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Affordability concerns over unsubsidized premiums in individual market

December 26, 2013 Leave a comment

As this blog as previously noted, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s reform of the individual health insurance market has the potential to generate middle class political blowback among what I’ve dubbed the “401 percenters.” These are households earning more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level — too much to qualify for advance tax credit subsidies to defray premiums for plans offered in the state benefit exchange marketplace. For individuals, that’s an annual income higher than $45,960 and $62,040 for couples.

Two newspaper stories published this month spotlight the 401 percenters with surveys pointing to premium affordability problems, particularly among those in their 50s and 60s. A New York Times analysis found premiums for this age group reaching as high as 20 percent of household income. Even younger people may find coverage unaffordable. For a hypothetical 40-year-old couple, a USA Today analysis found in half of the counties in 34 states where the federal government operates the exchange, the lowest cost bronze plan falls short of the Affordable Care Act’s definition of affordable coverage. Affordable coverage is defined as premiums not exceeding eight percent of income. For older individuals, it’s more problematic. The USA Today analysis found more than one third of the counties don’t offer an affordable plan for any of the four tiers of coverage — bronze, silver, gold or platinum — for those 50 or older and ineligible for subsidies in the exchange marketplace. Affordability is critical to the success of the risk pooling mechanism since affordable premiums bring more covered lives into the pool. Conversely when premiums are unaffordable, the size of the pool is limited, sharply increasing the likelihood of adverse selection taking hold.

The Affordable Care Act allows those whose premiums would place them within the law’s definition of unaffordable coverage to apply for a certificate of exemption from the state exchanges on the basis that payment of such premiums would constitute a financial hardship. In addition to exempting these individuals from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that all individuals have some form of medical coverage or pay a penalty, the certification entitles them to purchase lower cost “catastrophic” coverage on or off the exchange marketplace. The income of each member of the household must meet the eight percent affordability threshold.

While catastrophic plans offer lower premiums, the tradeoff is high annual deductibles: $6,250 for individuals and $12,500 for families. At least three primary care visits are covered, however. For some households, a higher cost bronze plan that’s Health Savings Account (HSA) compatible may be a better value. Like catastrophic plans, they also come with high deductibles. Deductibles can be paid with pre-tax HSA dollars (but not the premiums). For the self-employed, HSA-compatible bronze plan premiums may be tax deductible. Those in the “401 percenter” cohort would be well advised to consult with their tax advisors for definitive guidance.

 


The ACA health insurance market reforms are at hand. Need help understanding and preparing for the new regulatory landscape and the health benefit exchange marketplace -- and explaining them to your key stakeholders?  Pilot Healthcare Strategies can help with expert analysis and clear communications. For a free initial consultation, email me at fpilot@pilothealthstrategies.com or call 530-295-1473. 

Will individuals ineligible for exchange premium subsidies turn to catastrophic plans?

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Less than half (48 percent) of Americans who currently buy health coverage for themselves and their families in the individual market will qualify for advance tax credits to subsidize coverage purchased in the state health benefit exchange marketplace, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation paper issued this month. (That figure does not include those who qualify for Medicaid coverage in states that elect to expand coverage for households earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level.) The exchange advance tax credit subsidy is available in six income tranches for those with incomes between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level. Those earning more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($45,960 for singles; $92,200 for a family of four) are ineligible for the subsidies.

A big question as the exchanges prepare to open for 2014 enrollment this October is to what extent this cohort will find their premiums exceed eight percent of their incomes. The Affordable Care Act and implementing regulations regard premiums at this level as unaffordable and exempt those meeting this test from the law’s individual responsibility requirement and associated penalties for not having coverage. They allow these individuals to obtain a certificate of exemption from state exchanges that entitles them to purchase lower cost “catastrophic” coverage on or off the exchange marketplace. (Pending California legislation, SB 639, would restrict off-exchange sales to plan issuers offering catastrophic plans through the exchange marketplace). Catastrophic plans must include the 10 essential benefits required for all individual plans beginning in plan year 2014 as well as at least three primary care visits – with a flat deductible of $6,250 for individuals and $12,500 for families.

Federal rules (45 CFR § 156.155(c)) specify that for family catastrophic coverage, each enrolled family member must meet the eight percent income to premium affordability exemption or be under age 30. Lower premiums for catastrophic plans would enable these individuals and families to avoid going without coverage in case of a major, unexpected accident or illness as well as potentially facing very costly standard hospital “rack rate” charges for those without insurance.

 


The ACA health insurance market reforms are at hand. Need help understanding and preparing for the new regulatory landscape and the health benefit exchange marketplace -- and explaining them to your key stakeholders?  Pilot Healthcare Strategies can help with expert analysis and clear communications. For a free initial consultation, email me at fpilot@pilothealthstrategies.com or call 530-295-1473. 

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