Another Chart Shows How You Will Lose Your Current Coverage

Ahead of this week’s round of Democratic presidential debates, former vice president Joe Biden continued his attacks on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer health plan. Biden said it would undermine people currently receiving coverage through Obamacare.

In response, Sanders’s campaign accused Biden of using “insurance company scare tactics.” This week’s debates will see similar sets of allegations. Opponents of immediate single-payer will attack the disruption caused by a transition to socialized medicine, while supporters call single-payer skeptics pawns of the insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, or both.

But the dueling sets of insults amount to little more than a sideshow. As these pages have previously argued, most Democrats ultimately want to get to a government-run system—they only differ on how quickly to throw Americans off their current health coverage. A series of recently released figures provide further proof of this theory.

200 Million Americans on Government-Run Health Care

Last week, the Center for American Progress (CAP) released some results of an analysis performed by Avalere Health regarding their “Medicare Extra” proposal. That plan, first released in February 2018, would combine enrollees in Medicaid and the Obamacare exchanges into one large government-run health plan.

Under the CAP plan, employers could choose to keep their current coverage offerings, but employees could “cash-out” the amount of their employer’s insurance contribution and put it towards the cost of the government-run plan. Likewise, seniors could convert from existing Medicare to the “new” government-run plan.

More to the point: The study concluded that, within a decade, nearly 200 million Americans would obtain coverage from this new, supercharged, government-run health plan:

As the chart demonstrates, the new government-run plan would suck enrollees from other forms of coverage, including at least 14 million who would lose insurance because their employer stopped offering it. By comparison, Barack Obama’s infamous “If you like your plan, you can keep it” broken promise resulted in a mere 4.7 million Americans receiving cancellation notices in late 2013.

Neither Plan Is a Moderate Solution

Whether 119.1 million Americans losing their private coverage, or 200 million Americans driven onto a government-run plan, none of these studies, nor any of these supposedly “incremental” and “moderate” plans, shows anything but a massive erosion of private health care provision, and a massive expansion of government-run health care.

Case in point: Earlier this year, Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) introduced a version of the CAP plan as H.R. 2452, the Medicare for America bill. As I wrote in June, the version of the legislation reintroduced this year completely bans private health care.

Under their legislation, individuals could not just pay their doctor $50 or $100 to treat an ailment like the flu or a sprained ankle. The legislation would prohibit—yes, prohibit—doctors from treating patients on a “cash-and-carry” basis, without federal bureaucrats and regulations involved.

Whether the Medicare for America bill, the CAP proposal, or Biden’s proposal for a government-run health plan, all these plans will eventually lead to full-on socialized medicine. Sanders has the wrong solutions for health policy (and much else besides), but at least he, unlike Biden, wins points for honesty about his ultimate goals.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why Smaller Premium Increases May Hurt Republicans in November

Away from last week’s three-ring circus on Capitol Hill, an important point of news got lost. In a speech on Thursday in Nashville, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar announced that benchmark premiums—that is, the plan premium that determines subsidy amounts for individuals who qualify for income-based premium assistance—in the 39 states using the federal healthcare.gov insurance platform will fall by an average of 2 percent next year.

That echoes outside entities that have reviewed rate filings for 2019. A few weeks ago, consultants at Avalere Health released an updated premium analysis, which projected a modest premium increase of 3.1 percent on average—a fraction of the 15 percent increase Avalere projected back in June. Moreover, consistent with the HHS announcement on Thursday, Avalere estimates that average premiums will actually decline in 12 states.

On the other hand, however, given that Democrats have attempted to make Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions a focal point of their campaign, premium increases in the fall would remind voters that those supposed “protections” come with a very real cost.

How Much Did Premiums Rise?

The Heritage Foundation earlier this year concluded that the pre-existing condition provisions collectively accounted for the largest share of premium increases due to Obamacare. But how much have these “protections” raised insurance rates?

