Obamacare: In 2014 Will Workers Be Able to Afford the Health Benefits Their Employers Offer?

Recently AP floated a story that spread like a virus. Within a day it was picked up by Yahoo! the Wall Street Cheat Sheet, and the Washington Post  where it was headlined “Affordability Glitch.”

Thanks to a “wrinkle” in the law, the story warns, Obamacare may hurt many of the people it is supposed to help, by making “health insurance unaffordable for . . . workers employed by restaurants, retail stores, hotels, and small businesses.”  The law is explicit, AP explains: “companies that employ 50 or more workers must offer ‘affordable’ coverage to those working more than 30 hours per week — or face fines. ‘Affordable’ health insurance, as defined by the legislation, means that premiums can cost no more than 9.5 percent of an employee’s income. . . .    . . . For low-wage workers, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck and earn barely enough to cover basic necessities 9.5% represents a lot of money.”  

True, but the fact that the law says premiums can equal 9.5% of income doesn’t means that employer-sponsored insurance will cost 9.5% of a worker’s pay.

Nevertheless, Yahoo! conjures up a hypothetical employee who will be left out in the cold: “Take, for example, a restaurant worker who makes $21,000 per year. A premium that costs 9.5 percent of this income would run $1,995 for the whole year, or $166.25 per month.  How could this employee possibly shell out nearly $2,000 a year for insurance?”  

He will have to turn down his employer’s offer, and then the government will demand that he pay a penalty because he didn’t buy insurance!
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Health Insurance and Tax Breaks: New Rules for the Self-Employed

If you, your spouse or an adult child is self-employed, no doubt you already know just how expensive insurance is in the individual market.  Moreover, you know how difficult is to find comprehensive coverage when you’re buying your own insurance.  For example, most policies don’t cover pre-natal care, or child-birth– a huge problem for young women.

But under the Affordable Care Act everything changes. Beginning in January, you will be able to purchase a policy in your state’s Exchange—a one-stop marketplace where you can shop for plans. They will be easy to compare because all policies sold in the Exchanges must cover “10 essential benefits”  including pre-natal care, maternity, dental and vision care for children, rehab and mental health care.  There will be no no co-pays for preventive care and the deductible does not apply.No matter how much care you or your family need, there will be a cap on your out-of-pocket expenses of roughly $6,000 for a single individual or $12,000 for a family. (These rules apply to anyone buying their own insurance in the Individual Exchange, whether they are self-employed, unemployed, or work for an employer who doesn’t offer affordable, comprehensive health benefits.)

                                 Lower Premiums, Subsidies

In the Exchange, you will automatically become part of a large group, and as a result, premiums will be lower than the premiums you would papy today for similar coverage.

 Moreover, depending on your income, you may be eligible for a subsidy. For example, a 30-year-old couple with joint income of $45,000 would receive a subsidy of roughly $2700 and wind up paying $4,000 a year for comprehensive coverage that includes free preventive care. (This is a national average)  

 What You May Not Know about Health Insurance and Tax Deductions

You probably are aware that if you are self-employed and buy your own medical, dental or long-term care insurance, you can deduct premiums for an individual or a family plan on your income tax.

But did you know that if:  

You Have Children under 27, you also can deduct premiums you pay for  them–even if they are no longer your dependents?  

 You or  Your Spouse Receive Medicare, the IRS has now ruled that you can deduct Medicare premiums for Parts A, B, C and D?  This is in addition to the deduction for insurance that you or your spouse buy in an  Exchange.

                              How Much Can You Deduct?

To calculate your allowable health insurance deduction, take your self-employment income, and subtract the 50% deduction for self-employment taxes. Then subtract any retirement contributions made to SEP-IRA, SIMPLE-IRA, or Keogh plan. The remainder is how much you can deduct for health insurance expenses.

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Problems with Health Insurance? Under the Affordable Care Act You Will No Longer Be Alone

If you sent in your health insurance payment on time, and paid it the way you always have (as a direct withdrawal from you checking count), but made a mistake when you put the checking account number on your payment,  would you expect that your insurer would drop you?

What if your insurer sent you an email a few days after you sent in your payment saying “Your payment has been received? Wouldn’t you assume that you were still insured?

Mike Holden did. He was wrong.

Yesterday, he sent an email explaining his story.  

 “On March 16, I paid my family’s monthly health insurance bill to United Healthcare (UHC) the same way I have for almost a year now. But I was using a new bank account that we set up after a recent move. Unfortunately, I entered the account number incorrectly. It turns out I left off three digits that are part of the account number but listed separately on the checks.”

Holden had no idea that he had made a mistake. On March 20, he received an email from UHC saying “Your payment has been received.”

