North Carolina

NOTE: This is an updated version of a post from a couple of months ago. Since then, there's been a MASSIVELY important development: The passage of the American Rescue Plan, which includes a dramatic upgrade in ACA subsidies for not only the millions of people already receiving them, but for millions more who didn't previously qualify for financial assistance.

Much has been written by myself and others (especially the Kaiser Family Foundation) about the fact that millions of uninsured Americans are eligible for ZERO PREMIUM Bronze ACA healthcare policies.

I say "Zero Premium" instead of "Free" because there's still deductibles and co-pays involved, although all ACA plans also include a long list of free preventative services from physicals and blood screenings to mammograms and immunizations with no deductible or co-pay involved.

Much has been written by myself and others (especially the Kaiser Family Foundation) about the fact that millions of uninsured Americans are eligible for ZERO PREMIUM Bronze ACA healthcare policies.

I say "Zero Premium" instead of "Free" because there's still deductibles and co-pays involved, although all ACA plans also include a long list of free preventative services from physicals and blood screenings to mammograms and immunizations with no deductible or co-pay involved.

If you have a fairly healthy year, you really could go the entire year without paying a dime in healthcare costs while still taking advantage of many of these free services, and also having the peace of mind that in a worst-case scenario, at least you wouldn't go bankrupt. Not perfect, but a lot better than going bare especially since you wouldn't pay a dime in premiums.

I've written several times about how Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado has repeatedly shown sickening levels of chutzpah and gaslighting when it comes to the Affordable Care Act:

In a pathetic attempt to gaslight Colorado voters, Gardner is now trying to paint himself as supporting healthcare expansion, going so far as to try to claim credit for passage and approval of last year's Section 1332 Reinsurance Waiver program which dramatically reduced premiums for unsubsidized individual market enrollees throughout Colorado...even though a) he didn't have a damned thing to do with it and b) the reinsurance program was only able to be developed thanks to the Affordable Care Act...which Gardner has repeatedly voted to repeal.

The North Carolina Insurance Dept. has published a summary of the preliminary premium rate changes requested by insurance carriers for the indvidual and small group markets in 2021.

The good news is they include the number of people enrolled by each carrier in both markets, making it easy to calculate a weighted average, and th ey even include the SERFF tracking number for each.

The bad news is they don't include links to the actuarial memos, and even plugging the tracking numbers into the SERFF database only brings up the memos for three of the six carriers on the individual market...and of those, two of the three have been redacted (Oscar and Cigna), while the third (UnitedHealthcare) is brand-new to the North Carolina market anyway and therefore has no COVID-19 impact on their rate changes to speak of.

 As you can tell, I've become a bit obsessed with tracking the COVID-19 outbreak on the county level within each state, along with the corresponding partisan divide.

Today, I'm looking at North Carolina. The good news is that I was able to acquire daily case & death data going back over a month. The bad news is that it stops a month ago...that is, the earliest day I could find county-level data for was April 4th, which means I'm missing about two weeks worth of numbers from the second half of March (most states I've looked at so far start around March 20th).

Still, even with the first two weeks missing, the trendline is pretty clear: Once again, what started out as a "Democratic area problem" has quickly shifted into an Everyone problem. It looks like things have stabilized at roughly a 50/50 divide, with around the same number of cases appearing in counties which voted for Donald Trump in 2016 as HIllary Clinton:

North Carolina has three individual market carriers in 2019. For 2020, that's increasing to four, as Bright Health Care is expanding into the NC market. The other three carriers (Blue Cross Blue Shield has a near monopoly at the moment) had requested average unsubsidized rate drops of 5.3% previously; in the end the final rates are dropping slightly more, to -5.6%.

via Becker's Hospital Review:

Cigna extended its individual healthcare exchange products for the 2020 plan year, the insurer said Sept. 18.

For 2020, individuals can purchase individual health plans in 19 markets across 10 states. The expansions will take place in counties in Kansas, South Florida, Utah, Tennessee and Virginia. The other states include Arizona, Colorado, Illinois and North Carolina.

The plans will be available for purchase on the individual marketplace during the 2020 open enrollment period, which begins Nov. 1. Plans will take effect Jan. 1.

via Bruce Japsen of Forbes:

MLR rebate payments for 2018 are being sent out to enrollees even as I type this. The data for 2018 MLR rebates won't be officially posted for another month or so, but I've managed to acquire it early, and after a lot of number-crunching the data, I've recompiled it into an easy-to-read format.

