TrumpCare (AHCA) – Welcome to Universal Catastrophic Health Insurance

The AHCA would move the USA toward universal catastrophic healthcare coverage, by enabling insurance companies to sign up individuals to $0 monthly premium plans with high deductibles and limited coverage.

While healthcare analysts have been in overdrive commenting on the new GOP health plan, it appears that some key points have been lost in the noise. Whether on Medicaid, total enrollment, or tax credits, it seems that many analysts fail to understand the large-scale implications of the bill. As written, the AHCA has the potential to be transformative – it would retain the goal of universal coverage, while shifting tax credits toward universal high deductible insurance. If fully implemented, the AHCA could actually lead to gains in coverage – but the US healthcare market would be transformed by a move toward high deductible catastrophic coverage.

AHCA Key Changes:

  • Covered Benefits: The AHCA does not change the essential benefits list, but Secretary Price is interested in reducing essential benefits to lower costs.
  • Tax Credits: Tax credits will be less generous, but will cover more of the population, potentially leading to a shift toward catastrophic plans.
  • Medicaid: The Medicaid expansion ends after 2019, but tax credits will be available to all lower and middle-income Americans.
  • Employer Coverage: AHCA creates a strong incentive for employers to drop coverage, since most American workers will receive tax credits.
  • Universality: AHCA provides tax credits to virtually all Americans without other coverage, cementing the goal of universal health care in the USA.
Detailed Findings:

Covered Benefits:
With the exception of abortion coverage, the AHCA does not change the essential benefits under the ACA. HHS Secretary Tom Price has indicated that he will reduce regulations that increase costs – he can do this by limiting the definition of essential benefits.

Tom Price has indicated on multiple occasions that HHS will seek to reduce regulations on health insurance markets, and recently both he and President Trump indicated that these changes would be part of “phase 2 & 3” of their healthcare overhaul. In the past Secretary Price has indicated that he will seek to specifically limit the essential benefits requirement while at HHS.

The AHCA is particularly punitive towards abortion, barring the use of tax credits for any plan that covers abortion services (page 72 of bill pdf).

Tax Credits:
The AHCA offers up to $14k in tax credits per family, at 2k-4k per person depending on age (pages 90-92 of pdf). It also enables insurance companies to claim tax credits on behalf of enrollees, enabling them to offer cheap or free plans to the public.

Much has been written on winners and losers with the proposed tax credit changes. Analysts both left and right fear many will lose insurance. But look at page 106 of the bill: “Not later than January 1, 2020, the Secretary … shall establish a program … for making payments to providers of eligible health insurance on behalf of tax payers eligible for the credit under section 36C.”

Consider what this means – insurance companies will be paid between $2000 and $14,000 per year for each enrollment. In a similar situation in the for-profit university industry, tuition essentially matched federal loan programs, creating a no-money-down product for students. With the AHCA, insurers will be strongly incentivized by the market to offer $0 premium plans in order to maximize their signups of younger individuals in particular.

With the change of young-old ratio to 5:1 (page 66), and Tom Price’s expected reduction of essential benefits, new catastrophic plans will likely flood the market, providing a no cost option for many. See Appendix I for specific examples using 2017 exchange pricing.

Medicaid:
The AHCA ends the Medicaid expansion in 2019, but states may have some incentivize to jump in now, because the future funding they receive is based on the number of enrollees at the end of 2019. Beginning in 2020 the Medicaid expansion will be repealed, and only those enrolled under pre-ACA rules (with stricter income and asset tests) can be newly enrolled into Medicaid.

The AHCA does close a gap caused in non-Medicaid expansion states, where many workers make too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid, but too little to qualify for ACA subsidies. These individuals will qualify for the new AHCA tax credits.

Employer Coverage:
The AHCA removes penalties for not providing insurance (page 84 of bill pdf), and could encourage employers to drop coverage as it provides tax credits to a much larger range of working age Americans.

Per the Kaiser Foundation, the average employer contribution to individual employee healthcare is around $4800, with the employee contributing around $1200. At a 25% federal tax rate, this leads to a tax deduction value of $1500, versus a tax credit of $3000 for the median-age American worker. For family coverage, a tax deduction value (25% tax bracket) of roughly $4500 compares to a tax credit of $9000 for a family of four with adults in their 30s. In both cases, both the employer and employee would benefit if the employer dropped coverage, raised wages, and let the employee take advantage of the tax credit.

