The Truth About Obamacare’s Exchanges

          Paul Krugman: “There are two remarkable things about this kind of doomsaying. One is that the doomsayers haven’t rethought their premises despite being wrong again and again — perhaps because the news media continue to treat them with immense respect.”

If you Google “Obamacare,” “Exchanges,” and “Disaster,” more than 20 million articles will pop up.

One month into a six-month enrollment process, the Media Pundits have spoken.

In truth, there are two tales to be told: one that is getting widespread coverage, and one that is not.

The stories that you are Not hearing come from folks like Michael Cadigan, the president of a New Mexico law firm who enrolled his firm’s four employees the day his state’s Exchange opened. “I thought it was going to be an administrative nightmare,” he confesses. Instead, he quickly found a policy “that will cost $1,000 less a month than I’m currently paying.” 

Or, Randall Bennett: His family will be paying more for the coverage he signed up for in Utah’s Exchange, but it will be significantly better than what they had before. This year, Bennett reports he has been paying a $420 monthly premium with a $2,000 annual deductible. Next year, he’ll be paying a $720 premium, but the deductible will be only $500 and his family will be getting maternity and dental coverage — something they couldn’t  get in the individual market before Obamacare came along.

As for the application process, Bennett says: “Before, trying to get insurance was so difficult that surprisingly even with all of the bugs, I still found [the Exchange website] simpler (In the past, people attempting to buy their own coverage in the individual market had to provide carriers with detail medical information, in order to prove that they were not suffering from a pre-existing condition. Under Obamacare, that isn’t necessary. Insurers can no longer use your medical records as an excuse to jack up your premiums.

“So for us this is a huge win,” Bennett concludes, “because we’re paying what we think is fair. And yes it’s more than before, but we actually have coverage that we like now.”

As of October 24, Cadigan and Bennett were just two of some 700,000 Americans who have filed applications in the Exchanges. The truth is that Obamacare’s websites are working– though not in all states.

Make no mistake: enrolling millions of American in Obamacare represents an enormous challenge. But we know that it can be done — because it is being done, and done well– in many states.

Unfortunately this is not a story that sells newspapers, especially when a program is as controversial as Obamacare.

State vs. Federal Exchanges

The marketplaces that are working best are in states that chose to set up their own Exchanges.

Originally, conservatives in Congress argued that states should be able to construct—and control– their own online sign-up sites. The Affordable Care Act offered them that opportunity.

But after thinking it over, 26 states (24 of them led by Republicans) refused. In these 26 states, it was left to the Feds to run “Healthcare.gov.”

Health IT pioneer Fred Trotter says he is “not at all surprised” by what happened next: Computers and human navigators have been overwhelmed by the sheer size of a sprawling project. Technical glitches have created virtual gridlock.

“When you get a tremendous amount of traffic going to any site on the internet a single computer can’t handle it,” Trotert told Ezra Klein in a recent interview. “You have to have more than one computer sharing a task. At modern sites like Amazon and Ebay . . . the main innovation they’ve pioneered is using lots of computers at the same time to answer one query.”

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Atul Gawande on Obamacare’s Opponents—How Much Damage Can They Do? Will the Exchanges Open Tomorrow?

Tomorrow, millions of Americans will find out how much healthcare will cost in their state marketplaces as the Exchanges begin enrolling new customers.  On the eve of that event, Dr. Atul Gawande writes about the forces lined up to oppose healthcare reform. The essay, which appears in the newest issue of the New Yorker, quite rightly compares those who are fighting the Affordable Care Act to those who, so many years ago, tried to block the Civil Rights Act.  In each case, conservatives refused to recognize a basic human right.

Gawande is not worried that Republicans will succeed in stopping the Affordable Care Act. Already, the reform is rolling forward on the ground, affecting peoples’ lives. Even if the extreme right wing of the Republican party manages to shut down the government tomorrow, the legislation is largely funded through mandatory appropriations that cannot be curtailed through Congressional  Nevertheless those who are blinded by rage can do great harm.

