Four years after the start of open enrollment under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s reformation of the non-group medical insurance market, the market’s future is clouded in uncertainty. The biggest questions are whether it can sustain itself as a market and as a functional risk pool.
First the market. Alarm bells are being sounded that that the segment will undergo buy side market failure as households with incomes exceeding 400 percent of federal poverty levels that don’t qualify for premium subsidies on state health benefit exchanges will no longer be able to keep up with large premium rate increases. This is complicated by the fact that these households perceive low value in high deductible plans that have become commonplace. Their expectations of fair value are under assault by high premiums for high deductible plans. The expectation is high premiums should have an inverse relationship with out of pocket costs such as deductibles and co-insurance as they historically have. That’s no longer the case.
Many of these 401 percenters ineligible for premium assistance have income tax incentives to continue to purchase non-group plans. For all of them, there is the stick of the tax penalty for going without coverage. For the many that are self-employed, there is the carrot of being able to deduct premiums from taxable income on their Form 1040. Both of these incentives however can only go so far if premium costs are unaffordable. The perception of poor value due to high plan deductibles might be enough to push a vacillating 401 percent plus household to make the decision to go without coverage and pay the tax penalty instead. Particularly if that self-employed household has dependent children or is comprised of adults over age 50. Premiums hit these households particularly hard since household size and age are two key premium rating factors in the non-group market.
The out migration of the 401 percenters combined with the reluctance of under 30 “young invincibles” to purchase a plan and instead pay the tax penalty would shrink and distort the non-group risk pool, calling into question its actuarial sustainability. The primary members would be adults aged 30-50 and a declining number of those over age 50 who are high utilizers of medical care eligible for premium subsidies though the exchanges or willing and able to pay rising premiums in the off-exchange market. With these populations, there may not be enough people in the pool to achieve a sufficient spread of risk among high and low utilizers to keep the segment from falling into adverse selection, further accelerating premium rate hikes.
The aversion of the young invincibles to comprehensive standard non-group plans would be reinforced under a Trump administration that’s exploring relaxing the rules governing short term “gap” policies. That liberalization would create a large degree of parity between short term and standard non-group plans. Both would have annual terms and be renewable. That would shrink the individual risk pool by providing a lower cost replacement for non-group plans for young adults and those who use little medical care, even when tax penalties for lacking comprehensive coverage are taken into account.
In sum, these factors leave the non-group market segment vulnerable to a relatively rapid unwinding over the next three or so years.
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