In the debate over an Obamacare “stability” bill, advocates of such a measure contend that it will lower premiums, throwing around studies and numbers to make their case. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) released a handout earlier this week claiming that Oliver Wyman forecast a 40 percent reduction in premiums from a “stability” package, and that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) gave preliminary estimates of a 10 percent premium reduction in 2019, and a 20 percent reduction in 2020 and 2021.
However, all these numbers avoid — wittingly or otherwise — answering the critical question: Premium reduction compared to what? Barack Obama ran into this problem when trying to sell Obamacare. In 2008, he said repeatedly that his health care plan would “cut” people’s premiums — and then, after signing the bill into law, tried to argue that when he had said “cut,” he really meant “slow the rate of increase.”
But would a “stability” bill actually prevent those premium increases for 2019, particularly for unsubsidized enrollees? (Federal subsidies insulate individuals with incomes under 400 percent of the poverty level — $100,400 for a family of four — from much of the effects of premium hikes.) Would premiums remain flat, or even decline, next year compared to 2018 rates? Based on the studies released to date, most indications suggest otherwise — which should give conservatives pause before embracing a measure that would further entrench Obamacare, making repeal that much less likely.
Factors Affecting Premiums For 2019
Over and above annual increases in medical costs, multiple unique factors will impact premiums for the coming year:
Cost-Sharing Reductions: President Trump’s October decision to stop Obamacare’s cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments to insurers had a large theoretical impact — but in most states, little practical effect on unsubsidized enrollees. Estimates released prior to the President’s decision suggested that insurers would need to raise premiums for 2018 by roughly 20 percent to account for loss of the CSR payments.
An analysis of states’ decisions regarding CSRs shows that only six states applied the CSR charges to all health insurance plan rates—thereby forcing unsubsidized enrollees to pay higher premiums. Because comparatively few unsubsidized enrollees paid higher premiums due to the CSR decision, the inverse scenario applies: Few unsubsidized enrollees will receive any premium reduction from appropriating CSRs.
Individual Mandate Repeal: As I noted last fall, eliminating Obamacare’s individual mandate tax, while retaining its costly regulations, will put upward pressure on premiums — the only question is how much. Without getting taxed for not purchasing Obamacare-compliant insurance, some healthy individuals will drop coverage, raising average premiums for the remainder.
In its most recent estimate last November, the CBO stated that eliminating the tax would raise exchange premiums “by about 10 percent in most years of the decade.” The administration likewise believes that eliminating the mandate penalty will raise premiums by a similar amount. Its proposed rule on short-term health plans estimated an average monthly premium of $649 with the individual mandate penalty, and $714 without—an increase of $65 per month, or exactly 10 percent.
The administration’s proposed rule on short-term health insurance admitted that exchange premiums would rise as a result of healthy individuals choosing short-term coverage over exchange plans, but by very modest amounts. In the administration’s estimates, premiums would rise by only $2-4 per month for exchange coverage — far less than the $65 monthly estimated premium increase due to elimination of the mandate tax, as noted above. However, the administration’s estimates only assume that 100,000-200,000 individuals enroll in short-term coverage.
By contrast, the liberal Urban Institute estimated much higher take-up of short-term plans by healthy individuals, and therefore much greater premium increases for the sicker individuals who would remain in Obamacare-compliant coverage. According to Urban, 4.3 million individuals would enroll in short-term coverage — more than 20 times the administration’s highest estimate. Because of these healthy individuals migrating to short-term coverage, the Urban researchers assume much larger premium increases for Obamacare-compliant plans, averaging 18.3 percent in the 45 states (plus the District of Columbia) that currently allow the sale of short-term coverage.
The proposed regulatory action on short-term plans — which the administration hopes insurers will start selling by this fall — could have minimal impact on premiums, or lead to sizable premium increases. In general, however, the more that short-term plans succeed in attracting many (healthy) customers, the higher premiums will climb for the (sicker) individuals who maintain exchange coverage.
Premium Tax Suspension: In the January continuing resolution, Congress suspended Obamacare’s health insurance tax — currently in effect for 2018 — for 2019. An August 2017 study, paid for by health insurer UnitedHealthGroup and conducted by Oliver Wyman, found that the insurer tax would raise premiums by about 2.7 percent. Removing the tax next year would lower 2019 premiums by roughly the same amount.
Premium Estimates — Comparing 2018 And 2019
Given the above factors, will premiums go down in 2019 compared to their current 2018 levels? Based on the analyses conducted to date, most indicators suggest they will not.
Oliver Wyman: As I noted on Wednesday, the 40 percent headline figure in the Oliver Wyman study relies on an assumption that Oliver Wyman itself finds dubious. That premium reduction assumes that states apply for and receive a waiver to create their own reinsurance pool on top of the federal reinsurance funds. However, Oliver Wyman concedes that “states that have not already begun working on a waiver will be challenged to get [one] filed and approved under the current regulatory regime in time to impact 2019 premiums.”
The report continues: “In those states that are not able to obtain [a waiver]…we estimate that premium [sic] would decline by more than 20 percent across all metal levels. Those estimates include an average 10 percent reduction due to the funding of CSRs, with the remaining reduction coming from the reinsurance program.”
However, most individuals will NOT receive a 10 percent premium reduction in 2019 if Congress funds CSRs — because, as noted above, most unsubsidized individuals are not paying higher premiums in 2018 due to the non-funding of CSRs. Moreover, while Oliver Wyman said its modeling “reflects elimination of the mandate penalty,” it does not consider the impact of regulatory action on short-term plans or AHPs.
Therefore, the study conducted by Oliver Wyman — which frequently does work for the insurance industry — suggests that, at best, the “stability” package would reduce premiums in 2019 compared to current law for the average enrollee by 10 percent. However, would it actually reduce premiums compared to 2018 levels for the average enrollee? Only if one assumes that 1) health costs do not rise significantly and 2) few individuals enroll in short-term plans or AHPs. If either scenario occurs, a slight premium decrease could turn into a premium increase — and if both scenarios occur, a sizable increase at that.
Congressional Budget Office: Neither Alexander nor the CBO have released their full analysis of a “stability” package. However, according to Alexander’s characterization of the CBO score, the budget office assumes a more modest premium impact than Oliver Wyman — a 10 percent reduction in 2019, followed by a 20 percent premium reduction in 2020 and 2021. Like Oliver Wyman, the CBO likely believes that tight deadlines would make it difficult for the funds provided by the “stability” bill to lower premiums in time for the 2019 plan year. Unlike Oliver Wyman, however, the CBO does not take into account whether and how funding CSRs would lower premiums — because, as I have written previously, federal budget law requires the CBO to assume full funding for CSRs (and all other entitlements) when conducting its analyses.
As noted above, the CBO believes that eliminating the mandate penalty would raise premiums by roughly 10 percent. Put another way, then, in CBO’s estimation, the entire “stability” package would only cancel out the effect of eliminating the mandate penalty on premiums in 2019. If health costs rise — as they do every year — then premiums will rise in 2019. And if the short-term plans succeed in attracting many customers away from the exchanges, then premiums for Obamacare-compliant plans could rise substantially — by double digits — even after the “stability” package.
Conservatives have many good reasons to oppose this “stability” measure — budgetary gimmicks, potential federal funding of abortion coverage, Congress’ total lack of oversight for the bad decisions made by insurers and insurance commissioners, to name just a few. But the fact that the measure looks unlikely to achieve its central goal of lowering premiums seems the most damning indictment of the proposal — failing to solve its intended problem, while causing so many others.
This post was originally published at The Federalist.