                                  Who Will Be Hurt? –Paul Sullivan’s Story  

Gawande opens his essay by reminding us of who will suffer—Americans like Paul Sullivan. “Sullivan was in his fifties, college-educated, and ran a successful small business in the Houston area. He owned a house and three cars. Then the local economy fell apart. Business dried up. He had savings, but, like more than a million people today in Harris County, Texas, he didn’t have health insurance. ‘I should have known better,’ he says. When an illness put him in the hospital and his doctor found a precancerous lesion that required treatment, the unaffordable medical bills arrived. He had to sell his cars and, eventually, his house. To his shock, he had to move into a homeless shelter, carrying his belongings in a suitcase wherever he went.”

Under the ACA, this would never happen. His out-of-pocket spending would be capped at $6,350–as long as he signed up for insurance. (If he earned less than $45,650, the cap would be considerably lower.) This is how the legislation helps even those who are too wealthy to qualify for a subsidy. They are protected against financial ruin.
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Reverse “Sticker Shock” Part 2 –Subsidies Mean Enormous Saving for Older Americans

In the past I have written about how government tax credits will help young adults (18-34) who must buy their own coverage because they don’t have access to “affordable, comprehensive” employer-sponsored coverage.

But older Americans forced to purchase their own insurance will save even more. Precisely because a 50-year-old’s premiums may be three times higher than a 20-year-old’s, his subsidies will be larger.

Subsidies are designed to fill the gap between the percentage of your income that you are expected to contribute toward the cost of a premium (with the government assuming that if you earn more, you can spend more on health insurance) and the actual rates that insurers in your market charge for a benchmark Silver plan..

Families USA estimates that while the majority of 18-34 year olds shopping in the Exchanges will qualify for help from the government, fully  30% of the those who receive tax credits  will be 35 to 54, and 12.5% will be 55 or older.

Note that younger Americans will not be subsidizing these tax credits  for their elders. Under the Affordable Care Act subsidies are funded by device-makers, drug-makers, hospitals—plus taxpayers earning over $200,000—and couples earning over $250,000) Very few twenty-somethings are that fortunate. A New KFF Report Offers Eye-Opening Final Numbers on Premiums and Subsidies for 40 –Year Olds and 60-Year-Olds in 17 States

In  August the Kaiser Family Foundation  (KFF) published an “Early Look at Premiums” in California, Colorado, Connecticut, DC, Indianapolis, Maryland, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Virginia, Vermont and the state of Washington.

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Reverse “Sticker Shock”—Why are Insurance Rates in the State Marketplaces Lower Than Expected? — Part I

 

Even Forbes’ columnist Avik Roy is recanting.  Earlier this month he acknowledged that under Obamacare, many Americans who buy their own coverage in 2014 will find that insurance is significantly more affordable than it was in the past:  “Three states will see meaningful declines in rates: Colorado (34 percent), Ohio (30 percent), and New York (27 percent).”

Colorado, Ohio and New York are not unique. As states announce the prices that carriers will be charging in the online marketplaces (or “Exchanges”) where Americans who don’t have health benefits rate at work will be purchasing their own coverage, jaws are dropping. Rates are coming down, not only for those individuals, but for some small business owners who will be buying insurance for their employees in separate SHOP (Small Business Health Options Program) Exchanges.

What may be most surprising is that premiums will be lower, not only in liberal Blue states but in some Red states that are opposed to Obamacare.

What is making health insurance more affordable?

First, the majority of individuals shopping in the Exchanges will be eligible for government subsidies that will go a long way toward covering premiums. In the past I have written about how these tax credits will help young adults (18-34).  But older Americans also will benefit. Fully 30% of those who receive tax credits will be 35-54, and 12.5% will be 55 or older.  This is important because in the Exchanges, insurers  in every state except New York and Vermont will be allowed to charge a 60-year-old three times as much as they would charge a 20-year-old for exactly the same policy.  Without subsidies many would find insurance totally unaffordable.

The second reason premiums are significantly lower than expected is that as I have explained on healthinsurance.org  in the state marketplaces insurers are forced to compete on price. All policies sold in the Exchanges must cover the same essential benefits, and follow other rules that will make the plans look very much alike. The only way for a carrier to distinguish himself from the crowd will be to charge less—or have a better network of providers. But the younger customers that carriers covet care far more about price than about the network.