Overall premium trend data are readily available, but subject to some interpretation. An HHS analysis published last year found that in 2013—the year before Obamacare’s major provisions took effect—premiums in the 39 states using healthcare.gov averaged $232 per month, based on insurers’ filings. In 2018, the average policy purchased in those same 39 states cost $597.20 per month—an increase of $365 per month, or $4,380 per year.

Moreover, the trends hold for the individual market as a whole—which includes both exchange enrollees, most of whom qualify for subsidies, and off-exchange enrollees, who by definition cannot. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that, from 2013 to 2018, average premiums on the individual market rose from $223 to $490—an increase of $267 per month, or $3,204 per year.

Impact of Pre-Existing Condition Provisions

The HHS data suggest that premiums have risen by $4,380 since Obamacare took effect; the Kaiser data, slightly less, but still a significant amount ($3,204). But how much of those increases come directly from the pre-existing condition provisions, as opposed to general increases in medical inflation, or other Obamacare requirements?

The varying methods used in the actuarial studies make it difficult to compare them in ways that easily lead to a single answer. Moreover, insurance markets vary from state to state, adding to the complexity of analyses.

However, given the available data on both how much premiums rose and why they did, it seems safe to say that the pre-existing condition provisions have raised premiums by several hundreds of dollars—and that, taking into account changes in the risk pool (i.e., disproportionately sicker individuals signing up for coverage), the impact reaches into the thousands of dollars in at least some markets.

Republicans’ Political Dilemma

Those premium increases due to the pre-existing condition provisions are baked into the proverbial premium cake, which presents the Republicans with their political problem. Democrats are focusing on the impending threat—sparked by several states’ anti-Obamacare lawsuit—of Republicans “taking away” the law’s pre-existing condition “protections.” Conservatives can counter, with total justification based on the evidence, that the pre-existing condition provisions have raised premiums substantially, but those premium increases already happened.

If those premium increases that took place in the fall of 2016 and 2017 had instead occurred this fall, Republicans would have two additional political arguments heading into the midterm elections. First, they could have made the proactive argument that another round of premium increases demonstrates the need to elect more Republicans to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare. Second, they could have more easily rebutted Democratic arguments on pre-existing conditions, pointing out that those “popular” provisions have sparked rapid rate increases, and that another approach might prove more effective.

Instead, because premiums for 2019 will remain flat, or even decline slightly in some states, Republicans face a more nuanced, and arguably less effective, political message. Azar actually claimed that President Trump “has proven better at managing [Obamacare] than the President who wrote the law.”

Conservatives would argue that the federal government cannot (micro)manage insurance markets effectively, and should not even try. Yet Azar tried to make that argument in his speech Thursday, even as he conceded that “the individual market for insurance is still broken.”

‘Popular’ Provisions Are Very Costly

The first round of premium spikes, which hit right before the 2016 election, couldn’t have come at a better time for Republicans. Coupled with Bill Clinton’s comments at that time calling Obamacare the “craziest thing in the world,” it put a renewed focus on the health-care law’s flaws, in a way that arguably helped propel Donald Trump and Republicans to victory.

This year, as paradoxical as it first sounds, flat premiums may represent bad news for Republicans. While liberals do not want to admit it publicly, polling evidence suggests that support for the pre-existing condition provisions plummets when individuals connect those provisions to premium increases.

The lack of a looming premium spike could also neutralize Republican opposition to Obamacare, while failing to provide a way that could more readily neutralize Democrats’ attacks on pre-existing conditions. Maybe the absence of bad news on the premium front may present its own bad political news for Republicans in November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Graham-Cassidy’s Funding Formula Gives Washington Unprecedented Power

The past several days have seen competing analyses over the block-grant funding formula proposed in health-care legislation by Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA). The bill’s sponsors have one set of spreadsheets showing the potential allocation of funds to states under their plan, the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has another, and consultants at Avalere (funded in this case by the liberal Center for American Progress) have a third analysis quantifying which states would gain or lose under the bill’s funding formula.