Yet in April, when he went online to pay his family’s April bill, he was told his coverage had been terminated. He then talked to a customer service representative at UHC and received a letter explaining that he had until March 31 to correct his mistake.

Unfortunately, the letter, which was postmarked March 27, went to his old address. .

He appealed to UHC, explaining the problem and asking that his insurance be reinstated,

He then received a letter telling him that his appeal had been denied:  “United Healthcare Benefit Services follows the guidelines for payments and grace periods defined by the Department of Labor. Your account has been reviewed and the termination remains, as payment was not received within the guidelines provided.”

                          How the Affordable Care Act Brings Us Together

Beginning in 2014, people like Mike Holden will no longer be alone, trying to stand up to insurance companies. Individuals and families who buy their own insurance will be able to purchase coverage in “Exchanges”—marketplaces where insures will be regulated and individuals and families who purchase their own insurance will become part of a large group. There, they will have far more clout than they do now.
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Under the ACA, will YOUR Insurance Premiums Rise or Fall?

Today, many Americans are asking: will my premiums go up in 2014?

There is no simple answer.

According to Families USA ,the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will have a positive effect on the typical family’s budget. Using an economic model that can factor in all provisions of the Act (ACA), Family’s USA estimates that by 2019, when the law is fully implemented, “the average household will be $1,571 better off.”

Even high-income families will save: thanks to rules that limit co-pays, and reward providers for becoming more efficient, “those earning $100,000 to $250,000” will spend $779 less on medical care.” But these are “averages.” They don’t tell you whether your health care costs will rise or fall.

The answer will depend on: your income, your age, your gender, who you work for, what state you live in, whether a past illness or injury has been labeled a “pre-existing condition,”  and what type of insurance you have now: 

If you work for a large company:

–  The ACA will have a “negligible” effect on your premiums says the Congressional Budget Office(CB0). This doesn’t mean that your costs won’t climb at all in 2014. As  long as medical product-makers and providers continue to raise prices, premiums will edge up each year.

But in 2012 average premiums for employer-based insurance rose by just 3% for single coverage and 4% for families, a “modest increase” when compared to 8% to 12% jumps in past years. And on average, employee co-pays and deductibles remained flat.

Granted, a 3% to 4% increase still outpaces growth in workers’ wages (1.7% percent) and general inflation (2.3%) percent).But as reform reins in spending annual increases for large groups could fall to 2%–or less. 

If you work for a small company with more than 50 employees:

Your boss will be more likely to offer affordable benefits, in part because, if he doesn’t, he will have to pay a penalty

Moreover, he will find insurance less expensive. Today, small businesses pay 18% more than large companies because the administrative costs of hand-selling plans to small groups are sky-high. But starting in 2014  businesses with fewer than 100 employees will begin buying insurance in “Exchanges” where they will become part of a large group, and eligible for lower rates.

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U.S. Media Loves “Fiscal Cliff” Metaphor; The Economist Recognizes that It’s An Imaginary Line in the Sand

In the U.S., pundits cannot resist the fiscal cliff metaphor: it’s colorful, punchy and easy to understand. It’s just two words long. What’s not to like?

It’s not true.

The metaphor assumes that if Republicans and Democrats fail to reach an agreement on the budget by the end of the year, the U.S. economy falls over a cliff,  crashes, and burns.  The “cliff “metaphor complements the equally imaginative “iceberg metaphor” that some fear-mongers use to portray the deficit. (Think Titanic) 

It’s all a bit more complicated than the metaphors suggest.

What few conservatives mention is that the deficit has already begun to dissolve:  since 2009 the deficit has fallen from 10% of GDP to 7% in the fiscal year that ended on September 30th.  By historic standards this is still enormous, and must be addressed. But  the numbers demonstrate that, over time, we can reduce the deficit without renting the nation’s safety nets.

As for the cliff, there is no precipice—just an imaginary line, drawn in the sand, as Republicans and Democrats play “chicken.”

The Economist understands all of this. The lead story in the most recent issue focuses on the “cliff” and points out that “worries” about what will happen if we go over that precipice are “understandable”  but “overblown.” The “risk of economic catastrophe is minimal.” Any damage would be short-term. 

I don’t always agree with the Economist: the UK publication has its own sometimes eccentric slant on things. But on the whole, it is a thoughtful publication—well-researched and fact-checked.  Moreover, in this case, distance may give the Economist a perspective on the problem that some in the U.S. lack.

                                   Exaggerating the Threat to the Middle-Class      

Yesterday’s New York Times suggests that if we cross that line in the sand, an already beleaguered the middle-class will suffer great hardship, and this “Complicates Democrats’ Stance in Talks.” 