Appendix II presents a fully worked example for a family of four making $100k per year, and shows that the family would likely benefit under AHCA changes.

Universality:

The AHCA offers tax credits to all Americans without employer-based healthcare (except those with higher incomes), and as a result the AHCA accepts the ACA’s premise of universal health insurance.

The only Americans excluded from the new AHCA tax credits are those already receiving healthcare from a government program (Medicare, Medicaid, VA, etc) or from employer-based coverage (page 97 of bill pdf).

The GOP has produced a plan that implicitly accepts that universal healthcare is here to stay. The end game (relative to the ACA) will look very different, however, with large swaths of the population covered by high-deductible catastrophic plans.

Appendix I: Are $0 premiums for catastrophic plans really possible?

Is $2000 ($166/month) sufficient to offer a “free” plan to a young adult, or $10,000 ($833/month) sufficient to offer a “free” plan to a family of 4?

Using Healthcare.gov, in the Atlanta area the current cheapest plan for age 21 is exactly 1/3 of the $597 charged to a 64 year old, as a result of the ACA 3:1 limit on costs for older Americans. A bronze plan for age 20 is only $126/month in Atlanta, since the 3:1 limit doesn’t apply below age 21 (even in New York City, individual catastrophic plans are available from around $165/month). Since the AHCA raises the ratio limit to 5:1, this shows how $0 plans will fit within the $2000 tax credit.

How about for a family of four ages 31, 31, 4, and 2? This priced out at $713/month in Atlanta, below the $10k AHCA annual tax credit. Since the AHCA allows excess tax credits to be placed into an HSA, the family could bank around $1500 per year toward future medical expenses while paying $0 in premiums. In New York City, the family premium would be around $1050/month, leaving the family bearing around $200/month in premiums – but this is before accounting for the impact of the new 5:1 ratio and curtailment of essential benefits, which would likely bring net costs to $0 even in NYC.

What about older Americans? A $4000 ($333/month) tax credit will not cover a single 64 year-old’s $600/month premium in Atlanta. If HHS substantially reduces essential benefits, that may close the gap, but with a corresponding loss of benefits. Pre-Medicare age older Americans are clearly the biggest losers under the AHCA reform. But if the AHCA is able to substantially increase enrollment by the young and healthy due to $0 premiums, this may enable more affordable plans further up the age spectrum.

Appendix II: Why Employers May Drop Coverage – A Specific Example

Let’s consider again a family of four, ages 31, 31, 4, and 2. Using Kaiser numbers, on average the family and their employer spent a total around $18,000 on health insurance premiums, with the employer contributing roughly $13,000 of that amount. In the 25% tax bracket, the family is receiving $4500 in value from the existing tax deduction. In total, the family is spending about $500 out of pocket on health insurance when employer assistance and tax deductions are considered.

What if the employer were to drop coverage, enabling the family to receive a $9k AHCA tax credit, and to raise the employee’s salary by $13,000 instead? The employee would receive $9750 in new after-tax income (considering only a 25% federal rate) plus $9000 in tax credits, or $18,750 total. Assuming similar premiums, the family would then spend $18,000 on health insurance, leaving $750 unspent. In total the family might come out $1250 ahead versus the existing system, and the employer would be able to offload the risk and expense of managing benefits.

Fix Healthcare.gov by turning it into Turbotax

Go to www.irs.gov. Look for the File Now button to file your taxes. You’ll find a list of options for filing, including software companies providing tax filing web sites and software. The IRS makes fillable online tax forms, and the instructions for completing them – so why not cut out the middleman and deliver a free irs.gov tax filing portal? Healthcare.gov is just the latest answer to that question – the government has a poor track record of delivering technology solutions, with IRS, FBI, and DHS systems as just a few examples of failure [1].

The department (Health & Human Services) managing the Obamacare rollout should take a lesson from the IRS: if you set the rules, and let the private market deliver the software, you can offload the expense and risk of technology development while still receiving the benefits of automation. Turbotax and its competitors receive not one dime from the IRS, and yet have taken a huge share in the multi-billion dollar tax filing preparation market. In addition, these companies have agreed to give their software away for free to low-income individuals, eliminating any criticism on fairness or access grounds.

