ACA Proves Itself but Race Disparity Persists

ACA Proves Itself but Race Disparity Persists

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to reject another challenge to the Affordable Care Act was widely seen as the final word: the law is here to stay.

But it was COVID-19 that underscored how important it is.

Racial disparities in uninsured populations

The federal government said nearly 10 million people signed up for Medicaid health coverage during the pandemic year that ended in January 2021. A decade after passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which expanded Medicaid to include more low-income Americans by increasing the income limit for eligibility, the new sign-ups pushed total Medicaid enrollment to a record high of 80 million.

The recent increase was largely due to the spike in sign-ups among the unemployed or workers who saw their hours reduced and lost some of their wages. The relief packages passed by Congress in March 2020 and this year encouraged Medicaid enrollment by giving states additional funding to pay medical costs and sign up more people.

Beyond Medicaid, sales of regular health insurance policies sold on the state insurance exchanges also rose last year, as COVID-19 raced through the population. A 5 percent increase in enrollment in the policies, which are often subsidized, pushed total enrollment to 12 million.

Earlier this year, the American Rescue Plan continued to shore up health coverage by reducing insurance premiums for people who buy the policies. Unfortunately, these and earlier federal supports were temporary measures put in place for the pandemic, and some progress will be reversed when the supports expire at the end of this year or next year.

Despite the recent coverage gains, it has been a bumpy ride. Prior to COVID-19, sales of ACA policies had been slowing after years of marked progress in reducing the U.S. uninsured rate. And in the states that have not expanded Medicaid to reach more residents, the uninsured rates are nearly double the rates in the expansion states – 15.5 percent vs 8.3 percent. …Learn More


Medicare

Enrollment Trends in Medicare Options

Most retirees manage to get by on less than they earned as workers. Yet they devote a much larger percentage of their income to medical care than working people.

To limit their annual spending on care, retirees usually buy some type of insurance policy to help pay the bills Medicare does not cover. But a big shift is under way: the Medigap and employer plans that once dominated are now in decline. Only about a third of retirees have one of these two supplementary arrangements, down from two-thirds in 2002.

Retirees are instead swarming into Medicare Advantage plans  – HMOs run by insurance companies – which doubled enrollment in the past decade to become the most popular form of coverage. A small minority of retirees go without any policy at all, so the only premium they pay is for Medicare Part B’s physician coverage. (The Part A hospital coverage has no premium.) At the same time, the vast majority of retirees today enjoy prescription drug coverage, either through a stand-alone Part D plan or as part of an employer or Advantage plan.

Helen Levy at the University of Michigan digs into what the market changes mean for retirees’ bottom line in recent research funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

With fewer employers offering retiree health insurance, new Medicare beneficiaries focus on the tradeoffs between Medigap and Advantage policies. A big reason the Advantage plans have taken off is lower premiums, which are, on average, substantially below the premiums on Medigap plans. Advantage plans’ other appeal is that they frequently cover extra services like dentists and eyeglasses.

Both Advantage and Medigap plans can still leave beneficiaries with high out-of-pocket spending. The federal limit on Advantage plans’ deductibles and copays increased this year to $7,550 per year, though insurers are permitted to reduce this cap. Many Medigap plans do not have out-of-pocket maximums at all. However, these plans tend to give more protection from large medical bills overall.

Just as important to retirees as paying the bills is the risk of being socked with inordinately high spending on hospital and physician care in a bad year. Levy defines this unpredictability as retirees having to shell out more than 10 percent of income out of their pockets, excluding all premiums.

Under this standard, about 23 percent of the retirees in the study with Advantage plans spent more than 10 percent of their income for care – versus 17 percent of Medigap buyers.  About 28 percent of those without any coverage outside of Medicare exceeded the 10-percent threshold. …Learn More


Employers Want Help with Health Costs

The cost of employer health insurance has skyrocketed, and workers are picking up some of that growing tab. Amid employees’ grumbling, employers are loath to push more of the cost onto their workers.