So who’s right? Which states will end up the proverbial winners and losers under the Graham-Cassidy bill? The answer is simple: Nope.

While the bill’s proponents claim the legislation will increase state authority, in reality the bill gives unelected bureaucrats the power to distribute nearly $1.2 trillion in taxpayer dollars unilaterally. In so doing, the bill concentrates rather than diminishes Washington’s power—and could set the course for the “mother of all backroom deals” to pass the legislation.

A Complicated Spending Formula

To start with, the bill repeals Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and exchange subsidies, effective in January 2020. It then replaces those two programs with a block grant totaling $1.176 trillion from 2020 through 2026. All else equal, this set of actions would disadvantage states that expanded Medicaid, because the Medicaid expansion money currently being received by 31 states (plus the District of Columbia) would be re-distributed among all 50 states.

From there the formula gets more complicated. (You can read the sponsors’ description of it here.) The bill attempts to equalize per-person funding among all states by 2026, with funds tied to a state’s number of individuals with incomes between 50 percent and 138 percent of the poverty level.

Thus far, the formula carries a logic to it. For years conservatives have complained that Medicaid’s match rate formula gives wealthy states more incentives to draw down federal funds than poor states, and that rich states like New York and New Jersey have received a disproportionate share of Medicaid funds as a result. The bill’s sponsors claim that the bill “treats all Americans the same no matter where they live.”

Would that that claim were true. Page 30 of the bill demonstrates otherwise.

The Trillion-Dollar Loophole

Page 30 of the Graham-Cassidy bill, which creates a “state specific population adjustment factor,” completely undermines the rest of the bill’s funding formula:

IN GENERAL.—For calendar years after 2020, the Secretary may adjust the amount determined for a State for a year under subparagraph (B) or (C) and adjusted under subparagraphs (D) and (E) according to a population adjustment factor developed by the Secretary.

The bill does say that HHS must develop “legitimate factors” that affect state health expenditures—so it can’t allocate funding based on, say, the number of people who own red socks in Alabama. But beyond those two words, pretty much anything goes.

The bill says the “legitimate factors” for population adjustment “may include state demographics, wage rates, [and] income levels,” but it doesn’t limit the factors to those three characteristics—and it doesn’t limit the amount that HHS can adjust the funding formula to reflect those characteristics either. If a hurricane like Harvey struck Texas three years from now, Secretary Tom Price would be within his rights under the bill to cite a public health emergency and dedicate 100 percent of the federal grant funds—which total $146 billion in 2020—solely to Texas.

That scenario seems unlikely, but it shows the massive and virtually unprecedented power HHS would have under the bill to control more than $1 trillion in federal spending by executive fiat. To top it off, pages 6 through 8 of the bill create a separate pot of $25 billion — $10 billion for 2019 and $15 billion for 2020 — and tell the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator to “determine an appropriate procedure” for allocating the funds. That’s another blank check of $25,000,000,000 in taxpayer funds, given to federal bureaucrats to spend as they see fit.

Backroom Deals Ahead

With an unprecedented level of authority granted to federal bureaucrats to determine how much funding states receive, you can easily guess what’s coming next. Unnamed Senate staffers already invoked strip-club terminology in July, claiming they would “make it rain” on moderates with hundreds of billions of dollars in “candy.” Under the current version of the bill, HHS staff now have virtual carte blanche to promise all sorts of “state specific population adjustment factors” to influence the votes of wavering senators.

The potential for even more backroom deals than the prior versions of “repeal-and-replace” demonstrates the pernicious power that trillions of dollars in spending delivers to Washington. Draining the swamp shouldn’t involve distributing money from Washington out to states, whether under a simple formula or executive discretion. It should involve eliminating Washington’s role in doling out money entirely.

