IRS ruling a ‘disaster for Obamacare?’ Not quite. Ruling may be ‘unfortunate,’ but it won’t leave ‘millions’ uninsured

Under the Affordable Care Act, Americans who are not offered “affordable” insurance at work can purchase coverage in the ACA’s health insurance exchanges, where many will be eligible for generous subsidies.

The law defines “affordable” as insurance that costs less than 9.6 percent of income. But the ACA doesn’t specify whether it is referring to individual coverage or family coverage, which is always far more expensive. The wording is ambiguous, an “oversight,” say many legislators.

Now the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has ruled that the government will look at the cost of coverage for an individual – not a family – when deciding if a plan is “affordable.”

A disaster for Obamacare?

Earlier this week, Forbes ran a story about the rule under a headline that blared, “IRS Ruling to Create Millions of Uninsured Americans as It Undermines the Very Intent of Obamacare.”

Forbes’ take plays right into the conservative claim that Obamacare is a disaster. “We are now entering the crucial phase of the law’s enactment,” crows blogger Dwight L. Schwab, “and many critics are saying, ‘I told you so.’”

Whoa! Let’s look at Forbes’ argument, and the numbers.

Fear-mongering vs. facts

Forbes observes that, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2012 survey of employee benefits, on average, workers contribute $951 annually for an individual plan. But those buying family coverage fork over $4,316, “a number well in excess of the 9.5% of earnings for someone making just $35,000 a year.” Yet, under the IRS decision, “only the portion of the contribution attributable to the individual employee” can be “considered for the purpose of determining what is affordable – not the entire contribution.”

Forbes’ contributor Rick Ungar offers an example: If an employee who earns $35,000 and “is the sole breadwinner in the family” pays less than $3,325 annually for his own insurance … “nobody in the family qualifies for participation on the healthcare exchanges and nobody can qualify for the intended government subsidies.” If the employee signs up for a family plan with his employer it would cost “over 12 percent of their annual income … a crushing amount.”

“The result,” Ungar says, “will be millions of spouses and children left to go uninsured.”

Millions uninsured???

Let’s begin with that last sentence. Just how many children would be shut out? Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a children’s advocacy group, estimates that 500,000 children could remain uninsured.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report offers a similar estimate … that “460,000 children may be left uninsured if states stop funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) beyond 2015.” (Funding ends in 2015 because legislators assumed the ACA would protect kids.) “Federal funding could be extended,” the GAO notes. (My guess is that, if necessary, Congress would expand CHIP funding.)

But what about the mothers? If 500,000 children might be affected, that means that, at most, 500,000 mothers would be left uninsured. But in most of these cases, parents may well have have two children, sometimes more. Let’s assume that, on average, they have two children. That means 250,000 mothers (half of 500,000) might find themselves uninsured because of the IRS rule.  Add those 250,000 mothers to a maximum of 500,000 children, and 750,000 people wind up “going naked” as insurers put it.

Married couples who don’t have children also should be counted. If only one spouse works, and they cannot afford the family plan his employer offers, another adult could be left out. But, these days, few married women under 65 who don’t have children stay at home. We’re still far from “millions.”

Forbes’ example

Forbes’ example of a single-breadwinner family is the exception, not the rule. Among families earning $25,000 to $60,000, 67 percent of mothers and 85 percent of fathers work.In these cases, couldn’t each parent purchase insurance through their employer?

Note: The post originally appeared on Healthinsurance.org  To find the answer to that question, and why the Forbes Op-ed represents “fear-mongering, pure and simple”, please click here.  If you like, come back here to comment.

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Health Wonk Review: ‘Voices from the Blogosphere’

The following post originally appeared on the healthinsurance.org blog.

This week, Maggie Mahar edits the Health Wonk Review, a biweekly compendium of the best of the health policy blogs.

Voices from the Blogosphere, May 21-June 6

I’ve decided to let the “Voices” of healthcare bloggers become the theme of this edition of Health Wonk Review. Some are passionate; others are dispassionate; some are disarmingly candid; others are angry.

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