The analysis suggests that Democrats don’t dare just stand back and let Bush’s tax cuts expire– as they will if party leaders don’t reach a settlement by year-end: “Only a small handful of policy voices on the left are making the case for the tax cuts to fully expire. In part, that is because the economy is still growing slowly, and tax increases have the potential to weaken it.” But it is also because “If the two parties fail to come to a deal by Jan. 1, taxes on the average middle-income family would rise about $2,000 over the next year. That would follow a 12-year period in which median inflation-adjusted income dropped 8.9 percent, from $54,932 in 1999 to $50,054 in 2011.”

This assumes that once we miss the January 1 deadline, tax hikes for the middle-class would become permanent—which, of course, is not true. Talk about how much more a family would pay over the course of 2013 falls somewhere between hyperbole and hysteria, ignoring what everyone knows:

If the Bush tax cuts expire, Democrats will presumably simply propose to restore them in January for those [families] earning less than $250,000,” the Economist observes, “daring Republicans to block them.” 
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Subsidies: Will You Receive a Tax Credit to Help You Buy Insurance in 2014? How Much?

Beginning in 2014, millions of Americans will discover that they qualify for subsidies designed to help them purchase their own health insurance. The aid will come in the form of tax credits, and many will be surprised by how generous they are.

Not only low-income, but moderate-income families earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) – currently $44,680 for a single person and $92,200 for a family of four – will make the cut.

Yesterday, I posted about subsidies on healthinsurance.org. The post includes a calculator which tells you whether you would be eligible, and how much you would receive. Even if your employer offers health benefits, you might qualify for a tax credit  if the plan too expensive, or too skimpy. (I explain how the government defines those terms.) I also explain how the government calculates subsidies, and what happens if you live a place where healthcare is particularly expensive.

Click here for the full post   If you like, come back here to comment.

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As We Approach the Fiscal Cliff: What is the GOP’s Primary Goal?

In theory, the GOP’s main concern is the deficit. We must reduce it they say—and we must do it now–or face a financial Armageddon. But somehow or other, “cutting the deficit” always turns out to mean “reducing entitlement programs.”

Let me suggest that cutting those entitlements programs is the GOP’s primary goal.

Why would I say this?

Earlier this week , wh en Republican House speaker John Boehner presented his party’s counter-proposal for solving the budget deadlock, he once again put lifting the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67 near the top of his list. Yet, it you take a hard look at the numbers, it becomes clear that this proposal would not save money–or strengthen the economy. Moreover, entitlement programs did not create the current deficit.

Begin with forcing seniors to wait until they are 67 before they can apply for Medicare. As I explain in the post above, this proposal simply shifts costs to employers, the states, everyone buying insurance in the Exchanges, other Medicare beneficiaries, and 65 and 66-year-olds themselves. It does not lower the nation’s total healthcare bill. Indeed, the GOP’s remedy would wind up costing us twice as much as we now spend providing Medicare benefits for people who are 65 and 66. (See graph in the post above).

I am not  the first person to make this argument. The Kaiser Family Foundation and the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities  offer  eye-opening numbers that prove the point.  One would think that, if the GOP’s main goal were to save the economy, Republicans would be interested in these numbers.

One would be wrong.  They ignore them (and seem to have persuaded the mainstream media to follow suit.) Why would conservatives close their eyes to the financial facts? The GOP has an agenda, and it’s not about the deficit. The party’s main fear is “creeping socialism.”

Conservatives use the deficit as an excuse for slicing benefits that they acknowledge will inflict pain on the people who most depend on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—the elderly and the poor.

 

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Can U.S. Businesses Afford Obamacare?

No doubt you have heard that the Olive Garden, Denny’s and Papa John’s Pizza all are slapping an “Obamacare surcharge” on the price of their products.  They claim they have no choice.

But the news that Americans might pay 50 cents more for a mediocre $10 meal at the Olive Garden is not what bothers me most. Since President Obama was re-elected each of these restaurant chains have announced that they also plan to cut many full-time workers’ hours back to less than 30 hours a week in order to duck the cost of providing health care benefits.. This means that employees who are now working 40 hours a week will have to look for a second job—or find a way to support themselves on less than three-quarters of their current salary.

Michael Tanner, a fellow at the conservative Cato Institute, argues that companies outside the restaurant business also will be forced to down-size. Just a few days ago, Tanner wrote: “While restaurants are especially vulnerable to the cost of Obamcare other business are being hit too. For example, Boston Scientific has announced that it will now lay off up to 1,400 workers and shift some jobs to China. And Dana Holdings, an auto-parts manufacturer with more than 25,000 employees, says it too is exploring ObamaCare-related layoffs.”