But that's not all! In addition to the actual 2018 MLR rebates, I've gone one step further and have taken an early crack at trying to figure out what 2019 MLR rebates might end up looking like next year (for the Individual Market only). In order to do this, I had to make several very large assumptions:

NOTE: This post re. North Carolina's 2020 individual market premium rate change is incomplete because it only includes one of the three carriers participating in NC's market (Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC). The rate change requests for Cigna and Centene haven't been released yet.

Normally I'd wait until I had data for the other two as well, but BCBSNC held around 95% of the state's Individual Market share last year, with Cigna holding the other 5% (Centene was a new entry to the market, so they didn't have any of it). I don't know how much the relative share has changed this year, but I'm assuming that BCBSNC still holds the lion's share of the total.

That being said, BCBSNC just posted their own preliminary rate filing summary on their corporate blog:

Blue Cross NC is decreasing 2020 Affordable Care Act (ACA) rates by an average of 5.2 percent for plans offered to individuals and an average of 3.3 percent for plans offered to small businesses with one to 50 employees. With this reduction, we take 238 million steps towards more affordable care in North Carolina.

This happened yesterday:

Senate OKs small business health-care bill
By Richard Craver Winston-Salem Journal

The state Senate gave initial approval Wednesday to a Senate bill that would allow small-business employers to offer an association health-insurance plan, or AHP, that could provide lower premium costs.

Senate Bill 86 received a 40-8 vote on second reading, but an objection to a third reading kept it on the Senate calendar until at least today.

The GOP holds a majority in the NC Senate, but only by 29 to 21, so stopping this there was apparently a lost cause. They also hold a 65 to 54 majority in the state House. I'm not sure whether SB 86 has already been voted on there or not. If it passes both, it would be up to Democratic Governor Roy Cooper to veto the bill.

North Carolina has three insurance carriers offering individual market policies next year: Blue Cross Blue Shield, which holds a whopping 96% of the individual market; Cigna, which holds the remaining 4%, and newcomer Ambetter (aka Centene).

I ran a write-up on BCBSNC's preliminary 2019 rate request at the end of July. While they're lowering their 2019 premiums by 4.1%, they also made it very clear that yes, they'd be lowering rates even further if not for the ACA's individual mandate penalty being repealed:

BLUE CROSS NC FILES TO LOWER ACA RATES BY AVERAGE OF 4.1 PERCENT

Durham, N.C. – Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) announced today it requested an overall average rate decrease of 4.1 percent for 2019 Affordable Care Act (ACA) plans offered to individuals. The reduction marks the first rate decrease in the history of Blue Cross NC since entering the current individual market more than 25 years ago.

...Many factors went into the Blue Cross NC’s rate filing:

There are only two insurance carriers participating in the North Carolina individual market this year: Blue Cross Blue Shield and Cigna. That's expected to change for 2019, as Centene (aka Ambetter) is expected to jump into the NC market, but in terms of premium changes, it's just BCBS and Cigna which can be counted in my 2019 Rate Hike project.

Cigna hasn't released their 2019 filings publicly yet, but they only held around a 4% market share last year (around 21,000 enrollees) so unless they raise or lower rates by a huge amount, it's unlikely to move the needle much one way or the other.

The other 96% of the NC individual market belongs to Blue Cross...and they just issued a very public statement about their intentions for 2019:

BLUE CROSS NC FILES TO LOWER ACA RATES BY AVERAGE OF 4.1 PERCENT
31 Jul 2018

One of the big stories over the past few months has been the Trump Administration's attempts to strip away regulations on non-ACA compliant "Short-Term, Limited Duration" plans (by making them neither short-term nor of limited duration) and "Association Health Plans" (by recategorizing them from state-regulated, Small Group plans to mostly unregulated Large Group plans).

However, a couple of months ago I wrote about a brand-new law in Iowa which would take a third route towards skirting ACA compliance: Farm Bureau plans:

The Iowa Senate voted Wednesday to let the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and Wellmark Blue Cross & Blue Shield sell health insurance plans that don't comply with the federal Affordable Care Act.

The new coverage could offer relatively low premiums for young and healthy consumers, but people with pre-existing health problems could once again be charged more or denied coverage.

As I noted last week, insurance carriers in North Carolina were supposed to have submitted their preliminary 2019 premium rate change filings as of May 21st. Unfortunately, as I also noted last week, those "deadlines" appear to be more "guidelines" in many states, with North Carolina among them; there's no publicly-available premium change data available yet.

