AHCA’s incoherent policy on HSA

The American Health Care Act (AHCA) is a bill in search of a policy even as it overturns significant elements of traditional conservative health care policy strategy.

Health Savings Accounts (HSA) have been a core component of conservative health policy thought for a generation.  They work by allowing people to put money into a designated savings account on a tax advantaged basis.  The accounts are tied to a high deductible health plan.  If a person incurs significant claims, the HSA balance pays for those claims.  If a person has a good, healthy and low cost year, the balance grows.  Over the course of a life cycle, the HSA should grow from accumulation and investment when people are young and shrink when they are old.

There is a coherent theory of change with the use of HSA in both a single year and over a lifetime.  The single year theory of change is that high first dollar expenses will lead to lower utilization with minimal real health consequences as people become expert shoppers and evaluaters of health care need and value.  The lifetime theory of change is that an HSA can be built up while an individual is young and healthy and spent when an individual is old and sick.  It prefunds some of the expected health cost obligations on an individual level.

There are several major weaknesses with the HSA strategy.  First it imposes a high cost to people with consistent, recurrent, high cost chronic conditions.  A person with multiple sclerosis will never be able to accumulate any year over year savings in their HSA as they will have used their maximum allowed limit and hit their deductible by the second month of the policy year.  A high deductible plan imposes an illness tax on the chronically ill.  Secondly, the evidence has been weak that people are actually effective shoppers and evaluaters of health care necessity.

In the original version of the AHCA, the subsidies were set up so that they could be split.  If a person found a policy that cost less than the subsidy, the remaining portion of the subsidy would be deposited into an HSA.  This conformed to standard conservative health policy thinking.

The young and healthy people would buy low premium policies with high deductibles.  They would also deposit a significant amount of the subsidy into an HSA.  Over time, the HSA would grow until the cohort of people who were once young, healthy and cheap to cover are no longer young, no longer healthy and no longer cheap to cover.  At that point, the savings they had accumulated in their HSA would be available to pay for either out of pocket expenses  or premiums.

There is a major issue of founder’s debt in this scheme but if we handwave away the problem that killed Social Security privatization in 2005,it is mechanically coherent.

The Monday Manager’s amendment took away the ability of a subsidy to be split between a premium and the HSA.  This was done to get more anti-abortion votes on board.  It will have two effects.  It will limit choice as insurers have no reason to price their products underneath the subsidy point. The second is that it completely destroys the mechanical theory of change for an HSA system.  People with limited incomes will not accumulate reserves in their HSA.    And more importantly, the young can not partially pre-fund their health care expenses when they become old as they can’t rollover a partial subsidy into their HSA.

There is no coherent policy thought here.

All incentives align for high initial rate filings

The Wall Street Journal has a good overview article of where insurers are thinking about their pricing for 2018 as they develop their offerings. The initial numbers are going to be ugly.

According to a nonpartisan report released by the Congressional Budget Office on Monday, the House Republicans’ bill, known as the American Health Care Act, could raise premiums by 15% to 20% for individual plans in 2018, compared with rates without the bill. These increases would largely be due to the end of penalties for people who lack insurance; the CBO suggested that fewer healthy people would enroll without the mandate, helping to raise average costs….

One important element isn’t fully resolved in the House Republicans’ blueprint: whether the federal government will fund cost-sharing subsidies that help pay for low-income consumers’ deductibles and other out-of-pocket charges….

“The more uncertainty, the higher the price,” said Martin Hickey, chief executive of New Mexico Health Connections. His nonprofit has seen a potential 40% premium increase on ACA marketplace plans.

There is normal medical price trend. There is also a highly uncertain policy environment. The environment is what will be driving most of the initial rate request.

Rate filings in May and June are not final. They are merely the start of a long series of conversations between the filing actuaries and the reviewing actuaries. Rates will go up, rates will go down, data will be requested and models will be tweaked.

So how do the incentives align?

Read more of this post

CBO Score of AHCA

Following up on past stuff on the blog on the House reform plan, the CBO released its score of the legislation that passed the House Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means Committees last week. This puts numbers on on the general description I provided earlier, but I was wrong–CBO scored that it will reduce the deficit.

  • $1.2 Trillion decrease in spending on health insurance (Medicaid and private subsidies)
  • $900 Billion tax cut/decline n revenue
  • Reduce the deficit by $337 Billion (all over 10 years)

This version of health reform costs so much less than the ACA because it covers so many fewer people. The project a loss of health insurance coverage of 14 Million persons by next year, and 24 Million by 2026.

