Silver Loading

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:

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

I've written about the CSR Saga so many times that I'm getting tired of explaining the backstory. However, once again, here's the short version:

Once again, the very short version is this:

  • The contract insurance carriers sign when they offer policies on the ACA exchanges is to cover a chunk of low-income enrollee deductibles, co-pays and other out-of-pocket costs which would normally be the enrollees' responsibility. These are called Cost Sharing Reductions (CSR).
  • The carriers then submit their CSR invoices to the federal government, which is supposed to reimburse the insurance carriers every month.
  • Donald Trump cut off contrctually-required CSR reimbursement payments to insurance carriers in October 2017...and hasn't made any payments since.

(I'm not going to rehash how Trump was able to cut off those payments with a Thanos-like snap of his fingers; suffice to say it's connected to a lawsuit filed so long ago that John friggin' Boehner was still Speaker of the House at the time).

At long last, the final piece of the puzzle can be added: I just received the final 2019 Open Enrollment Period numbers from Vermont Health Connect.

Before looking at it, it's important to understand that Vermont has a unique way of reporting ACA-compliant healthcare policy enrollments.

For the first two years of Open Enrollment, the state didn't allow any off-exchange (or "direct") enrollments for the individual market (or the small business market, I believe). That means all indy market enrollments were done through the exchange. Due to technical problems (and possibly for other reasons as well), however, starting in 2016 they started allowing direct/off-exchange enrollment as well, as every other state does (the District of Columbia is the only other ACA exchange which has no off-exchange market). However, Vermont still requires the insurance carriers to report those off-exchange enrollees to them and they report them as well.

I wish every state reported their enrollment data this way; it would make it much easier for me to do my job, since as it stands the off-exchange market is a bit of a mystery in most states.

Last year there was much hand-wringing by myself and other healthcare wonks about whether or not the Trump Administration would attempt to kill off Silver Loading (and its even-wonkier cousin, Silver Switching). HHS Secretary Alex Azar and CMS Administrator Seema Verma kept sending out mixed and confusing signals about their intentions.

Eventually, Azar decided that while he doesn't like the practice, there wasn't enough time to change the rules before the 2019 Open Enrollment Period was set to begin, so he decided to take a pass for the time being.

Well, in yesterday's NBPP release, the HHS Dept. addressed the issue of CSR reimbursement funding directly...but they also made it clear that they're letting Silver Loading slide for another year:

Unfortunately, Vermont is one of the three states (along with Idaho and Maryland) which hasn't released any 2019 Open Enrollment data yet, so I don't have any numbers to report on that front. However, they did just post this "Open Letter" which I found interesting. The two things to keep in mind about Vermont are: 1) they include their own subsidies on top of ACA subsidies; and 2) they were among two states (North Dakota is the other one) which upgraded their premium pricing in 2019 from "no load" to full #SilverSwitcharoo status.

You can read about the wonky mechanics of this here, but the bottom line is that Vermont residents who qualify for subsidies have substantially better deals available this year, while unsubsidized enrollees have an important workaround to avoid being stung with extra CSR costs:

An Open Letter to Everyone Who Has Helped Vermonters Get into the Right Health Coverage

I've written a lot about how the clever Silver Loading and Silver Switcharoo pricing workarounds have managed to result in millions of people becoming eligible for dirt-cheap or even free Bronze ACA exchange healthcare policies, or bargain-priced Gold plans for millions more. Last year, in fact, the Kaiser Family Foundation determined that roughly 4.5 million uninsured Americans qualified for FREE Bronze plans nationally.

Well, they've done it again for 2019. The total number eligible for FREE Bronze plans has dropped a bit to 4.2 million, but that's still a TON of people:

It isn't often that I write about anything Oklahoma-related, and it's rarer still that I post good news out of the...um..."labor omnia vincit" state (that's their slogan, I looked it up...), so today's a rare day indeed.

A couple of weeks ago I noted that at least 9 more states will be jumping onboard the #SilverSwitcharoo train for 2019, bringing the total to 30:

Last year I wrote a LOT about Silver Loading and Silver Switching for 2018...basically, the way which ACA individual market enrollees can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars on their 2018 insurance policies by taking advantage--perfectly legally and ethically--of the unusual pricing of different metal level policies this year.