Healthcare.gov could easily move to the same model, and here’s the crazy part – several companies, including eHealthInsurance.com and GetInsured.com, already have healthcare exchanges certified to sell ACA plans WITH subsidies! While any licensed insurance agent (including websites) can sell ACA-compliant policies, a handful have built out their technology to work with the federal government and provide access to subsidized ACA insurance. Rather than competing with these firms, Healthcare.gov could terminate many of its bloated IT contracts and simply list certified private exchanges on its site. These exchanges would provide a free shopping experience for consumers, and earn a commission on policies sold in a manner similar to the financing system for healthcare.gov itself [2]. Let HHS & CMS employees set and administer the rules of the ACA, and leave the exchanges themselves to the private sector – leading to benefits for taxpayers and health insurance shoppers alike.

[1] This paper found that 70% of government-run software projects failed to meet stated objectives. Government contract reform has become a hot topic as a result of healthcare.gov’s failure, but these problems have been going on for years.

[2] The ACA exchanges will charge insurers 3.5% of each policy premium sold on exchanges to finance the marketplace. While this “user fee” is lower than the commissions many private insurance brokers receive, many would likely still jump at the opportunity given the size of the new market on offer (perhaps 7 million individual policies through 2014).

How Much Will Insurance Cost Under Obamacare?

May 28, 2013 Update: California’s just-released prices for ACA coverage are close to my 2012 estimates, with an unsubsidized bronze plan (for a 25 year-old) available for $142/month in Los Angeles.

Health insurance premiums for minimum coverage will likely be around $150/month for 27 year-olds under the ACA, since the ACA includes relatively high-deductible plans under the Bronze plan option.

Now that the dust has settled on the Supreme Court ruling, let’s attempt to answer a simpler question – how much will health insurance cost under the ACA (Obamacare)? Individuals purchasing health insurance via the new health insurance exchanges will be able to select from four plan levels: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. The law dictates that plans falling into these categories must have 60%, 70%, 80%, and 90% “actuarial value”, respectively. The concept of “actuarial value” dictates that the plan must cover the specified percentage of health care costs for enrolled individuals. Individuals enrolled in a bronze plan can expect their insurance to cover 60% of their health costs, for instance [1].

The Kaiser Family Foundation commissioned a study to determine the structure of plans that might meet the 60% actuarial value standard for the Bronze plan.  The study found that the following individual health care plans might qualify (all plans have a cap of around $6350):

  • A plan with a $6350 deductible and 0% coinsurance
  • A $4350 deductible with 20% coinsurance
  • A $2750 deductible with 30% coinsurance

How much would plans like these cost in 2014? We will focus on adults aged 27 in this example, since young adults more frequently go without insurance, and since young adults can now stay on their parents’ plans until 26. We can shop online for similar plans and get some results for comparison [2]:

  • $67.26 for a $2750 deductible / 30% coinsurance plan in Atlanta for a 27 year-old male
  • $98.21 for a $2750 deductible / 30% coinsurance plan in Atlanta for a 27 year-old female [3]
  • $129 for a $2750 deductible / 30% coinsurance plan in Silicon Valley for 27 year-old men and women
  • $73.22 and $95.07 for a $2500 deductible / 20% coinsurance plan in Chicagoland for a 27 year-old man and woman, respectively
  • $95 for a $2750 deductible / 20% coinsurance plan in Houston, TX for a 27 year-old man
  • $132 for a $2500 deductible / 10% coinsurance plan in Houston, TX for a 27 year-old woman
  • $70.75 and $90.46 for $2500 deductible / 20% coinsurance plan in Hartford, CT for a 27 year-old man and woman, respectively

Here are two market quotes for 63-year old females in relatively expensive markets:

  • $302 for $1200 deductible / 10% coinsurance HMO plan in New York, NY for a 63-year old woman
  • $516 for $3500 deductible / 10% coinsurance PPO plan in Santa Clara, CA for a 63-year old woman

The ACA stipulates that the most expensive policies for older individuals can be no more than 3 times the price of policies for younger adults. The data above show that a 27-year old can get a plan similar to the exchange bronze plan for around $100 per month today, but this is less than 1/3 the cost for older Americans. Using 1/3 of the cost of the plans for older women as a price floor, we get an estimate of $150 per month as the lower limit for plan prices [4].