Obamacare will  “keep unemployment high,” Tanner claims, because under reform legislation, businesses that have at least 50 employees working over 30 hours a week are expected to offer their workers affordable health insurance. If they choose not to, and more than 30 of their employees qualify for government subsidies to help them purchase their own coverage, the employer must pay a penalty of $3,000 for each worker who receives a subsidy— up to a maximum of $2,000 times the number of the company’s full-time employee minus 30. (The Kaiser Family Foundation offers an excellent graphic explaining the rule.) 

By paying the fine, the employer is, in effect, paying a share of a tax credit that would cost the government anywhere from roughly $1,700 for a single young worker  to over $12,000 to help the average 35-year-old worker who has a spouse, two children, and reports $35,000 in total household income.

Conservatives like Tanner argue that that is unfair, and that small businesses– “the engine of job growth”– will be hit hardest.  

What they  don’t do is look at the math:

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The Post-Election Edition of Health Wonk Review

This most recent edition of HWR, a compendium of some of the best health care posts of the past two weeks, came out ten days ago. I apologize that I’ve been tardy in commenting— but, not to worry, it’s an “evergreen.” The problems Health-Wonkers raise haven’t been solved in the past week, and the issues discussed remain just as “hot”– as they were.

Managed Care Matters” Joe Paduda does an outstanding job of hosting the round-up in a post titled: “Elections Have Consequences.”

He begins with “Health Policy and MarketPlace Review’s”  Bob Laszewski, who  notes in the wake of the election, we can be certain of one thing: Obamacare will be implemented. To be sure, there will be lawsuits challenging reform legislation, but Laszewski says, “I wouldn’t waste a lot of time worrying about those. Anyone in the market will do better spending their time getting ready for all of the change coming.” He’s far more worried about whether the government will be able to set up the Exchanges in time to meet the deadline—and how legislators are going to solve the “fiscal cliff” problem.

Writing on “Health Affairs” Timothy Jost agrees that “there is a great deal of work needs to be done before reform becomes a reality.”  He focuses on the many rules that the administration will need to issue to provide guidance to the states, to employers and to insurers:  “The exchanges must begin open enrollment on October 1, 2013,” he observes. “By that date, the exchanges must have certified qualified health plans.  But before health plans can be certified, they must have their rates and forms approved by the states.  And before that can happen, insurers must determine what plans they will offer and what premiums they will charge.  Yet insurers cannot establish their plans and set their rates until they know a lot more than they do now about the rules they are going to have to play by.” In other words, the administration had better “roll up its sleeves and get to work.”

Meanwhile, President Obama still must contend with ornery governors, and rebellious states. “In an ominous sign,” Jost notes, “Missouri passed a ballot initiative prohibiting state officials from cooperating with the federal exchange in its state,  and authorizing private lawsuits against any official who cooperates.”   (Thanks, Missouri–just what we need, lawsuits against officials trying to do their jobs..)  “Whether this is constitutional remains to be seen,” says Jost, who is a constitutional expert.

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A Centrist Perspective: Makers and Takers, Obamacare, and the Path Forward

Below, a guest post from Stephen Reid, Managing Partner at Pharmspective, a market research firm that provides advisory services to healthcare and pharmaceutical companies on strategic issues including the Affordable Care Act. (ACA)

I don’t  agree with Reid on every point. (For example, if Republicans take both the White House and the Senate, I believe that they could and would eliminate both the premium subsidies that will make insurance affordable for middle-class Americans and the mandate.) Nevertheless, when he sent his Op-ed to me I was impressed by how well he understands the legislation. A great many moderates have been confused by the arguments coming at them both from the left and from the right.  A combination of misinformation, half-truths and fear-mongering has created so much “noise” that it has become extremely difficult to separate fact from fiction.

By contrast, Reid does a very good  job of explaining the reasoning behind the Affordable Care Act, and how its “checks and balances” work. I agree with him that the legislation is far from perfect, but it represents a good beginning.

 There is just one major aspect of reform that I think Reid doesn’t understand: the rationale for expanding Medicaid. See my note at the end of his post.

                   A Centrist Perspective: Makers, Takers and Obamacare

by Stephen Reid

With a few days left before we elect a president, the prevailing belief is that an Obama win would propel the Affordable Care Act (ACA) forward with little delay and a Romney win would kill it. Both parties have gone to great lengths to characterize healthcare reform; the Democrats tout the legislation as essential to addressing a broken healthcare system that results in the U.S. spending twice as much as most developed countries on healthcare while leaving 50 million people without coverage; the Republicans cite the ACA as an example of hopeless dependency on government and contrary to free-market principles and individual rights.

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