Co-authored by Carrie Gilbert
Over the last several weeks, we have looked at the different proposals coming through Congress to achieve comprehensive health insurance reform. Congress is now modifying two versions – one in each – the House and the Senate. We have come quite a long way since the beginning of this series, however before health reform is signed into law, there are several more important steps. The Senate has officially begun debate. In order, to take a final vote and pass health reform, they will need 60 votes to end debate on the floor. Then they need a simple majority to pass it out of the Senate. Once each house has a passed a version, it will go to conference committee so that the differences can be resolved and a final bill written. Your Senators and Representatives will need to hear from you every step of the way. Reassure those that support health reform that they are doing the right thing and let the fence-sitters and naysayers know that as their constituent you would like to see them support health reform. Here is the number to call 1-800-828-0498 to let your representatives know how you feel.
Here is our final installment of the homestretch series: The Finish Line. We wrap up the previous issues we have looked at and offer insight into unresolved issues.
H.R. 3692 would ultimately dissolve the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) as of December 31, 2013. Children below 150% of the federal poverty level (FPL) would then move into Medicaid and those above would be moved into the new Health Insurance Exchange or employer-based insurance. While CHIP is still in place, HR 3692 eliminates waiting periods for children who were previously covered by employer sponsored insurance. By the end of 2011, the Secretary of HHS will have to conduct a study for what the Exchange will look like and make recommendations to Congress for improving the Exchange for children’s coverage.
H.R. 3590 maintains CHIP for children above 133% FPL through 2019. However, it does not allocate funding past its current renewal date of September 30, 2013. If Congress does not fund CHIP after 2013 then families may enroll in the Exchange and may qualify for subsidies.
Some advocates fear that moving children out of CHIP without first ensuring that the Exchange is comparable in price and benefits, would harm families and children. They fear that CHIP goes well beyond what private plans in the Exchange would offer in terms of benefits and covered services. However, others argue that moving entire families into the Exchange would simplify the process and increase the likelihood that children get coverage. Studies have found that when the parents are covered, the children are more likely to be covered and receive necessary benefits. Additionally, there would be an “essential benefits package” requirement in the Exchange that would serve as a benefits floor for private plans. Finally, in the Exchange all families up to 400% FPL would qualify for subsidies, whereas one state has CHIP eligibility to 400% FPL, thereby covering more families. On the Senate side, Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced an amendment to protect and ensure health care coverage for low-income children, including continued full funding for CHIP through 2019.
The House bill expands Medicaid to 150% FPL in January 2013 with 100% federal financing for 2 years and 91% federal financing beginning in year 2015 for new eligibles (such as childless adults) and some current eligibles covered by a waiver. States with Medicaid levels above 150% will be required to maintain their current levels. The House bill’s additional funding is geared towards helping states transition to the expanded Medicaid program. Additionally, the House bill would increase Medicaid payment rates to primary care providers to 100% of Medicare rates by 2012.
The senate bill expands Medicaid to 133% FPL and includes childless adults. The bill requires that the expansion occurs by 2014, but states could begin expanding as early as 2011. Some individuals who qualify for Medicaid could also receive subsidies in the Exchange, although people below 100% FPL could only receive subsidies if they do not qualify for Medicaid.
Health Affairsdid a study about a year ago, which found that average medical expenses are lower per person under public programs than under private insurance. When controlling for demographics and income, the medical expenditures for the same adult would be 26% higher under private insurance than Medicaid. Additionally, out-of-pocket costs are vastly higher under private insurance than under Medicaid. A Medicaid enrollee would spend 6 to 7 times more on out-of-pocket costs under private insurance than under Medicaid. The CBO estimates that Medicaid expansion to 150% FPL will cover 15 million people. This is not to say that we should balk at the Senate’s Medicaid expansion to 133%, and both bills expand Medicaid to previously ineligible childless adults, which finally addresses a longstanding gap in public coverage for those who often do not qualify or cannot afford private insurance.
HR 3692 requires all individuals to purchase coverage, but provides tax credits to individuals and families with incomes above Medicaid eligibility but below 400% FPL. A family of four headed by a 45-year-old making $44,000 a year would pay roughly $2,400 in premiums, or $200 a month, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The tax credits are awarded on a sliding scale based on income to limit premium contributions to an affordable percentage of income, starting at 1.5% of income for 133% FPL to 12% of income for 400% FPL. The House bill requires employers to provide health insurance or pay a tax on their total payroll. However, for businesses with annual payrolls less than $750,000 the tax is assessed on a sliding scale, and businesses with annual payrolls under $500,000 are exempt from the tax entirely.
Similarly, in the Senate bill individuals will receive affordability credits to pay for premiums. The credits would start at 4% of income for households at 134% of FPL and increase to 9.8% of income for households at 300%-400% FPL. The Senate bill also includes employer mandates and penalties, but exempts employers with 50 or fewer employees.
The Senate bill is more affordable for households between 250-400% FPL, but the House bill is more affordable for households under 250% of FPL. In the case of those at the bottom of the subsidy scale, under the Senate bill they could end up paying at least twice as much as what they would pay under the House bill. However, a recent analysis by MIT economist, Jonathan Gruber, found that the Senate bill makes health insurance for individuals purchasing in non-group market much more affordable. The same plan that would cost $5500 without reform would cost $4600 with reform. Gruber also found that the House bill would deliver a savings ranging from $200 for individuals to $500 for families, even without subsidies. The nonpartisan CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation analysis of how the Senate bill might affect health insurance premiums concluded that the Senate bill will reduce premium costs for 57% of Americans who will receive subsidies by as much as 59%, and rates in large group market by as much as 3%. Rates may rise for individuals who have to purchase coverage on their own but do not qualify for subsidies, but this is mostly because the plans offered in the Exchange will be better plans than those currently offered and therefore slightly more expensive.