That’s what Republicans promised when they said they would repeal Obamacare—to end the law’s spending, not work on “spreading the wealth around.” That’s what they should deliver.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Obamacare’s Exchanges Have Become Medicaid-Like Ghettoes

The October surprise that Washington knew about all along finally arrived yesterday, as the Obama administration announced that premiums would increase by nearly 25 percent nationally for Obamacare’s individual insurance. With the exchanges already struggling to maintain their long-term viability, the premium increases place the administration in a political vise, as it tries to encourage people to buy a product whose price is rising even as it presents a poor value for most potential enrollees.

In the 40-page report the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released, breaking down premium and plan information for 2017, one interesting number stands out. Among states using Healthcare.gov, the federally run exchange, the median income of enrollees in 2016 topped out at 165 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). In other words, half of enrollees made less $40,095 for a family of four. And 81 percent earned less than $60,750 for a family of four, or less than 250 percent of the FPL.

The new data from the report further confirm that the only people buying exchange plans are those receiving massive subsidies — both the richest premium subsidies, which phase out significantly above 250 percent FPL, and cost-sharing subsidies, which phase out entirely for enrollees above the 250 percent FPL threshold. If the House of Representatives’ suit challenging the constitutionality of spending on the cost-sharing subsidies succeeds, and those funds stop flowing to insurers, Obamacare may then face an existential crisis.

Even as it stands now, however, the exchanges are little more than Medicaid-like ghettoes, attracting a largely low-income population most worried about their monthly costs. To moderate premium spikes, insurers have done what Medicaid managed-care plans do: Narrow networks. Consultants at McKinsey note that three-quarters of exchange plans in 2017 will have no out-of-network coverage, except in emergency cases. And those provider networks themselves are incredibly narrow: one-third fewer specialists than the average employer plan, and hospital networks continuing to shrink.

In short, exchange coverage looks nothing like the employer plans that more affluent Americans have come to know and like. Case in point: At a briefing last month, I asked Peter Lee, the executive director of Covered California, what health insurance he purchased for himself. He responded that he was not covered on the exchange that he himself runs but instead obtained coverage through California’s state-employee plan. Which raises obvious questions: If Covered California’s offerings aren’t good enough to compel Lee to give up his state-employee plan, how good are they? Or, to put it another way, if exchange plans aren’t good enough for someone making a salary of $420,000 a year, why are they good enough for low-income enrollees?

Therein lies Obamacare’s problem — both a political dilemma and a policy one. Insurers who specialize in Medicaid managed-care plans using narrow networks have managed to eke out small profits amid other insurers’ massive exchange losses. As a result, other carriers have narrowed their product offerings, making Obamacare plans look more and more alike: narrow networks, tightly managed care — yet ever-rising premiums.

While restrictive HMOs with few provider choices may not dissuade heavily subsidized enrollees from signing up for exchange coverage, it likely will discourage more affluent customers. The exchanges need to increase their enrollment base. The combination of high premiums, tight provider networks, and deductibles so high as to render coverage all but useless will not help the exchanges attract the wealthier, and healthier, enrollees needed to create a stable risk pool. By reacting so sharply to its current customer base, insurers on exchanges could well alienate the base of potential customers they need to maintain their long-term viability. In that sense, Obamacare’s race to the bottom could become the exchanges’ undoing.

This post was originally published at National Review.

The Importance of Unsubsidized Exchange Enrollees

Attempting to pre-empt concerns about rising premiums on Obamacare Exchanges in 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) over the recess released a report claiming that federal subsidies will insulate most Americans from the effects of even a massive premium spike for Exchange plans. But in focusing on the number of individuals who qualify for federal subsidies, the HHS report missed an important detail: To become more financially stable and sustainable, the Exchanges need greater enrollment by those who do not qualify for subsidized plans.

I first noted back in March 2015 the split in Exchange enrollment: Only individuals who qualify for the richest subsidies have signed up for coverage in significant numbers. While the numbers have shifted slightly, the same dynamic remains. An updated analysis from consulting firm Avalere Health found that 81% of the potentially eligible individuals with incomes between 100-150% of the federal poverty level—those who qualify for the richest premium subsidies, and cost-sharing reimbursements to help with things like deductibles and co-payments—selected an Exchange plan. But enrollment declines substantially as income rises. Only 16% of eligible individuals with incomes between three and four times poverty selected a plan, and only 2% of those with income above four times poverty—those ineligible for both premium and cost-sharing subsidies—signed up.

