Henry J. Aaron of the Brookings Institution has boiled down the future policy debate around the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Now that the law is firmly in place – at least for the near term – and is meeting a primary policy goal of reducing the number of medically uninsured Americans, the next debate will be over the adequacy and affordability of coverage. Specifically, whether it’s too much, too little or just about right.
Conservatives, Aaron writes, prefer increasing the financial exposure of patients when they buy insurance and when they use care. By comparison, those of a more liberal bent prefer no insurance whatsoever to protect against financial exposure to medical bills but rather Canadian-style “single payer” where a government monopsony pays the nation’s collective health care bill.
Likely to fuel the debate are reports like this recent Kaiser Health News item. It reported that even with advance tax credit premium subsidies for coverage sold on state health benefit exchanges, premiums alone for some moderate income households approach nearly a tenth of their gross incomes and can really add up when out of pocket costs are included:
For instance, families of three earning $73,000 have to pay nearly $7,000 on premiums despite also receiving subsidies They still face deductibles, which this year averaged around $2,500 for the most common types of insurance plans, known as silver tiers. If a family required extensive medical care and reached the maximum they would be held responsible for—$13,200 this year—their total health care-related bills, including premiums, would exceed $20,000, or 28 percent of their gross incomes. “Even some of those who are eligible for financial assistance are still finding the coverage not to be affordable for them,” said Linda Blumberg, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, Washington think tank.
All individual and small group plans that originated after the enactment of the ACA now basically operate as major medical plans of the pre-HMO days, minus the lifetime limits. They do so by virtue of calendar year maximum out of pocket limits: $6,600 for self-only coverage $13,200 for family coverage for 2015 plans (rising to $6,850 for self-only coverage $13,700 for family coverage for 2016). The annual premium is partly to cover catastrophic risk above these amounts. The amount of the premium paid by individuals and families depends on how much risk short of the calendar year OOP limits they want to assume. If they want less exposure to co-insurance, deductibles and co-pays, the premium is higher. If they’re willing to assume more, the premium is lower and lowest for “bronze” rated plans that cover 60 percent of expected annual medical utilization as well as pure catastrophic plans available to individuals under age 30 or households that would have to spend more than eight percent of their incomes to buy the lowest cost bronze plan offered in their area.
Herein is a primary element of the near term debate over the ACA: whether it provides affordable coverage regardless of whether households assume a high deductible and pay more out of pocket for non-catastrophic care or pay a higher premium in order to pay less out of pocket for these services. In a still fraught economy that has placed particular financial stress on moderate income households falling somewhat below and above the 400 percent of federal poverty cut off for advance tax credit subsidies for coverage sold on state health benefit exchanges – and those that have not or cannot easily afford to set aside money in health savings accounts to defray out of pocket costs — these costs and tradeoffs come into sharp focus.
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