Underneath all this, the most profound thing going on in this bill is a nearly $900 Billion drop in federal Medicaid spending over 10 years– a 25% decline in the federal share over 10 years. The Medicare cuts that Republicans savaged for years that are part of what Obamacare used to pay for coverage expansions are kept in place.

This is horrible policy is health insurance coverage expansions are remotely important. The politics are even worse I think, as the shift of burden to states of either paying for Medicaid or deciding who not to cover in the future will be hard, and premiums in the exchanges will decline for younger persons under the new tax credit subsidies, but they will rise for persons in the decade before Medicare eligibility (age 55-64).

I keep thinking there must be some political angle that I am missing, but I don’t see it. If you wanted to lose the House in 2018, you would push for this. Many elected Republicans are getting cold feet. Not sure what comes next, but nothing is increasing as a possible outcome. If something becomes law, expect it to come out of the Senate–in much the same way the ACA did.



Stabilization Funds by State

The consulting firm Oliver Wyman has projected what each state would receive from the American Health Care Act (ACHA) State Stability Fund during calendar year 2018.  They are making some assumptions in the distribution but the they seem reasonable.  In 2018, the Fund would be 93.5% Federal money and 6.5% state matching money.  The goal would be to use these funds to take a significant amount of high cost risk out of the premium paying insurance pool and transfer those costs to the fund.  It is a reinsurance fund.

And since it is a reinsurance fund with external money, it will result in lower net premiums.  Alaska is an extreme outlier as they are a very high cost state with a single insurer.  The contiguous forty eight states have an average Stability Fund cash infusion of $91 per member per month (PMPM).  However that is not even distributed throughout the country.  There is significant variation from Iowa’s $45.68 PMPM to Wyoming’s $136.19 PMPM cash infusion.

The South overall is better off than the North while the Great Lakes and the Plains are seeing less of the Stability Fund flow to them.

CY 2018 State Stabilization Fund PMPM

Spreadsheet data is here. Massachusetts and Vermont excluded per Wyman’s calculations.  Alaska ($209 PMPM) and Hawaii ($100.90 PMPM) are excluded for visual presentation purposes.

The late enrollment penalty and the Duck test

Does the Late Enrollment Penalty (LEP) in the AHCA pass the duck test for taxation?

In 2012’s NFIB vs. Sebelius decision, Chief Justice Roberts, writing the controlling opinion for the majority upheld the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate.  Justices Ginsberg and Sotomayer argued that the mandate was constitutional for both the logic used by Roberts and more fundamentally as a just exercise of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause.  Chief Justice Roberts had a much narrower ruling.  He found that the individual mandate penalty was effectively a tax and Congress has the power to tax.

He found that the individual mandate passed the duck test to be considered a tax.

It was collected by the IRS, it was administered by the IRS, enforcement was through a limited set of tools normally used for tax enforcement and it was not punitive or overly coercive in nature.  Therefore it was an allowable tax.  More fundamentally, it quacked, waddled, swam and tasted like a duck so it was a duck.

The LEP is different.

‘‘(1) IN GENERAL.—Notwithstanding section 2701, subject to the succeeding provisions of this section, a health insurance issuer offering health insurance coverage in the individual or small group market shall, in the case of an individual who is an applicable policyholder of such coverage with respect to an enforcement period applicable to enrollments for a plan year beginning with plan year 2019 (or, in the case of enrollments during a special enrollment period, beginning with plan year 2018), increase the monthly premium rate otherwise applicable to such individual for such coverage during each month of such period, by an amount determined under paragraph (2).

‘‘(2) AMOUNT OF PENALTY.—The amount determined under this paragraph for an applicable policyholder enrolling in health insurance coverage described in paragraph (1) for a plan year, with respect to each month during the enforcement period
applicable to enrollments for such plan year, is the amount that is equal to 30 percent of the monthly premium rate otherwise applicable to such applicable policyholder for such coverage during such month.

The LEP differs in several significant manners.  It is not collected by the IRS.  It is paid directly to a private entity.  It is wildly variant in its size depending on age and region.  A 64 year old in North Pole, Alaska will pay a much higher LEP than a 22 year in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

If the three votes on the Supreme Court that voted against the government’s position in NFIB v Sebelius are joined by two of the three Justices who supported Robert’s narrow reading exclusively in support of the individual mandate passing the duck test as a tax, there is significant legal risk to the LEP.

If there is significant legal risk that the LEP could be tossed at any point by a court, insurers who already are modeling a potential death spiral because of the LEP’s weakness and inefficiency would have to further discount its effectiveness when setting premiums or insist on contracts with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that mirror the current language on Cost Sharing Reduction subsidies (CSR).  Currently, if CSR subsidies are not paid, insurers can terminate their policies immediately instead of at the end of the year.

