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With Congress in its summer recess, now is a good time to reflect on the top ACA issues worth monitoring as 2015 quickly approaches. Here are a handful of key issues to watch:
Dueling Court Cases on Federal Subsidies
One issue grabbing national headlines is the dueling decisions coming out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (Halbig v. Burwell) and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (King v. Burwell) on missing language in the ACA that would have authorized the federal government to provide premium subsidies to individuals who sign up for health plans through the federal Exchanges. The legal issue in these court cases is whether the ACA premium tax credit (aka subsidy) is available to those individuals who enroll in qualified health plans (QHP) through state operated Exchanges or if it is available only to those to enroll in a QHP through a federally funded Exchange.
A primary concern is that a significant number of people in about two-thirds of the states (who did not set up a state-run Exchange) rely on the subsidy to purchase a plan in the federal Exchange. Specifically, the ACA’s employer mandate penalty of $3000 is based upon an employer having an employee seek coverage through an Exchange and receive the federal premium subsidy. In general, the employer mandate requires that “applicable large employers” offer their full-time employees minimum essential coverage or potentially pay a tax penalty. However, according to the statutory text of the ACA, the penalties under the employer mandate are triggered only if an employee receives a subsidy to purchase coverage through an Exchange established by the states. Both cases are being appealed to higher courts and will likely be consolidated into one case to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in the not so distant future.
In an interesting development, a video surfaced last week featuring one of the ACA’s chief architects (John Gruber) saying that health insurance subsidies should only be available in those states who opt to build and implement state-based Exchanges to gain participation. The idea was to create an incentive to have states actively involved in the hosting of an Exchange, rather than relying on the federal government to operate the Exchanges in each state. Whether this video will be used as evidence to uphold the argument that subsidies can only be offered by state-based Exchanges remains to be seen.
Lack of Back End Software for Federal Exchange
Of course, one of the big news stories in 2013 and early 2014 was the substandard launch of the federal Exchange, which led to many Americans having to wait to be enrolled in an ACA-compliant health plan. Although some technical snafus have been addressed, there are many that still remain. For example, a top White House official recently told Congress that the automated system that is supposed to send premium payments to insurance companies is still under development, and they did not have a completion date for it yet. The lack of an electronic verification process is only one part of the “backend” software that is still problematic five years after PPACA was passed.
Future of Navigators in Comparison with the Value of Brokers
Several recent studies have touted the benefits of using third parties, such as Brokers, to help consumers find coverage under the ACA. Some of these studies have focused on the usefulness of using Brokers/Agents over the benefits of using Navigators. A recent Urban Institute study found that health insurance Brokers were the most helpful in providing health insurance Exchange information when compared to other types of resources, including Navigators and website content. However, there are other published studies showcasing how Navigators have been useful to consumers. That being said, Brokers have assumed an integral role supporting millions of Americans in securing and maintaining coverage for many decades, and continue to be knowledgeable resources, as they are licensed in the states they operate in, whereas Navigators are not required to meet the same licensing standards as Brokers/Agents. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Navigators, who are not as experienced and who are, in the end, dependent upon federal grants to provide their services.
Provider Access Issues & Emergency Room Over-Usage
A number of public policymakers have raised concerns recently about the fact that there are shortages of key physicians and other providers and as a result is causing a increase in non-emergent patient visits to expensive ER departments. A recent story in the New York Times highlighted similar concerns, saying the ACA cannot change the fact that visiting an emergency room may be easier than seeing a primary care physician in some instances or locations. Other stories and studies highlight how the ACA and health care reform initiatives can affect access to providers in many different ways, such as changing reimbursement levels, improving the availability of certain types of specialists, or re-educating the patient to move from visiting the ER department to either making an appointment ahead-of-time or visiting a less expensive Urgent Care center for care.
Premium Rate Increases
Another critical issue to monitor are premium increases that might be occurring in spite of the initial promises that the ACA would lower health care costs. Health plans have begun publishing proposed rates for 2015, resulting in a recent flurry of news articles and reports addressing the impact of the ACA on insurance premiums.
The Wall Street Journal published a front page report discussing the ACA’s impact on premium increases earlier this summer, saying, “Hundreds of thousands of consumers nationwide, who bought insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act, will face a choice this fall: swallow higher premiums to stay in their plans or save money by switching.”
The Journal goes on to say that a new picture is emerging in 10 states where 2015 premium insurance rates for individual plans have been filed, “In all but one (state), the largest health insurer is proposing to increase premiums between 8.5% to 22.8% next year.” Ironically, smaller health plans are reducing their 2015 rates in the same market in an attempt to gain market share.
The significance of this trend is underscored in a statement released earlier this summer by Karen Ignagni, president & CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), in which she expressed concerns about keeping health insurance affordable for patients. “Affordability remains a top priority for consumers when it comes to their health care,” she said.
Bonus: Be Sure To Watch The Political Races
With the ACA’s continued challenges, the ups and downs of the U.S. economy, key world events in the Middle East, and other confounding variables, one has to wonder what will happen during the mid-year elections this fall. As reported by CNN and other news outlets, the ACA became an key issue in Obama’s 2012 re-election victory as well as Democrats picking up seats in the Senate and House in that election.
As November 3, 2015 approaches, many different messages could be sent back to the White House and Congress. If Republicans take over the Senate and retain control of the House, how will this impact the ACA over the next several years? If the congressional houses remain split, we may have less going on by either political party. How will the state-level elections impact the ACA and state-run Exchanges? Only time will tell.