This estimate is lower than the commonly-cited CBO estimate of $4500 per individual for bronze plans via the ACA exchanges. The CBO estimate is for 2016, and so it builds in two additional years of premium inflation (roughly 15%). The CBO number is also an average across all age groups – since young adults’ plans can cost 1/3 as much as the oldest (non Medicare-age) Americans, 27 year-olds’ plans will be much cheaper than the average. While the ACA should have allowed for more high deductible plans, it’s good to know that the bronze plans do provide for some affordable coverage options within the new health insurance exchanges.

[1] The 60% bronze plan threshold and other thresholds are applied to each plan considering the average expenditures for plan members. Given the deductible and copay structure of a particular plan, it’s possible that the plan spends a higher (or lower) percentage on a particular individual’s care. For instance, if you don’t use your plan at all in a given year, then your plan spent 0% on your care. At the other extreme, if you are diagnosed with cancer, and incur $100k in costs in a year, even a bronze plan would cover  perhaps 90% of that amount.

[2] All plans were found on ehealthinsurance.com on 8/2/2012.

[3] The wide discrepancy between plan prices for men and women will be eliminated by the ACA. For these purposes, averaging men and women’s prices enables us to get closer to a representative price under the ACA.

[4] Since health insurance is more expensive for women, and more expensive for older Americans, we used a 63 year-old woman as the prototype for an expensive risk in the existing private health insurance market. At age 65 virtually all Americans gain entry into Medicare (or Medicaid for seniors), and so 63 is the oldest age for which insurance quotes can reliably be obtained (some insurers won’t write short-dated policies, and no insurer writes non-Medicare policies for 65+ Americans). The average price from the two expensive quotes thus obtained was $409. After adding in 10% in premium inflation between now and January 2014, we get a premium estimate right around $450 per month. By law, one-third of this is the minimum that the exchanges can charge for any adult – and this equals $150 per month.

A One-Line Fix For Medicare Spending

My one-line Medicare / Medicaid spending fix:

Medicare should continue to pay 80% of health care costs for recipients’ care below $40,000 per calendar year, but should pay only 50% of health care costs above $40,000 per calendar year.

With the ongoing debt-ceiling debate and political discussions over how to cut spending dominating discourse, I thought I’d chime in with a simple plan to fix America’s long term budget crisis. The majority of America’s future budget deficits are a result of runaway growth in health care spending, despite reductions in Medicare spending put in place with the recently passed health care reform. Paul Ryan and other conservatives propose to fix this by ending the Medicare program, and replacing it with an insurance-voucher scheme. President Obama proposes to control cost growth through the IPAB, a board with the power to control Medicare reimbursement policies.

My plan is far simpler than either, and will preserve Medicare as it exists today for 90% of recipients. How does this plan work? Kaiser Foundation research shows that 90% of Medicare recipients receive less than 40k per year in health care. The remaining 10% of recipients actually spend 60% of the Medicare budget. The proposed change would require these recipients to either shoulder more of the cost of expensive treatments, or to utilize less expensive treatments. Note that Medicare would not leave any recipient high-and-dry, but it would require even cost sharing for expensive treatments.

When faced with higher cost-sharing, many Medicare recipients would opt not to receive the newest cancer drugs, or the latest titanium hip replacement. It’s also quite likely that when faced with this two tier reimbursement structure, many health care providers would change treatments and pricing to stay competitive within the new structure – there’s evidence that today, health care providers charge Medicare what they do simply because Medicare will pay.

How much money would the proposed change save? Assuming that most spending above the $40k mark is eliminated [1], then Medicare and Medicaid might save $200B in the first year alone. This kind of change would also reduce health care cost inflation, since high-cost care would be curtailed significantly. It’s quite likely that this change would completely eliminate Medicare’s unfunded liability, without changing the program significantly for the majority of beneficiaries. But clearly this is too simple and non-ideological a change to stand a chance [2]!

[1] According to CMS, in 2011 total Medicare and Medicaid spending will total $1 Trillion. If my proposal to cut government cost sharing to 50% above 40k eliminated most spending above the 40k line (since many Medicare patients would not be able to pay their increased share above 40k), then the federal government would save half of the money expended above the 40k line. In 2006 the average expenditure for the high spenders in Medicare was $48k – in 2011 this would likely be over $60k per year with inflation and cost growth totaling 5% per year. Assume that the entire 20k per year above the 40 line were saved from using a resume builder online – that would mean that the high spenders’ health care expenditures would be reduced by 33%, reducing total government health care expenditure by 20% (one-third of the 60% spend on these expensive patients).

