Reforms of the non-group market aimed at revitalizing it as it faced the death spiral of adverse selection at the start of the decade have reached a turning point. A major tax reform bill almost certain to be signed into law this month effectively cancels out one of three foundational elements designed to rescue the market contained in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: the tax penalty levied on households that go “bare” without medical coverage.
The Affordable Care Act reforms effectively force buyers and sellers together to sustain a functional non-group market. Plan issuers must accept everyone applying for coverage without medical underwriting. On the buyer side, the thinking was the penalty would provide incentive to purchase an individual plan, with the segment acting as a residual market for those without access to other forms of coverage. In retrospect, turns out the incentive wasn’t strong enough, particularly to improve the spread of risk by creating a diversified risk pool of young and old and those in good and ill health. Many households found the tax penalty the superior option over purchasing coverage, eroding the intended effect of strengthening the market and ensuring a good spread of risk.
Zeroing out the tax penalty as the pending tax bill does would not collapse non-group into a rapid adverse selection death spiral, accounting to the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO projects the negation of the tax penalty will cut the estimated 15 million Americans in the individual market by one third by 2027. Nevertheless, the CBO said, the segment “would continue to be stable in almost all areas of the country throughout the coming decade.” In other words, a shrunken but not a fatally crippled market over the near term.
Going forward, a couple of factors not addressed in the CBO analysis could further downsize the non-group segment:
- The exit of households earning in excess of 400 percent of federal poverty and therefore ineligible for premium subsidies offered though state health benefit exchanges, particularly for family plans and for individuals aged 50 to 64. Premium rates are already considered out of reach for many of these households. According to the CBO analysis, premiums will continue to rise by 10 percent a year over the next 10 years. The CBO analysis notes non-enforcement of the tax penalty would help drive the increases as healthier people would be less likely to obtain insurance, requiring plan issuers to make up the lost premium revenue by raising rates.
- The replacement of Affordable Care Act compliant individual plans with short term plans. In October, the Trump administration directed three federal agencies to consider new regulations or guidance that would expand the availability of short term policies beyond the current 90 day limit. If short term policies are defined as up to 12 versus three months and be renewable for another year, they would offer a medically underwritten, lower cost alternative to those who can pass underwriting standards. That would reintroduce medical risk selection mostly barred by the Affordable Care Act, which permits premium rating based only on age, location, family size and tobacco use. According to Modern Healthcare, at least two plan issuers – UnitedHealth and Aetna – are looking into issuing short term plans, potentially offering covered benefits on a par with individual plans. That would create a bifurcated non-group market rather than the single state risk pooling under the Affordable Care Act’s reforms and has raised concerns among stakeholders and state regulators according to Modern Healthcare. This would effectively unwind the Affordable Care Act’s reforms and return to the period preceding 2014 when plan issuers limited benefits and employed medical underwriting as strategies to cope with rising medical treatment costs. The question is whether these pre-reform strategies will sufficiently mitigate those costs in order to avoid the adverse selection that threatened the market segment’s viability pre-2014.
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