That’s why the consensus view among major employers, expressed in a recent survey, sounded like a cry for help. Calling rising insurance costs “unsustainable,” the vast majority said they need help from the government either to provide alternative forms of coverage or control health care and prescription costs.

Employers “have reached their limit,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, chief executive of the Purchaser Business Group on Health, an employer advocacy organization that collaborated with the Kaiser Family Foundation on the survey.

Employers, she said, “are tired of pouring tons of money into a broken health care market that delivers uneven quality at bloated costs.”

And these are the major corporations and non-profits with more than 5,000 employees. They have some leverage to negotiate with insurers and more financial wherewithal to pay for the plans. Smaller employers – if they provide health insurance at all – pay roughly the same premiums as large employers, and their workers shoulder a larger share of the cost for family plans.

Last year, employers with more than 50 workers paid $21,342 in premiums to cover employees with family plans – that’s still 50 percent more than a decade ago, despite a recent slowdown in health care inflation, according to Kaiser.

When employers’ insurance costs rise so quickly, that squeezes out money they might use for wages and other benefits. Workers are also paying more, though each employer decides how much of the added costs to pass on to workers.

In 2020, employees paid nearly $5,600 – more than a quarter – of employers’ total costs for family plans. To curb their health insurance expenses, employers increasingly are offering high-deductible plans, and the deductibles workers pay for these plans are also rising.

The major employers said in the survey that they’re open to a range of federal policies that would either cut health care costs or get the government more involved in providing health care. …Learn More

No-Benefit Jobs Better than Retiring Early

Woman in taxiMany workers in their 60s lose some of their stamina. Either their bodies start showing signs of wear, or they don’t tolerate on-the-job stress like they used to.

People who find themselves in this situation but can’t afford to retire will appreciate the findings in a recent study: older workers who transition to a new job – and perhaps a less demanding one – have greatly improved their retirement finances, even if the new job lacks health and retirement benefits.

The starting point for the analysis was to identify 61- and 62-year-olds employed in career jobs and follow the changes in their retirement finances over time, as they break into three groups. Some retired, some remained in longstanding jobs with benefits, and some found no-benefit jobs, whether with an employer or as an independent contractor.

Matt Rutledge and Gal Wettstein at the Center for Retirement Research compared each group’s retirement prospects in their early 60s with where they ended up years later, after the majority of them had retired. The focus was on the people who, at 62, were falling short of what they would need to retire comfortably.

The financial assessments were based on so-called replacement rates – estimated retirement income as a percentage of employment earnings. The average target required for financial security in old age is about 75 percent of past earnings, though the precise number depends on how much the individual earned.

The researchers estimated replacement rates for the 62-year-olds who fell short of the targets and estimated the rates again when they were 67 or 68. Retirement security improved over time for the under-prepared people who continued to work – in contrast to an erosion in security for the people who, despite falling short, had retired at 62 and locked in a small Social Security check.

The most interesting finding concerned the older workers who had extended their employment by switching to no-benefit jobs. Their retirement income in their late 60s replaced 68 percent of their past earnings, on average – still less than what they need but up dramatically from 52 percent if they had retired early. …Learn More


Family under an umbrella

5 Million Families Caught in an ACA Glitch

The states’ health insurance marketplaces will sell subsidized family policies to workers who have employer coverage on one condition: their employer premiums are deemed unaffordable.

But this condition has a quirk. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a worker is eligible to buy a subsidized family plan only if he can’t afford his employer’s premiums for an individual policy, defined in the law as exceeding 9.83 percent of his income. Policymakers argue this is the wrong standard, because the ineligible worker needs a family policy, and employers’ family policies usually have much higher premiums than their individual policies.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates some 5.1 million workers are in this predicament, which is known as the “family glitch.”

The majority of workers who are not eligible for the ACA’s family coverage are buying the policies at work, and they spend an average of 16 percent of their income on premiums, Kaiser said. The people who can’t afford the employer insurance are forced to go without.