However, as Louise Norris notes over at healthinsurance.org, there's some interesting news afoot in the Tar Heel State:

Looking ahead to 2019

Insurers that wish to offer individual market coverage in North Carolina in 2019 had to file rates and forms by May 21, 2018. The two insurers that offer 2018 coverage in the North Carolina exchange — Cigna and Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina — have both filed rate for 2019. Although the filings do show up in SERFF, they have very little publically available data at this point.

Way back in May, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina submitted their initial 2018 rate requests to the state insurance department, and noted at the time that they'd normally only be requesting an 8.8% average rate increase...but that due specifically to Donald Trump's threat to cut off CSR reimbursement payments, they were asking for a 23.3% increase instead. I noted that this meant that about 60% of their increase request was caused by Trump's CSR threat.

Then, in August, they gave a somewhat more positive news update: They were lowering their requested rate hike to 14.1%. Basically, their latest numbers had come in and the balance sheet was doing quite a bit better than they had previously thought:

Blue Cross said May 25 that the 22.9 percent rate increase was based on the subsidies ending, along with claims data from the first quarter of 2017. It projected an 8.8 percent rate increase with the subsidies remaining in place.

Quick recap: As of 2013, the pre-ACA individual market consisted of around 10.7 million people. The vast majority of the policies these folks were enrolled in were not ACA-compliant for one reason or another, including not covering one or more of the 10 Essential Health Benefits (EHBs) required by the ACA, having annual/lifetime caps on benefits or any number of other reasons.

Under ACA regulations, non-compliant policies which people were enrolled in prior to March 2010 (when President Obama signed the ACA into law) were grandfathered in...that is, insurance carriers could continue to offer them to existing enrollees for as long as they wanted to, and existing enrollees could stay on them for as long as they wished, but they couldn't be offered to anyone else, and once a current enrollee dropped out of a grandfathered plan they aren't allowed to rejoin it later on. The number of "grandfathered" enrollees has gradually declined since 2013, of course, as people either move to other coverage, die off (hey, it happens) or the carriers decide to discontinue the policies altogether.

In late May, I noted that Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, which holds a near monopoly on the individual market in NC with around 95% of total enrollment, had submitted an initial rate hike request for 2018 averageing 22.9% overall. What was remarkable at the time is that while most carriers were pussyfooting around using euphamisms about the reasons for their excessive increase requests, BCBSNC was among the first to come right out and state point-blank that it's the Trump Administration's deliberate sabotage of the market--primarily via the threats to cut off CSR payments and to not enforce the individual mandate--that are responsible for over 60% of the increase. This is from their blog, not mine:

For 2017, North Carolina's unsubsidized, weighted average individual market rate hikes came in at around 24.2%. With carriers like Aetna, United Healthcare, Humana and Celtic all dropping out of the NC exchange market, there wasn't much math to do in order to find a weighted average: The only individual market carriers left were Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC, Cigna and "National Foundation Life Insurance", which is basically a non-entity shell company related to "Freedom Life", the less said about the better. Since Cigna only had around 1,200 indy market enrollees at the time (less than 0.5% of the total market share), that pretty much left BCBSNC as the only game in town, so their 24.3% hike was the whole shebang for the state.

While I've been embroiled in the sturm und drang at the national level, Louise Norris of healthinsurance.org has been reporting on some important stuff happening at the state level:

HAWAII:

Hawaii no longer has a SHOP exchange; Lawmakers consider bill to preserve the ACA and expand Medicaid to 250% FPL

As of 2017, Hawaii no longer has a SHOP exchange for small businesses. The State Department of Labor and Industrial Relations has an FAQ page about this.

...Hawaii’s waiver aligns the ACA with the state’s existing Prepaid Health Care Act. Under the Prepaid Healthcare Act, employees who work at least 20 hours a week have to be offered employer-sponsored health insurance, and can’t be asked to pay more than 1.5 percent of their wages for employee-only coverage (as opposed to 9.69 percent under the ACA in 2017). 

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina originally requested an 18.8% rate hike back in June, but after the Aetna pullout, they revised their request upwards to 24.3%. Cigna, which is expanding onto the ACA exchange next year, followed suit by bumping up their request from 7% to 15%.

I haven't seen any formal announcement from the NC Dept. of Insurance yet, but BCBSNC just posted the following blog entry announcing their 2017 rates...and it certainly looks like the 24.3% request was indeed granted as is:

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina customers purchasing ACA plans on the individual market will see an average increase of 24.3 percent in their premiums for 2017, compared to this year’s rates. That’s higher than our original rate filing back in May (an 18.8 percent increase).

