The Trump administration has been arguing for months that the insurance market reforms of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are not working and are even harming consumers. But four years of accumulated data on Americans’ experiences in a reformed individual market provides considerable evidence to the contrary. Americans’ ability to buy comprehensive health plans on their own has improved significantly since the reforms went into effect in 2014. Most people with marketplace plans are satisfied with them and have used their plans to get health care they couldn’t have obtained in the past. A majority of those eligible for subsidies have premiums and deductibles similar to those in employer plans. And while policy fixes are needed to improve affordability, as well competition in some areas of the country, the marketplaces were looking increasingly stable for both consumers and insurers at the beginning of this year.
It is actually the lack of certainty about the administration’s actions regarding the enforcement of the market reforms, rather than the reforms themselves, that are the primary source of the marketplace’s current problems. The importance of the ACA’s insurance market reforms were underscored last week in the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) analysis of the House-passed American Health Care Act (AHCA), the Republican’s ACA repeal-and-replace bill. The report included an assessment of an amendment that would allow states to undo some of the reforms. That assessment is a powerful illustration of why these reforms were needed in the first place.
The MacArthur Amendment Relaxes ACA Individual Market Reforms
In the week before the House vote in May, Representative Tom MacArthur sponsored an amendment to the AHCA that provided waivers for states that wanted to relax two major sets of ACA reforms:
- The requirement that insurance companies sell policies that cover a standard set of health benefits similar to those in employer-based coverage
- The ban that prevents insurance companies from charging people more based on their health.
Under the first waiver, states could let insurers eliminate coverage for many services, significantly driving up out-of-pocket costs for people who need these services. Under the second waiver, states could allow insurers to price, or underwrite, people’s insurance based on their health if they applied for a plan and had a gap in their insurance of 63 days or more. States with the waivers would be required to establish high-risk pools or reinsurance programs to make coverage affordable for people who had higher premiums as a result. They could draw funds from the AHCA’s Patient and State Stability Fund, a pool of $10–$15 billion a year over 2018–2026 that was supplemented for various purposes through amendments.1
CBO Estimated About Half the U.S. Population Lives in States That Would Request Waivers
If there were doubts about whether any states would apply for the waivers, the CBO had some news: half the U.S. population could live in states that would use these waivers to begin deregulating their individual insurance markets. The basis for their estimate? In part, they considered state approaches to their individual markets prior to the ACA. States that had previously allowed insurers the freest rein in consumer coverage denials, rating on health, and flexibility in what services they would cover were expected to loosen the reins again.
CBO also expected that states that sought the waivers would implement them in different ways. Some states might modestly deregulate their markets while others might make more dramatic changes. For example, some states might require insurers to cover a core set of benefits but allow them to exclude maternity or mental health services. Using 2014 data, RAND researchers have estimated that this could increase the costs to families of having a baby by $6,900 to $9,300 and the annual costs of mental health care by $1,300 to over $12,000. Other states might go a step further and let insurers determine the entire content of their benefit packages as they did in many states prior to the ACA, leaving many people with preexisting conditions stuck with the full cost of their care.
Likewise, CBO assumed that some states would take different approaches to reintroducing individual underwriting in their markets. Because healthy people would face lower premiums if they were rated on the basis of their health, they would have little incentive to maintain continuous coverage, since they would prefer the lower rate they would receive if carriers rated them on health. In order to keep healthy people in the community-rated risk pool (the one with both healthy and unhealthy enrollees), a state might only allow underwriting of people with health problems.
Other states might go whole hog and allow underwriting on health for everyone who had a coverage gap, regardless of their health status. These markets over time would begin to look like those of the pre-ACA past: markets segmented into pools where people in good health could find affordable plans and those with health problems were priced out of the market. The CBO concluded that the funds set aside for state high-risk pools for people with health problems were inadequate to make coverage affordable for people with preexisting conditions in these states.
What’s Past Is Prologue
Decades of experience with the individual market in the United States has shown that without considerable regulation the market simply cannot function for all those who rely on it. Allowing insurers in the past to price each individual’s policy according to their health penalized those who were the sickest and rewarded those who were the healthiest. The 35 states that tried to patch high-risk pools onto their individually rated markets and the ACA’s own transitional Preexisting Conditions Insurance Plan program left robust evidence that high-risk pools were expensive for states and the people who enrolled in them, left millions uninsured, and were ultimately unsustainable. States that had attempted to ban pricing based on health status (like New York and New Jersey) also experienced instability because the lack of premium subsidies and an individual mandate left their markets lopsided: too many people in poorer health without the balance provided by those in better health. As a result, premiums soared.
In contrast, four years of experience with the ACA’s insurance market reforms demonstrates that it is possible for this market to offer affordable, comprehensive insurance to people with diverse health needs. In 2010, 60 percent of adults who tried to buy a plan in the individual market said that they found it very difficult or impossible to find one they could afford. By 2016, that number had fallen by nearly half, to 34 percent. While this rate leaves plenty of room for improvement, the substantial decline suggests that the U.S. has been headed in the right direction if private markets are the nation’s preferred path to universal coverage. But any future movement along this path will require the full commitment of the Trump administration and Congress to enforcing and improving the ACA’s reforms of our complex private health insurance markets.
1 To appeal to moderates who worried about the effects the waivers would have on people with preexisting conditions, Representative Fred Upton sponsored an amendment that added $1.3 billion more per year to the Fund over 2018–2023 to be used by states with waivers. Earlier amendments had added $15 billion in 2020 to help states pay for maternity services and mental health and substance abuse treatment in states where these services became optional coverage by insurers under an earlier version of the bill, and $1.6 billion per year over nine years for an invisible risk-sharing program aimed at lowering premiums.