Tina Marie Mueller’s family is caught in the family glitch. She recently wrote in Health Affairs that her husband pays $1,500 per month for employer health insurance for the family, including their two children. “So, after paying for our family insurance, my husband brings home $400/wk,” Mueller said. “We are beyond frustrated that this part of the ACA hasn’t been fixed.”

The COVID relief package passed in March did temporarily expand access to the exchanges for more middle-class Americans by dramatically increasing the premium subsidies. But “people in the family glitch will still not be helped,” said Krutika Amin, a health care expert at the Kaiser Foundation. …Learn More


Wire being frayed

Layoffs Fray Health Insurance Network

The majority of Americans who have health insurance – some 150 million workers – get their coverage through their employers. But this network has suddenly developed a big hole in the midst of a pandemic.

The economic shutdown that is suppressing the coronavirus has thrown nearly 30 million people out of work – and taken away their health insurance. Millions more are expected to be laid off.

About 10 percent of the U.S. population did not have health insurance in 2018, Kaiser’s most recent estimate. This share will certainly increase sharply, but how high it goes and how quickly the situation will improve is hard to predict, given all the uncertainties, said Jennifer Tolbert, director of state health reform for the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) does provide options that were unavailable to people who lost their jobs during the 2008-2009 recession. Even so, “there are still so many ways that people can lose insurance,” Tolbert said.

The coronavirus “highlights the still-existing gaps in our healthcare system and coverage,” she said.

Under the ACA, the newly unemployed potentially have two options: purchasing private policies on the state insurance exchanges or enrolling in the Medicaid program for poor and very low-income people.

Medicaid MapMedicaid enrollment is available year-round for the newly unemployed and for low-paid workers whose hours have been cut, causing them to lose the insurance they had when they were full-time. But this program is not an option for thousands of laid-off workers in 14 states, including Florida and Texas. They will slip through the cracks, because their states have declined the ACA option to extend their programs to cover more residents.

Medicaid historically has provided health insurance for low-income parents with dependent children. Under the ACA, most states did expand their programs and now include adults who do not have children. The ACA also expanded coverage by increasing the income ceiling for Medicaid eligibility to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. …Learn More

State Uninsured Rates All Over the Map

Map of Uninsured rates

A decade after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, about one out of every five Texans under age 65 still do not have health insurance. Georgia, Oklahoma and Florida are close behind.

The contrast with Hawaii, Minnesota, Michigan, and New Hampshire is stark – only about one in 20 of their residents lacked insurance in 2018, the most recent year of available data, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual roundup of insurance coverage in the 50 states.

Despite this glaring disparity, the share of Americans lacking coverage has dropped dramatically across the board, including in Texas. Texas’ uninsured rate fell from 26 percent in 2010 to 18 percent in 2018. This translates to 2.3 million more people with health insurance. (Large populations of undocumented immigrants in states like Texas can push up the uninsured rate.)

States that had fairly broad coverage even prior to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) 2010 passage didn’t have as far to fall. For example, Connecticut’s uninsured rate is 6 percent, down from 10 percent in 2010.

One upshot of these two trends is that the disparity between the high- and low-coverage states has shrunk. Certainly, the strong job market gets credit for reducing the ranks of the uninsured. But millions of Americans who don’t have employer insurance have either purchased a policy on the insurance exchanges or gained coverage when their state expanded Medicaid to more low-income residents under the ACA.

For example, just two years after Louisiana’s 2016 Medicaid expansion, the uninsured rate had fallen from 12 percent to 9 percent.

But the initial benefits of the ACA seem to have played out. The U.S. uninsured rate increased slightly, from 10 percent to 10.4 percent between 2016 and 2018.

The share of people who are underinsured is also rising, the Commonwealth Fund found in a recent analysis. …

Learn More

 


Originally posted at https://squaredawayblog.bc.edu/tag/health-insurance/

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