Back in June, the two carriers which will be participating in the North Carolina individual market next year (BCBS and Cigna) requested average rate hikes of 18.8% and 7% respectively. Since then, however, Aetna has dropped out of the indy market, which no doubt is a big part of the reason both of them have resubmitted higher rate requests:

Proposed rate changes for 2017 revised upwards

For the two carriers that are expected to participate in the exchange in 2017, the proposed average rate hikes for 2017 are:

  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina: 18.8 percent 24.3 percent (new rates were filed in late August)
  • Cigna: 7 percent (based on current off-exchange plans) 15 percent (new rates were filed)

Aetna had proposed an average rate increase of 24.5 percent, but that is no longer applicable for exchange enrollees, as Aetna’s plans will not be available in the North Carolina exchange in 2017.

North Carolina's individual market, which only had 5 carriers participating to begin with this year, suffered a double blow recently when both UnitedHealthcare (155,000 enrollees) and Humana (3,272 enrollees) announced that they were dropping out of the market entirely next year (Celtic is also leaving the state, but they have literally just 1 person enrolled state-wide anyway). Fortunately, nature abhors a vacuum, so Cigna Health & Life Insurance decided to join the exchange for 2017. Cigna is already selling off-exchange individual policies, but only has fewer than 1,300 people enrolled in them at the moment. There's also a carrier called "National Foundation Life Insurance" which is raising rates 17.4%...but doesn't have a single person enrolled at the moment anyway, so I'm not sure what to make of that.

When UnitedHealthcare announced last month that they were making good on their threat last fall to pull out of the individual market in over two dozen states next year, it caused shockwaves across the health insurance industry. It is an important development, as around 800,000 people will be impacted.

When Humana announced last week that they plan on pulling out of the individual market in at least 5 states next year, it was interesting and a bit of a bummer, but not nearly as earthshattering, because only about 25,000 people will have to shop around and find a new carrier.

Today, it is my duty to announce that Celtic insurance has also decided to pull out of the entire individual insurance market (both on and off-exchange) across at least 6 states, including:

Ugh. Back in August I ran a ballpark estimate of the requested average rate hikes on the North Carolina individual market, and came up with 27% like so:

However, since then, 2 major NC insurers have revised their request upwards even further:

Two more health insurers in North Carolina are asking to increase their already-proposed rate increases. 

UnitedHealthcare, which had requested an average rate increase of 12.5 percent, now is asking regulators to allow an an average increase of 20.4 percent. The range is 2.5 percent to 50.3 percent.

Humana had requested 11.3 percent and is now asking for an average of 24.9 percent. 

IMPORTANT: See this detailed explanation of how I've come up with the following estimated maximum requested weighted average rate increases for this state.

As explained in the first link above, I've still been able to piece together rough estimates of the maximum possible and mid-range requested average rate increase for the North Carolina individual market:

BCBS of NC had previously requested an already-ugly 25.7% average rate hike, but has now asked to bump that up even more, to 34.6% overall.

Presented without comment:

North Carolinians could have three insurance carriers to choose from when enrollment under the Affordable Care Act reopens in November.

The state Department of Insurance has approved individual plans from UnitedHealthcare for the online marketplace, but they still need to be approved by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services because the federal government operates the exchange.

BCBSNC reports 232,000 QHPs sold on the ACA exchange...but that's out of about 273,000 total enrollees; they've removed the other 15% who haven't paid their premium yet:

The Blue Cross enrollments reflect insured customers who signed up from October through May 1 and are still paying premiums. About 15 percent of customers who signed up never paid a premium and are not included in the 232,000 figure, Burke said. 

So, fine: 85% for Blue Cross of NC. As it happens, NC sold a total of 357,584 policies total, which means BCBSNC sold over 76% of the total.

Now, it's conceivable (but not likely) that 100% of the remaining 84,500 enrollees snapped up by other companies did pay their premiums, but even so, that would only bring the paid percentage up to about 88.5%. So, I think it's safe to say that for North Carolina, 85% is a reasonable "How many have PAID???" figure for the full state until more solid numbers are released.

This number out of NC is a bit squirrelly; I'm not updating the actual spreadsheet with it, but it's still worth at least mentioning:

Overall, Terrell said, the state has received 95,000 Medicaid applications via the federal ACA sign-up, representing 132,000 people, since October 2013. And that number is likely to grow. 

The number of people added to Medicaid/CHIP in NC thru 3/01 via the HC.gov site was 55,691, so this could potentially be a more than 2.3x increase, but they're noted as applications, so presumably some of them will be denied. Still impressive.

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