Third, in many cases, state regulators have been clamping down. In Portland Oregon, for example, regulators forced insurers to cut their proposed rates by an average of nearly 10%. Three of the 12 insurance companies in that market had to lower their rates by more than 20% f

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Will You Be Eligible for A Government Subsidy When You Buy Health Insurance in 2014? Check out Your “Modified Adjusted Gross Income” (MAGI) –You May Be Pleasantly Surprised

Before writing this post, I had no idea how to calculate my “Modified Adjusted Gross Income” (MAGI). But I did know that this is the number the IRS will use when deciding whether people purchasing their own insurance in their state’s online marketplace (a.k.a. Exchange) will qualify for a tax credit to help them cover their premiums.

This piqued my interest.

The first thing you need to know is that there are different definitions of Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) for different situations. The  the Affordable Care Act has its own definition to be used when determining whether someone is eligible government subsidies (premium tax credits) when purchasing  his own insurance in the state Exchanges. 

When calculating your MAGI, you can subtract certain items from your adjusted gross income including: student loan interest, certain moving expenses,, some self-employment expenses, and any alimony that you pay.

As a result, an individual grossing $50,000 (or a family of four with income of $98,000)  might well discover that after they deduct these items from, their MAGI falls under the cut-off for subsidies ($45,960 for an individual, $62,040 for a couple,  $78,120, for a family of three, $94, 200 for a family of four)

This is why, even if think you earn a few thousand too much to qualify for government help, you should ask whoever prepares your taxes about your MAGI.

Kiplinger’s  Kimberly Lankford, suggests other ways to lower your MAGI by “selling losing stocks or boosting business expenses to offset self-employment income.”  But, she warns, “Be careful with moves that could boost that your MAGI and make it more difficult to qualify for the subsidy — such as converting a traditional IRA to a Roth.”  .

Clearly MAGI is a tricky number. The good news is that you don’t have to do the arithmetic yourself. Your Exchange will do it for you when you apply. j(Ultimately, the IRS does the calculation).

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The “Secretary of Explaining Stuff” Will Begin Promoting Obamacare

Bill Clinton has agreed to help the Obama administration explain health care reform to the American people. Giving the amount of misinformation polluting our airwaves, the former president could be a huge help.

Clinton is a master of talking to the public one-on-one (“Now listen to me here, this is important”), rattling off facts without losing his audience, explaining what’s fair and what isn’t (“and I think you think so too”), sounding for all the world like Jimmy Stewart playing a country lawyer,

As White House aide Dan Pfeiffer pointed out on Twitter while the welcoming the former president to the team, Clinton is “the Secretary of Explaining Stuff.”

Think about it: the majority of uninsured 18-34 year olds are minorities. (I will be explaining why in my next post.)  These are the generally healthy young adults we need in the Exchanges in order to keep premiums down. Who do you think they will listen to: John Boehner, Avik Roy, Douglas Holtz-Eakin or Bill Clinton?

Since he left office in January 2001, Clinton’s popularity has soared. Last year, a Gallup poll revealed that about 70 percent of Americans view the former president favorably  with young adult among his biggest fans.

 

 

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Under Obamacare, Will You Receive a Subsidy to Help You Buy Your Own Insurance? We Now Have Real Numbers That Will Let You Calculate How Much You Will Receive

 

Note to Readers: A longer version of this post appeared yesterday on HealthInsurance.org.

Up until now, when Obamacare’s supporters and reform’s opponents squabbled over what insurance will cost in 2014, they had to rely on estimates and national averages. But now we have real numbers.

Eleven states have announced the rates that insurers will be charging in their Exchanges-marketplaces where individuals who don’t have employer-sponsored coverage can shop for their own insurance.

Subsidies Will Be Based On the Cost Of A Silver Plan Where You Live,

Middle-income as well as low-income people buying coverage in the Exchanges will be eligible for government subsidies that will come in the form of tax credits. Anyone earning between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) (now $11,490 to $45,960 for a single person, and up to $126, 360 for a family of six) will qualify.

