reimbursement from the federal government, according to The Denver Post.
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