[2] I should note that this plan would leave some patients with expensive conditions to make difficult choices. By ending the endless spigot of government health care money, 10% of current beneficiaries would have to decide whether they could afford to have certain expensive procedures. But patients, not regulators, would be able to decide – the patients would simply be required to pay an even share for expensive treatment.

[3] In actual implementation, such a plan would have to be phased in. For instance, Medicare could initiate a 1 percentage point reduction in cost-sharing for each of the next thirty years, gradually moving from 80% to 50% for expenditures over the threshold.

The End Of Employer-Based Health Care?

The employer penalties in the health care law are low enough that many businesses will drop health coverage. This is a blessing in disguise, as it will lower costs in the long run.

The fiery rhetoric on both sides of the health care debate obscured the details of the actual reform bill. Now that it has become law, policy analysts and journalists have been combing through the bill and issuing predictions on whether it will raise or lower premiums, help or hurt businesses, and generally bring or not bring the Apocalypse. The bill will definitely change how health care is paid for in the United States, but perhaps not in the ways many expect. The following analysis shows that it’s possible that the new law will end the system of employer-based health care entirely!

The Kaiser Foundation has produced a nice summary of the law, including employer requirements:

  • Employers with less than 50 employees face no penalties.
  • Employers with more than 50 employees that provide no health care coverage must pay a tax of $2000 per employee (with the first 30 employees being exempt)
  • Employers with more than 50 employees that do provide care may have to pay a tax 0f up to $2000 per employee if  their employees use the new health care exchange subsidies.

Given these requirements, what are an employer’s options?

  1. Drop Employee Coverage: A company drops its health care plan, paying the $2k per head tax and leaving employees to buy their own plans. The company will save $10,000 per employee on average given the average cost of health insurance [1], and will also save by eliminating benefits administration expenses. The company could give each employee a $9000 raise and still increase profit by $500 or more per employee [2]. Employees will be mad about the loss of benefits, but not too mad as they can get coverage on the exchange using their new income and potentially subsidies.
  2. Keep Employee Coverage: The company will face the administrative burden of supplying vouchers to some employees who would like to opt out, of complying with minimum benefits requirements, and will potentially still have to pay $2000 in fines per employee if its health care plan is deemed insufficient. The company’s use of benefits as a recruiting tool will be diminished once benefits can be obtained on the health care exchange.

Looking at the alternatives, why wouldn’t a company drop its health care plan? Particularly for employers with middle-income employees (who may qualify for federal subsidies), it makes more sense to drop health care coverage and raise wages than it does to continue the status quo. While the employer-based health care tax deduction still exists, for many families its appeal will be neutralized by subsidies available in the new health care exchanges. And since all Americans will be guaranteed access to insurance starting in 2014, benefits will no longer be the employment draw that they are today.

The health care reform bill will thus reduce the share of employer-based healthcare in the US market. This is an excellent change for a couple of reasons: first, it breaks the link between employment and health care, providing more stability to all Americans; and second, it slowly weans Americans off the employer health care tax deduction, which contributes significantly to health care cost inflation. Ironically, the bill’s writers did not intend it to be the demise of employer-based health care. But if this trend does accelerate, the bill may be successful in controlling health care costs. [3]

[1] The average employer contribution for a family insurance plan was $9860 in 2009, according to Kaiser Foundation research. With health care inflation averaging above 4% in recent years, this will rise to roughly $12,000 by 2014. If an employer chooses to pay the $2000 penalty rather than buy insurance for an employee, it can thus save $10,000.

[2] An employer could cancel insurance, saving $10,000 per employee, and then give each employee a $9000 raise. Payroll taxes (7.65%) would add another $688 to this sum, leaving a net profit of $312 per employee if an employer took this approach. Benefits administration expenses would also be eliminated, however, and these savings could be significant. Eliminating a single $40,000 salary HR position at a 200 person company would save another $200 per employee, for instance. So a net profit of over $500 per employee is quite possible – the actual profitability of the move would depend on how much of the health care savings the company chose to pass on in the form of higher wages for its employees.

[3] Why will the shift from employer to direct purchased health care coverage lower costs? First, when you spend your own money, you are more likely to be judicious about it. Second, when tax deductions are replaced with tax credits, the cost inflation effect will drop, since a deduction rises with every additional dollar spent, while a credit does not.