Homestretch Part 3: Affordability Measures

[This is the third in a series of six articles summarizing the leading categories of issues at stake in the final stages -- the homestretch -- of the debate on national health insurance and health care reform.]

Health insurance reform is crucial for the success and prosperity of American families. However it will only succeed if there are affordability measures in place for families, individuals and small business owners.   Congress now has three bills that have passed out of committee and must be reconciled to create the final bill. The key will be to take the best elements of each bill to ensure Americans adequate and affordable health insurance.   In all three bills, almost all individuals are required to carry health insurance. The goal of the individual mandate is to encourage the use of primary care providers and preventive care, while reducing the use of emergency rooms for non-emergency care. This could prove problematic for individuals who do not qualify for subsidies but cannot find an affordable plan, and for low-income individuals. However, with adequate subsidies and affordability measures, Congress can ensure that health insurance is affordable for everyone.

Individual and Employer mandate
All three bills require that almost all individuals have health insurance and those who do not will be required to pay a penalty. However, each of the bills has a different method of penalizing certain individuals. Both Senate bills (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) and Finance) impose a tax penalty of $750 per individual per year and per adult per year, respectively. The Senate HELP bill exempts people whose incomes are below 150% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), people without coverage for fewer than 90 days, members of Indian tribes, and residents of states without an Exchange in place. The Senate Finance Committee exempts certain individuals as well, including, individuals with incomes below 133% FPL, individuals with religious objections, individuals who can prove financial hardship, American Indians, and if the lowest cost plan exceeds 8% of an individual’s income. 

The House Tri-Committee bill (H.R. 3200) imposes a penalty of 2.5% of income up to the cost of the Exchange’s national average premium. The House bill exempts dependents, individuals with religious objections or financial hardship. 

The three bills also include employer mandates which require employers to contribute to their employees’ cost of insurance. An employer mandate is necessary to ensure that costs do not get passed to employees and that employers do not drop employee insurance with the adoption of the Exchange. However, these mandates must be carefully designed as not to impose higher costs on small business owners or discourage the hiring of low-income individuals.

The Senate Finance bill would impose a tax on employers with more than 50 employees that do not offer coverage. They would be taxed for each employee that receives a tax credit through the Exchange. This provision may discourage employers to hire low-income individuals who would be more likely to receive credits in the Exchange. Additionally, the Finance bill would require an employer with more than 200 employees to automatically enroll employees into the employer’s health insurance plan. Employees may choose to receive coverage from another source. 

The Senate HELP bill requires employers to offer health insurance and pay 60% of the premium cost. Under this bill, employers will be subject to a $750 penalty for each full-time employee and $375 for each part-time employee who is uninsured and not offered insurance. The provision exempts employers with 25 or fewer employees. 

H.R. 3200 requires employers to offer coverage and pay at least 72.5% of premium for an individual and 65% of premium for a family. The penalty for not following this requirement is to pay 8% of the employer’s total payroll into the Health Insurance Exchange Trust Fund. Certain employers would receive exemptions from the penalty. For small employers with a payroll of less than $750,000 a year, the penalty would be imposed on a sliding scale instead of the flat assessment rate of 8%. 

Subsidies
The key to successfully mandating health insurance without creating a financial imposition on low and middle income families, is implementing adequate
subsidies for people to buy insurance through the Exchange. The goal of the subsidies is to limit the premium cost to individuals based on a sliding scale. The House bill does the best job of limiting the percentage of an individual’s income that goes toward premiums. However, the Senate HELP bill provides the best subsidies or individuals below 150% FPL. The Senate Finance bill has improved their subsidies substantially; however more could still be done.   It is also important to keep in mind that Medicaid eligible individuals, non-citizens and non-Legal Permanent Residents will not qualify for the subsidies, with the exception of some Medicaid eligible individuals under the Senate Finance bill. Here is a table of the subsidies for income tiers under each bill:

 

Senate Finance Committee

Senate HELP Committee

H.R. 3200**

100%

2%

NA*

NA

133%

3.7%

NA*

NA

150%

4.5%

1%

1.5-3%

200%

7.0%

3.3%

3-5%

250%

9.5%

5.6%

5-7%

300%

12.0%

7.9%

7-9%

350%

12.0%

10.2%

9-10%

400%

12.0%

12.5%

10-11%

 *The HELP bill raises Medicaid eligibility to 150% FPL and excludes Medicaid recipients from receiving subsidies. Both the Senate Finance and H.R. 3200 bills raise the eligibility to 133% FPL. However, under the Senate Finance individuals can choose to enroll in the Exchange and receive subsidies. 

**H.R. 3200 provides for subsidies on a sliding scale within an income bracket and designates an initial subsidy level and a maximum subsidy level for each bracket (i.e. individuals between 133%-150% FPL will receive subsidies that limit their premiums somewhere between 1.5% and 3% of their income.)

Out-of-pocket caps
Under the current health insurance system, a large number of Americans—including those who have health insurance-- pay for many services, treatments and tests out of their pockets, particularly for preventive care. The three health insurance reform bills would set a cap for what individuals and families could pay out-of-pocket in a year. The out-of-pocket caps must be substantial enough that individuals do not face underinsurance if faced with an illness or accident. That is, the caps should be low enough that insurance kicks in before families face financial insecurity and are unable to pay for necessary care. The below
chart depicts the proposed caps included in the three bills as compared to the standards that would protect Americans from underinsurance.  

 

Senate Finance Committee

Senate HELP Committee

H.R. 3200**

Standard that would protect Americans from Underinsurance

133%

16%

N/A*

4%

5%

150%

14%

8%

5%

5%

200%

16%

6%

12%

10%

250%

13%

13%

16%

10%

300%

14%

11%

16%

10%

350%

12%

18%

13%

10%

400%

11%

16%

14%

10%

*The Senate HELP bill expands Medicaid to 150% FPL, so individuals in this income bracket would qualify for Medicaid

**As estimated by House Ways and Means as of July 31, 2009.

There is still much work to be done as the three health insurance reform bills come together, in order to ensure that comprehensive health insurance is truly accessible and affordable for Americans. The groundwork for such a solution is here. As Congress negotiates to create one final bill, they must keep in mind that the mandate and subsidies must complement each other to ensure quality, affordable health insurance choices because this is what Americans need and this is what they demand

Health care advocates throughout the country are urging Americans to call their Senators and ask them to support the affordability provisions in the Senate HELP bill. If you aren’t sure who your Senators are you can find out on Families USA’s website at http://ga3.org/familiesusa/leg-lookup/search.html

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