If the goal of the Republican Party is to advance a bill that stabilizes a market while making policy changes that they prefer, even deeper fundamental legal and constitutional uncertainty is contra-indicated.

Update #1: From a former clerk for Chief Justice Roberts:


Boil it down for me

A friend asked me “boil it down–how is the Republican repeal and replace different from the new status quo after the ACA?”

  • Most fundamentally, it would change the financing formula for Medicaid, and limit the federal government’s financial responsibility for same. The flexibility given to states will have to be used to decide how to cover the same number of people with less money, or increase state funding. I am not talking about expansion but the part of the Medicaid program that was untouched by the ACA–children, pregnant women, disabled, elderly.
  • It ends the Medicaid expansion that is a part of the ACA (so will increase uninsured rate).
  • It provides more people with smaller tax credits for purchasing private health insurance while making the mandate/penalty/steering mechanism to purchase health insurance weaker. Hurt are low income people who will get less, while higher income people get more. The ban on pre-existing conditions is kept, as are mandated essential health benefits. The bottom line will almost certainly be fewer more uninsured (update post), and a much more likely death spiral in the individual insurance market. There are some complicated geographical forces at work that mean the impact on uninsured rates will differ by state, but fewer will be covered as compared to the ACA. It is unclear what the changes will do to employer sponsored coverage–some say there will be lots of drops. We need to know what the CBO thinks to see by how much private insurance coverage is likely to drop.
  • The Medicare cuts that were used to partially pay for increased coverage in the ACA-and which the Republicans have viciously criticized–remain. About $700 Billion worth over the next 10 years.
  • The taxes on people making over $290,000/year in the ACA have been repealed. The exact size of the tax cut is unclear (again, we need to hear from CBO, but estimates are between $700 Billion and $1 Trillion.

In summary, this bill is a tax cut for high income folks that is funded by cuts to the Medicare program as compared to the ACA new baseline. In addition, it provides a fundamental change of the federal governments financial commitment for Medicaid which weakens the safety net we have, while wiping out coverage gains from Medicaid expansion. States get less money, but the same number of people who now qualify for coverage, leaving aside any expansion effects. And the changes to the tax credit, insurance rules, penalty structure seem likely to destabilize the individual, private insurance market, with unclear impacts on the employer sponsored health insurance system. And the bill will likely increase the deficit (update post: CBO says it reduces the deficit, because of how many more uninsured there will be), but unclear by how much.

The simplest I can do.

Molina’s Death spiral model and the AHCA

Molina Insurance, a fairly successful Exchange carrier that has usually been profitable on and off Exchange, issued a statement yesterday afternoon concerning the House Repeal bill. The statement is ugly and it illustrates a very important point of the Republican bill. It will create an on-Exchange death spiral in many counties.

So what is the model that leads Molina to believe the Exchanges would see mass disenrollment and high price hikes under the Republican plan? It is a combination of the flat age based subsidies and the late enrollment penalty being a proportion of premiums. Some markets and counties would not be affected. Portions of Texas and Pennsylvania for instance would see 21 year olds be able to buy Bronze plans at zero cost. Those counties should have healthy risk pools. But risk pools are not county specific. They are state specific single pools. High cost counties will have a very different dynamic.

High cost counties with a flat age based credit will see young people face significant out of pocket monthly premium expenses if they maintain continual enrollment. A 21 year old is highly unlikely to need much care over the course of a year so most healthy 21 year olds will leave the market. They pay no penalty at the time of their decision to leave the market. And they will make the same decision the following year assuming no new information about their health status arises. Now a 22 year old can jump into the market with a 30% penalty which they will only pay if they know that they are going to be expensive in the following year. The ACA Exchanges average about 34% enrollment under age 35. This system will dramatically reduce enrollment as a number and as a percentage of enrolled for Under 35. The composition of the young enrollment will also be significantly sicker in high premium counties.

On the other hand, moderately expensive but still profitable 60 year olds know that their uncertainty zone for future costs are higher. They could have a year that looks a lot like the current year or they could have a catastrophic year. The odds of a catastrophic year are much higher for a 60 year old than a 21 year old. Further more the penalty for being unenrolled and then enrolling in the future period is much larger. For somewhat expensive but profitable members, the 30% penalty is much more stringent than the current $650 or 2.5% of income penalty. At the same time, the really healthy members who have low utilization at age 60 will drop coverage as the relative costs of the 30% one time late enrollment penalty is less than the cost of premiums for the current year.

Very low cost enrollees will flee unless there is a minimal cost plan out there.  The risk pools will become very old and very sick very quickly.  That is how Molina is modeling their future.