While insurance Exchanges in general have suffered from lackluster enrollment, unsubsidized coverage lags even further behind earlier predictions. When Congress enacted the bill into law in March 2010, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicted that in 2016, Exchanges would enroll a total of 21 million Americans—17 million receiving insurance subsidies, and 4 million purchasing unsubsidized coverage. As of March 31, the Exchanges had enrolled 11.1 million Americans—9.4 million buying subsidized coverage, and 1.7 million in unsubsidized plans. When it comes to meeting the 2010 CBO projections, unsubsidized enrollment (42.3%) lags more than ten percentage points behind enrollment of individuals receiving federal subsidies (55.2%).

Although an imperfect proxy, rising income does in the aggregate correlate with longer life-expectancy and better self-reported health status. If wealthier individuals who do not qualify for insurance subsidies enrolled in Exchange plans, the overall risk pool of the Exchanges might improve. As it stands now, however, Exchange enrollees are sicker than those in the average employer-provided health plan. What the HHS report tried to highlight as a feature—the large number of enrollees receiving subsidies—is in reality a bug, as the poorer, sicker population has proved difficult for insurers to cover.

The HHS study contained other material shortcomings. It did not acknowledge that, according to multiple estimates, off-Exchange enrollment nearly matches Exchange enrollment—a fact with two major implications. First, it means more Americans will pay the full freight of higher premiums than the Administration would have you believe. Second, it reinforces that insurers can circumvent the statutory requirement to combine off-Exchange and on-Exchange enrollment into a single risk pool by only selling policies off the Exchange. Some carriers have effectively segmented the market in two by doing just that.

Most obviously, while the HHS report advertised how insurance subsidies would cushion the effect of higher premiums for most Exchange purchasers, it did not attempt to estimate the impact on the federal fisc of that higher spending. Others have also noted that the Department again declined to release the underlying data behind its assertions. But by highlighting how much of their population receives federal subsidies, HHS essentially advertised Exchanges’ one-dimensional nature—the same aspect that has many insurers heading for the exits.

Has Obamacare Enrollment Peaked?

Has the effort peaked to sign up uninsured Americans for coverage? The announcement that the nonprofit organization Enroll America is laying off staff and redirecting its focus in the face of funding cuts comes amid inconsistent sign-ups during the second Affordable Care Act open-enrollment period and concerns about affordability.

A recent New York Times analysis compared Kaiser Family Foundation estimates of potential enrollees with sign-up data from the Department of Health and Human Services. While some states that signed up few people in 2014 recovered during the 2015 open enrollment, other states lagged: “California, the state with the most enrollments in 2014, increased them by only one percentage point this year, despite a big investment in outreach. New York improved by only two percentage points. Washington’s rates are unchanged.”

Most states could not post consistent gains in both open-enrollment periods. An official from Avalere Health, a consulting firm, told the Times that she was “starting to wonder if we’ve overestimated the whole thing.”

A recent analysis from Avalere Health demonstrates why the enrollment push may have peaked. The percentage of eligible Americans signing up drops off significantly as income rises and federal subsidies phase out, suggesting that absent subsidies Americans find the exchange insurance products unaffordable or of little value. And if the carrot of federal subsidies has not resulted in expected enrollment, the stick—the mandate to purchase insurance—seems even less effective: The special open-enrollment period to accompany this year’s tax-filing season has resulted in 36,000 sign-ups in the 37 states using HealthCare.gov. But 4 million to 6 million people are expected to pay the mandate tax.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that ACA enrollment will average 11 million individuals, with 8 million receiving subsidies. So far, enrollees reporting incomes above the threshold for subsidies are only 2% of uninsured individuals who have signed up, making it hard to see how the administration can reach CBO’s estimate of 6 million unsubsidized exchange enrollees in 2016. The fact that California, New York, and Washington state achieved only marginal enrollment improvements from 2014 to 2015 does not bode well for achieving CBO’s target of 15 million subsidized enrollees next year—a more than 50% increase from the 9.9 million individuals who qualified for subsidies in 2015.