HR 3692 creates a National Health Insurance Exchange, where individuals and employers (employers would be phased-in beginning with the smallest employers) can purchase plans that meet certain qualifications in order to be considered an adequate plan. A public option would be included in the Exchange. The public option would follow the same insurance industry guidelines as private plans. The public option would negotiate rates with providers so that they are not below Medicare rates but not above the average rates for comparable private plans.
HR 3590 creates a state-based Exchange for individuals and businesses with fewer than 100 employees. States can allow bigger businesses to buy insurance in the Exchange beginning in 2017. The Exchange would include a public option, which must comply with insurance industry regulations for private plans. The Senate bill permits states to choose not to offer the public option, but they would have to pass legislation to do so. The Senate bill would also create a program to foster the development of CO-OPS or non-profit health insurance companies.
According to the CBO, the House bill’s public option would enroll less than 2% of the population (about 6 million customers over the next 10 years) and probably have higher premiums than private plans. The Senate’s bill would attract about 4 million customers. Nevertheless, the public option has become a heated topic. If Senator Reid can find a public option compromise that pleases all 60 democratic votes, then he can close debate and move toward the final vote. Republicans want six weeks of debate, but as soon as Democrats come to an agreement on the public option they can shut down the debate and avoid the Republican arsenal of stalling and bill-killing tactics. Finding this magical compromise is much easier said than done. Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and other conservative Democrats, most notably Ben Nelson (D-NE), Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) have voiced opposition to the opt-out public option. Landrieu has said that she would support the “trigger” option, which would activate the public option if the private industry does expand coverage fast enough. Sen. Olympia Snow (R-VT), the only Senate Republican to vote for health reform this year, has also voiced support for the “trigger”. Sen. Nelson supports an opt-in option for states, while Lieberman and Lincoln are going to be much harder to bring to the table on the public option. Meanwhile, Democrats on both the House and Senate side can be lost if there is not a public option. However, a potential compromise is beginning to emerge from negotiations between five liberal and five moderate Democratic Senators. The compromise would remove the public option and replace it with a network of non-profit health insurance plans, which the Office of Personnel Management would administer. The Office of Personnel Management currently administers the Federal Employee Benefits Program. In exchange for removing the public option, moderate Democrats would agree to expanded Medicare and Medicaid. Getting the 60 votes necessary to close debate involve negotiation on several issues, but the public option balancing act may be the single most important issue for getting to 60.
Insurance Market Reforms
HR 3692 would require private insurers within the Exchange to guarantee coverage regardless of the policyholder’s health and renew the coverage each year, and insurance companies could not rescind a policyholder’s plan. Insurance companies would be required to issue plans despite pre-existing conditions. Variation in premium rates would be illegal based on gender and geography. Premiums can vary based on age but limited to a ratio of 2 to 1. Insurance companies could not impose annual or lifetime caps for medical care.
The Senate bill also guarantees issue and renewability. As in the House legislation, companies could not rescind coverage or refuse coverage based on a pre-existing condition. Premium variation is allowed based only on age and tobacco use within ratios of 3 to 1 and 1.5 to 1 respectively.
Insurance market reforms are some of the most needed and least debated aspects of health reform. Countless people have been denied coverage or had their coverage rescinded due to pre-existing conditions or post claims underwriting and rescission practices. These insurance reform changes are significant change to current insurance company business practices. However, even if one issue causes health reform to fail then even these widely agreed upon changes will get thrown out. These changes would mean significant improvements in care for lots of Americans who currently struggle to find adequate coverage. However, since insurance companies currently charge the young and healthy much less than middle-age people who are more likely to get sick, the young may pay more under both bills than they currently do, if their income is too high for them to qualify for public coverage or subsidies.
Impact on the deficits and paying for reform:
The House bill uses a combination of penalties for lack of coverage, taxes on wealthy Americans and changes to Medicare payment to pay for reform. It is expected to reduce deficit by $109 billion over ten years.
The Senate bill uses a combination of taxes on high cost insurance plans, increases to the Medicare payroll tax and a 5% tax on non-medically necessary cosmetic surgery. The Senate bill is expected to reduce the deficit by $130 billion over the first ten years and by more than half a trillion dollars in the following decade.
Both bills offer positive elements to craft an affordable bill that curbs the cost of health insurance over time. The tax on wealthy individuals will raise considerable revenue, while the tax on high-cost insurance plans will slow health care growth over time.
Other Hot Issues:
Abortion: Federal funding for abortions became a contentious issue at the last minute in the House debate. The House passed their bill with language which makes it illegal for the public plan to cover elective abortions, and for individuals receiving subsidies to purchase plans which cover elective abortions. The Senate bill, on the other hand, allows individuals who receive federal subsidies to purchase plans which cover abortions, but insurance companies would have to segregate federal funds to ensure that only the policyholder’s money is used to pay for the procedure. It is expected that early this week Senator Bill Nelson (D-NE) will introduce an amendment to make the language in the Senate bill more like that in the House bill. Some House Democrats have said that while they voted for the amendment once, they will not do it again, and their votes could be lost if the language remains as restrictive as it now is. Speaker Pelosi has stated, however, that health reform will not fail on account of the abortion debate.
Immigration: The House bill allows undocumented immigrants to buy insurance in the Exchange; however they would have to use their own money to do so. The Senate bill, on the other hand, restricts access to the Exchange completely. Some Congressional Democrats, in particular the Hispanic Caucus, are disappointed with the language regarding immigrants, particularly in the Senate bill.