The short version is this: Due to the way the ACA's tax credit formula works, Donald Trump's attempt at sabotaging the ACA exchanges by cutting off Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) reimbursement payments to insurance carriers actually (partly) backfired on him, resulting in an unusual situation in which several million subsidized enrollees ended up benefitting from the pricing fallout, while millions of unsubsidized enrollees ended up being hurt by it...but other unsubsidized enrollees ended up being able to avoid being hurt by switching to a special off-exchange Silver plan (thus, the "Silver Switch").

UPDATE 10/30/18: Thanks to some additional reviews/checking by Dave Anderson, Louise Norris, Andrew Sprung and myself, I've been able to update the spreadsheet further; the blog post has also been updated correspondingly.

Last year, while Congressional Republicans were doing everything possible to officially repeal the Affordable Care Act via legislative means, Donald Trump spent months repeatedly threatening to cause the ACA individual market exchanges to either "explode" or "implode" (depending on the day) by, among other things, cutting off Cost Sharing Reduction reimbursement payments to insurance carriers.

There were several stories over the past few days about a new, just-released report from the General Accounting Office (GAO) which examined how well/poorly the Trump Administration handled the 2018 Open Enrollment Period last year.

Many of the findings were things which I had been either predicting or documenting all year:

  • Enrollment through Healthcare.gov Was 5 Percent Lower in 2018 than 2017
  • Stakeholders Reported That Plan Affordability Likely Played a Major Role in Enrollment
  • HHS Reduced Consumer Outreach for 2018 and Used Problematic Data to Allocate Navigator Funding
  • HHS Did Not Set Numeric Enrollment Targets for 2018, and Instead Focused on Enhancing Certain Aspects of Consumers’ Experiences

We identified a list of factors that may have affected 2018 healthcare.gov enrollment based on a review of Department of Health and Human Services information, interviews with health policy experts, and review of recent publications by these experts related to 2018 exchange enrollment.

Factors related to the open enrollment period:

March 20, 2018:

Azar Says He Is Not Aware Of Discussions On Blocking ‘Silver-Loading’ in 2019

HHS Secretary Alex Azar said that he has not been involved in discussions about blocking ‘silver-loading’ plans in 2019 and is not aware of any agency discussions about ending the practice at the moment.

...In recent weeks, some stakeholders have speculated that the Trump administration could block silver-loading in 2019. Several pro-ACA experts say that even though the administration may have authority to stop silver-loading, it would be a self-destructive move, especially leading up to the November midterm elections.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma told reporters on Thursday (March 22) that she was “very concerned” about certain aspects of ‘silver loading’ plans, namely that it raises costs for unsubsidized consumers and the federal government. Verma did not commit to allowing or blocking the process for the 2019 plan year.

For nearly a year, healthcare wonks like myself, David Anderson, Andrew Sprung and Louise Norris have been heavily getting the word out to promote not just the "Silver Loading" CSR-load workaround, but an even more clever variant which I've coined "the Silver Switcharoo" which takes the concept of Silver Loading and goes one step further.

It gets a bit complicated, but here's my explainer of how the Silver Switcharoo works for ACA individual market policies.

The bottom line is that in theory/on paper, just about everyone either comes out ahead or at least is no worse off if they use silver switching:

A couple of months ago, I sounded a (semi-muted) alarm about the future of Silver Loading and Silver Switching of Cost Sharing Reduction costs when CMS Administrator Seema Verma not only failed to state flat-out that she wouldn't attempt to stop these workarounds, but started giving indications that she was actively considering doing just that.

If this were to happen, then it would be devastating to millions of people while helping almost no one, as my colleagues Dave Anderson, Andrew Sprung, Louise Norris and I explained in Health Affairs a few weeks back.

Well, it appears that this particular bullet will be dodged for at least one year, anyway:

HHS won’t ban silver-loading this year, Azar admits after being pressed. No time to write broad-loading regs for 2019 plan year.

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