With outreach efforts scaling back, and many Americans uninterested in ACA coverage absent hefty federal inducements, CBO’s estimate of 21 million enrollees next year seems unlikely to be met. If this year’s results from California and New York are any indication, a good question may be whether 2016 enrollment will grow at all.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

Obamacare Enrollment Split: Subsidies vs. No Subsidies

Two reports released in the past week demonstrate a potential bifurcation in state insurance exchanges: The insurance marketplaces appear to be attracting a disproportionate share of low-income individuals who qualify for generous federal subsidies, while middle- and higher-income filers have generally eschewed the exchanges.

On Wednesday, the consulting firm Avalere Health released an analysis of exchange enrollment. As of the end of the 2015 open-enrollment season, Avalere found the exchanges had enrolled 76% of eligible individuals with incomes between 100% and 150% of the federal poverty level—between $24,250 and $36,375 for a family of four. But for all income categories above 150% of poverty, exchanges have enrolled fewer than half of eligible individuals—and those percentages decline further as income rises. For instance, only 16% of individuals with incomes between three and four times poverty have enrolled in exchanges, and among those with incomes above four times poverty—who aren’t eligible for insurance subsidies—only 2% signed up.

The Avalere results closely mirror other data analyzed by the Government Accountability Office in a study released last Monday. GAO noted that three prior surveys covering 2014 enrollment—from Gallup, the Commonwealth Fund, and the Urban Institute—found statistically insignificant differences in the uninsured rate among those with incomes above four times poverty, a group that doesn’t qualify for the new insurance subsidies.

The GAO report provided one possible reason for the lack of enrollment among individuals not eligible for federal insurance subsidies. In 2014, premiums remained unaffordable—costing more than 8% of income—across much of the country for a 60-year-old making five times poverty. These individuals earned too much to qualify for subsidies, but too little to afford the insurance premiums for exchange policies. The GAO data confirm my July analysis, in which I wrote: “Those who do not qualify for federal subsidies appear to find exchange coverage anything but affordable.”

Other findings echo the strong link between subsidies and coverage. The Commonwealth Fund’s study last summer noted that among those with incomes between 250% and 399% of poverty, the uninsured rate had not changed appreciably. These individuals don’t qualify for the additional federal assistance with cost-sharing—deductibles, co-payments, and co-insurance—provided to those with incomes below 250% of the federal poverty level. Prior studies have demonstrated that some of these individuals won’t qualify for premium subsidies at all, based on their age, income, and premium levels in their state.

The overall picture presented is one of a bifurcated, or even trifurcated, system of health insurance. Individuals who qualify for very rich insurance subsidies or Medicaid have signed up for coverage, while those who qualify for small or no subsidies have not. It raises two obvious questions: Whether and how the exchanges can succeed long-term with an enrollment profile heavily weighted towards subsidy-eligible individuals—and whether an insurance market segregated by income was what Obamacare’s creators originally had in mind.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

How Automatic Renewal Could Cost Obamacare Enrollees

Last month I wrote that as the Obamacare open-enrollment period for 2015 approaches, the administration “faces a double-edged sword: Making reenrollment easier could result in premium increases for many individuals, particularly because the most widely subscribed plans have proposed significant rate hikes.” Two developments last Thursday appear to confirm that analysis.

First, the administration released proposed regulations regarding reenrollment for 2015. As some expected, the regulations confirmed that insurance exchanges would reenroll individuals in their existing plans if enrollees remain eligible for qualified health plans through the exchange and the plan in which they were enrolled remains available for renewal.