Most people who are forced to buy their own insurance earn less than 400% of FPL. More affluent Americans usually work  for companies that offer comprehensive coverage.

The graph below shows average Silver plan rates in the eleven states that have disclosed premiums. (Note that these are only state averages. Premiums vary widely within a state: In some cities and counties silver plan rates will be much lower, even before you apply the subsidy.

Silver plan premiums

It’s worth noting that in these 11 states the least expensive Silver Plan costs 18% less than the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projected last year. 
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Boehner Asks: “Why A Break for Businesses Only?”

 That House Speaker John Boehner would ask this question shows either:

a)    how little he understands about the Affordable Care Act; OR

b)    how committed he is to making sure that the American public  does not understand the purpose of health care reform.

I would pick “b”.

Republicans are now suggesting that if the employer mandate (requiring that businesses offer benefits to their workers or pay a penalty) is being postponed until 2015, the Obama administration should postpone the individual mandate as well.

“Is it fair for the president of the United States to give American businesses an exemption from his health care law’s mandates without giving the same exemption to the rest of America?” Boehner asks.

What he ignores, of course is that under the Affordable Care Act, .middle-income as well as low-income citizens would receive generous tax credits to help them purchase insurance. Not long ago, I wrote about those subsidies, and a new “subsidy calculator” that will let an individual estimate how large his subsidy would be).

More than 26 million Americans will be eligible for these tax credits next year–though most dont know it. And by attempting to delay the individual mandate, the GOP is trying to make sure that they don’t find out.

       The Individual Mandate and the Employer Mandate Are Not Connected

Meanwhile Boehner pretends that the two mandates are somehow connected, In fact, they have nothing to do with each other. 

 The individual mandate exists because, under Obamacare, insurers are required to cover people suffering from pre-existing conditions. Aetna will no longer be able to shun the sick, nor will it be able to slap them with sky-high premiums.

This part of the law is extremely popular. Most Americans understand that any one of us could be diagnosed with cancer tomorrow. The goal of the law is to protect all of us against the vicissitudes of fate by ensuring that we have access to affordable insurance.

But if there were no individual mandate requiring that we all purchase insurance (or pay a penalty), a great many people would wait until they became ill, and only then buy insurance.As a result the insurance pool would be filled with folks who need expensive care, and everyone’s premiums would spiral.

If we want to insist that insurers cover the sick, we also must insist that everyone join the insurance pool. We all share in the risk of becoming sick, and so all must share in the cost. Ultimately, insurance is all about “pooling the risk.”

(Those who believe that they shouldn’t have to join the pool because they are young or  because they don’t smoke, exercise regularly and generally “take care of themselves” are ignoring the most basic fact about the human condition:  “all flesh is grass”. )

The requirement that insurers must cover a 30-year-old suffering from MS cannot be separated from the individual mandate. We cannot have one without the other. The architects of health care reform understood the connection

By contrast, the employer mandate has little to do with the individual mandate. The phrases sound alike, that’s about it. The individual mandate and the employer mandate do not depend on each other.

If some employers decide that they will wait until 2015 before offering comprehensive, affordable health benefits, their employees will be eligible for subsidies to help them purchase their own coverage.  Postponing the employer mandate in no way affects their ability to obtain coverage at a cost they can afford. Alternatively, if an individual decides not to purchase insurance, next year, he will be asked to pay a penalty of just $95.

This is what Fox News calls “a hefty fine.”

 

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The Employer Mandate is Postponed: What Does This Mean For Obamacare? Is Ezra Klein Right–Should the Employer Mandate Be Repealed?

The administration has announced that employers with more than 50 employees will not be required to offer insurance to their employees until 2015.

Originally, reform legislation said that these employers would have to offer affordable, comprehensive insurance next year—or face penalties of $2,000 to $3,000 per worker

                              Proof that Obamacare is Not Working?

Without missing a beat, Republicans have stepped forward to say that the delay is evidence that Obamacare is faililng.

