Silver Loading

Gold/Silver

I've written in-depth explainers before of how Silver Loading came into existence and how it works as part of longer blog posts, but I also wanted to have a simpler, standalone version, so here it is.

First, a quick backstory:

Welcome to the latest chapter in the long, epic CSR Lawsuit Saga which has been slogging along for six years now.

Here's a quick recap (again):

  • The ACA includes two types of financial subsidies for individual market enrollees through the ACA exchanges (HealthCare.Gov, CoveredCA.com, etc). One program is called Advance Premium Tax Credits (APTC), which reduces monthly premiums for low- and moderate-income. The other is called Cost Sharing Reductions (CSR), which reduces deductibles, co-pays and other out-of-pocket expenses for low-income enrollees.
  • In 2014, then-Speaker of the House John Boehner filed a lawsuit on behalf of Congressional Republicans against the Obama Administration. They had several beefs with the ACA (shocker!), including a claim that the CSR payments were unconstitutional because they weren't explicitly appropriated by Congress in the text of the Affordable Care Act (even though the program itself was described in detail, including the payment mechanism/etc.)

NOTE: This is a joint post by three of my colleagues and myself:
David M. Anderson, Charles Gaba, Louise Norris and Andrew Sprung

State policymakers have been prolific and creative in putting forward measures to strengthen their ACA marketplaces. Measures enacted since 2017 or in progress now include reinsurance programs, which reduced base premiums by an average of 20% in their first year in the first seven states to implement such programs; new or renewed state-based exchanges, which capture insurance user fees that can be used for advertising and outreach; state premium subsidies to supplement federal subsidies; and state-based individual mandates, which can provide funding for all of the above.

For three years running, thanks to a combination of the way the ACA's premiums subsidy formula works and the Silver Loading workaround, several million low-income people are eligible for fully ACA-compliant healthcare policies which end up costing them NOTHING in premiums after federal tax credits are applied.

Here's why: Under the ACA's subsidy formula, if you earn between 100% - 400% of the Federal Poverty Line ($12,490 - $49,960/yr if you're single), you're eligible for subsidies which bring the cost of the benchmark Silver ACA plan down to between 2.06 - 9.78% of your income, on a sliding scale.

If you earn less than 200% FPL (just under $25,000), you also qualify for heavy cost sharing reduction assistance as well...but only if you enroll in a Silver plan.

So, let's suppose you earn exactly $25,000/yr (just over 200% FPL). At that income, you'd qualify for subsidies bringing the benchmark Silver down to 6.5% of your income, or $135/month. If the benchmark plan costs, $600 at full price, you'd therefore be eligible for $465/month.

Back in late October, a few days before the launch of the 2020 Open Enrollment Period, I issued a warning to ACA exchange enrollees who may have been benefiting from the "Silver Loading" premium pricing strategy for in 2018 and/or 2019 that the enhanced subsidies they've been taking advantage of for two years are likely going to be reversed for 2020:

What happens next year if the benchmark Silver plan drops by 4%...but the Bronze, Gold, and the OTHER Silver plans stay flat?

I talked about this the other day, but re-reading my post, I don't think I emphasized it nearly enough:

It's also important to keep in mind that due to how the ACA's subsidy formula is structured (combined with Silver Loading and Silver Switching), a lower benchmark premium will actually result in higher net premiums for many subsidized enrollees (although it's still good news for those who are unsubsidized). Here's why:

  • Let's say the unsubsidized premiums for a given enrollee in 2019 is $400 for Bronze, $600 for the benchmark Silver and $700 for Gold.
  • Let's say that enrollee earns exactly $32K/year (256% FPL), meaning they only have to pay 8.54% of their income for the benchmark plan.
  • That means they qualify for ($7,200 - $2,733) = $4,467 in subsidies ($372/month).

This would leave them paying $228/month for the benchmark Silver...but they can apply that towards a Bronze plan if they wish so they'd only pay $28/month, or a Gold plan so they only pay $328/month.

Back in February, I issued a strong warning to House Democrats to proceed with caution when it comes to the prospect of agreeing to reinstate the Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) reimbursement payments which Donald Trump cut off back in October 2017:

  • Had CSR reimbursement payments continued to be paid over the next decade, the CBO projected that it would have cost the federal government $118 billion between 2018 - 2026, or around $13 billion per year on average.
  • Cutting off CSR reimbursement payments saves the federal government that $118 billion over 9 years. HOWEVER...

Just a few minutes ago I noted that the state of Oregon is once again strongly considering taking a second crack at establishing their own, fully state-based ACA exchange after spending the past five years piggybacking on top of HealthCare.Gov.

Well, the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group just published an extensive report in which they urge the state to do just that...along with several other key changes which I also strongly agree with:

Steps like a mandate for Oregon residents to buy health insurance and relief for exchange customers who earn too much to receive tax credits under the Affordable Care Act could help reverse premium hikes that have shot up amid attempts by the Trump administration to roll back the law, OSPIRG, the Oregon State Public Interest Group, argued in a report released Wednesday.

 

The CSR Lawsuit Saga has been a continuous rollercoaster ride since 2014 at this point, with the original lawsuit (brought by John friggin' Boehner) seeing twists including one of the plaintiffs becoming one of the named defendents, and the named defendent changing at least three times as the Trump Administration went through several HHS Secretaries over the course of a few months.

The extremely short version, again: Donald Trump attempted to sabotage the ACA exchanges by pulling the plug on Cost Sharing Reduction reimbursement payments...but in doing so, unintentionally ended up:

  • NOT hurting the very people he was trying to hurt (low-income enrollees);
  • HURTING the very people he supposedly wasn't trying to hurt (middle-income enrollees), and as an added bonus...
  • INCREASING federal spending by a projected $20 billion dollars per year in increased premium subsidies

Nearly 100 insurance carriers who were stiffed by Trump out of a couple billion dollars owed to them for 2017 sued the federal government, and the judges in the cases ruled in their favor, ordering the feds to pay up. This much was completely expected and not at all out of the ordinary.

Note: Huge props to Amy Lotven for breaking this story!

WARNING: Before you read any of the following, first read this entire post, which explains the latest insane twist in the never-ending Cost Sharing Reduction legal saga. Yeah, I know, I know...just do it. I'll wait.

....

OK, now that you're all caught up, there's yet another aspect to this craziness which has arisen.

Towards the end of the first post, I noted that:

I'm not sure of the details on how those MLR rebates are allocated, but I know in 2018, nearly 6 million people received an average rebate of $119 apiece. Most of that came from the large and small group markets, but around 1 million people on the ACA individual market received $137 apiece (around $133 million total). That's right: It's theoretically possible that the carriers could have to dole out up to 75 times as much in MLR rebates for 2018 as they did last year.

First of all, it turns out that the amount of money potentially at stake is even higher than that:

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