The same day, consultants at Avalere Health released an analysis showing that most low-cost plans have proposed sizable rate increases for 2015. In seven of the nine states Avalere analyzed, the lowest-cost “silver” plan would change; in six of the nine states, the second-lowest-cost silver plan would change.

These pricing changes have special importance: Federal insurance subsidies are tied to the price of the second-lowest-cost silver plan. Enrollees in plans with premiums greater than that benchmark stand to pay the full difference in premiums–without additional federal subsidies. The Avalere analysis demonstrates how costly such a decision could be. One hypothetical enrollee in Maryland would see her out-of-pocket premiums rise from $58 per month to $94, a 62 percent increase. In this instance, $32 of the $36 monthly premium increase stems from staying in a plan more costly than Maryland’s benchmark premium.

The administration no doubt views auto-enrollment as a way to minimize what even a supporter of the health-care law called the “massive technological challenge” associated with redetermining eligibility. But as The Wall Street Journal reported two weeks ago, the lowest-cost plans for 2014 have recorded some of the highest enrollments this year—and have proposed large increases for 2015. Unless millions of individuals switch plans, they could be in for some nasty spikes in their out-of-pocket premium costs come Jan. 1.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

Paul Krugman’s California Dreamin’

Since California released its health care exchange premium rates late last week, liberals such as Paul Krugman have argued that Obamacare’s predicted “rate shock” will fail to materialize next year. At least three reasons explain why liberals’ argument falls short:

1. Dubious Assumptions About Exchange Enrollment

Some independent observers questioned whether the insurance companies in California’s exchange made favorable—and dubious—assumptions about the people who would buy insurance on the exchange next year. The Washington Post noted that “if sick people sign up en masse next year…that could dramatically increase costs for insurers, who would then have to recoup the money by increasing premiums.” One vice president at Avalere Health, a consulting firm, told the Post that a delayed premium spike could happen:

[The projected premium rates] are low enough that you have to think, are there going to be health plans in this market that are underwater…. It’s so hard to predict because you don’t know who’s going to show up on the market.

2. A Pre-Existing Preview

While no one knows who will sign up for exchange coverage next year, an Obamacare program already up and running—one established for individuals with pre-existing conditions—has attracted far sicker enrollees than first anticipated. As The New York Times reported last week:

The administration had predicted that up to 400,000 people would enroll in the program, created by the 2010 health care law. In fact, about 135,000 have enrolled, but the cost of their claims has far exceeded White House estimates, exhausting most of the $5 billion provided by Congress….

When the federal program for people with pre-existing conditions ends on Jan. 1, 2014, many of them are expected to go into private health plans offered through new insurance markets being established in every state. Federal and state officials worry that an influx of people with serious illnesses could destabilize these markets, leading to higher premiums for other subscribers.

People in the pre-existing condition program have been much sicker than actuaries predicted at the time the law passed. If that phenomenon repeats itself in the exchanges—either because only sick individuals enroll, or because employers struggling with high health costs dump their workers into the exchanges—premiums will rise significantly in future years.

3. Bait and Switch

As a column in Bloomberg notes, for all the press around California’s supposedly low exchange premiums, officials generated such spin only by comparing apples to oranges:

Covered California, the state-run health insurance exchange, yesterday heralded a conclusion that individual health insurance premiums in 2014 may be less than they are today. Covered California predicted that rates for individuals in 2014 will range from 2 percent above to 29 percent below average small employer premiums this year.

Does anything about that sound strange to you? It should. The only way Covered California’s experts arrive at their conclusion is to compare apples to oranges—that is, comparing next year’s individual premiums to this year’s small employer premiums. (Emphasis added.)

Therein lies one of Obamacare’s many flaws. Liberals now argue that while some may pay more for coverage, they will get “better” benefits in return. However, when campaigning in 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama didn’t say he would raise premiums; he said he would give Americans better coverage: He promised repeatedly that he would cut premiums by an average of $2,500 per family. That gap between Obamacare’s rhetoric and its reality makes arguments such as Krugman’s seem fanciful by comparison.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.