What they apparently doesn’t know (or doesn’t want you to realize) is that a delay in  the employer mandate will affect only a fraction of employers, and very few employees

First, the majority of large companies already offer health insurance that includes the benefits that the Affordable Care Act labels “essential.” (The only exceptions tend to be large restaurant and retail chains)

The mandate will have the biggest impact on small companies that today, may offer insurance, but often don’t provide “comprehensive” coverage. The postponement means that these firms will have another year to think about whether they want to expand coverage—or pay a penalty,

But their employees will not be hurt by the delay.  If either a restaurant chain or a small firm doesn’t offer benefits next year, both full-time and part-time workers be able to buy their own coverage in the Individual Exchanges where the majority will be eligible for generous tax credits. The coverage available the Exchanges will be just as good as the insurance their employers will be required to offer in 2015.

As former White House health policy adviser Zeke Emanuel pointed out today on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”:  “The delay of implementation of the employer mandate will impact a limited number of companies. I actually don’t think this is that big a deal,” .

Emanuel went on to point out that the “the provision only applies to employers who have 50 or more employees. He estimated that there are ibkt  200,000 total employers in the U.S. [who would be] impacted and that “94 percent already offer health insurance” to employees.

Emanuel’s estimate may be high: “You’ve got 5.7 million firms in the U.S.,” says Wharton’s Mark Duggan, who served as the top health economist at White House’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2009 to 2010. “Only 210,000 have more than 50 employees. So 96 percent of firms aren’t affected.

“Then if you look among those firms with 50 or more employees, something on the order of 95 percent offer health insurance. So it’s basically 10,000 or so employers who have more than 50 employees and don’t offer coverage. Those companies probably employ around one percent of American workers.”

 To Judge the Success of Obamacare , Don’t Over-React to Day by  Day Headlines

Emanuel  also urged taking a long-term view of what the Affordable Care Act is going to accomplish, saying: “We need to look for 2020 rather than moment to moment for changes in the system.”

I couldn’t agree more. Reforming U.S. healthcare is an enormous undertaking. As I have said in the past, it will be a process, not an event. Along the way, there will be glitches. Each time, reform’s opponents will jump up and down, insisting that the End is Nigh. Obamacare is dead.  We must  ignore them—take the long view, and forge ahead.

I am hopeful that by 2020  reform’s goals will be realized. Even then, we will continue to modify and improve reform legislation over a period of years, just as we have revised Medicare.

The notion that we must “rush” to implement every aspect the ACA is misguided. When attempting to enforce the employer mandate, an emphasis on “speed” could lead to the “train wreck” that Republicans predict. 

What is crucial is that the “Patient Proteciton and Affordable Care Act” protects as many  Americans as possible, as soon as possible, while making medical care affordable by giving those who must buy their own insurance the subsidies they need. In 2014, this will be happening.

In the meantime, we already have begun to rein in health care costs, slowing healthcare inflation from 7% or 8% a year to roughly 3%. This is only a start, but a very good start.                               

                         How Will the Delay Effect the Mid-Term Election?

Predictably, some conservatives are crowing that the delay represents a “huge set back” for Obamacare. “The Obama administration has undermined its sole claim to greatness and delivered a blow to Democrats on the ballot in 2014,” writes Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin. /

 In truth, this is far from a major setback for reform. Apparently Rubin doesn’t realize how few employers will be affected, and perhaps she doesn’t understand that without the employer mandate, even if these employers don’t offer benfits, the majority of their workers will be eligible for tax credits in the Indivudal Exchanges,

As for the effect on candidates running in 2014, even Fox News recogizes that Republicans, not Democrats are most likely to be hurt. 

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Health Wonk Review Is Up: A Superb Summary of Provocative Healthcare Posts

The latest edition of Health Wonk Review is now up on Wing of Zock.

 Sarah Sonies and Jenifer Salopek have done a superb job of summarizing some of the most provocative healthcare blog posts of the past two weeks. 

Here are just a few of the questions these posts  raise:

—   Should states mandate nurse staffing ratios in acute care hospitals?

— What can we learn about early Medicaid expansion in some states?

—   Why do we need more research into the value of colonoscopies?

I won’t try to summarize the posts. Just go to Wing of Zock                    

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