This deep dive focuses on the Affordable Care Act, its impact on healthcare, and what's next. It can be used along with our Healthcare Reform Brief or as stand-alone reading material.

Introduction

As The Policy Circle Healthcare brief outlines, before the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare” or the ACA) was signed into law on March 23, 2010, a bipartisan consensus agreed that clear and pressing problems existed with the status quo of healthcare in the United States, including the following:

  • Those who suffered from serious and costly pre-existing health conditions were effectively “uninsurable” on the individual market due to the enormous cost of insuring them.
  • Employers heavily subsidized health insurance, but Increasing healthcare costs still kept workers’ wages flat.
  • The insurance market was skewed toward large employers; with smaller risk pools and less buying power, many medium and small-sized companies found it difficult to provide comparable insurance benefits.
  • Individuals who wished to buy health insurance for themselves and their families were offered the least-attractive plans, with steep premiums and meager benefits.
  • Many insurance plans did not include coverage for things that were likely to happen, such as maternity care or mental health and substance abuse counseling.

To address many of these pressing problems, the Democratic-controlled Congress supported the passage of the ACA. The major components, which were not without controversy, included:

  • An individual mandate requiring everyone to obtain insurance or pay a penalty (unless they qualified for certain exemptions, such as those based on income. This penalty has since been eliminated).
  • Subsidized and regulated insurance through new government exchanges, or coverage through Medicaid for millions of people who were unable to get health insurance (or good health insurance) through employers.
  • A mandate that insurance companies offer health insurance to people with pre-existing conditions on the same terms as others.
  • A requirement that health insurance plans include a minimum package of benefits to constitute adequate health insurance, including the “10 Essential Health Benefits.”
  • A new tax on expensive employer-provided policies and management of federal healthcare dollars by experts in Washington, D.C., which would control government spending.

How Did The Affordable Care Act Become Law?

It is important to understand both the circumstances before the ACA’s passing, as well as the context around how it became law. Radio host Brian Sussman provides a quick rundown on what happened, describing it as, “the trickiest legislative move ever accomplished in the Congress.

In September 2009, then President Obama held a joint session of Congress to outline his healthcare reform measures. By November, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed its healthcare bill by a slim margin (220-215), along mostly partisan lines. The Senate, also with a Democratic majority, then began its debate, but it was clear the public healthcare option in the House bill would not pass the Senate. This made the fate of the legislation uncertain, because all revenue-raising bills must originate in the House.

To work around this requirement, the Senate took H.R. 3590, which originated in the House as a military housing bill, and completely rewrote it to become the ACA. It passed 60-39 on December 24, 2009. The Senate sent the bill back to the House, but if the House made any further changes, it would need to pass the Senate again. This presented a potential problem, as the Senate seat that had been occupied temporarily by Democrat Paul Kirk after the death of Senator Ted Kennedy had since been filled by Republican Scott Brown. The election of Brown reduced the Senate Democrats seats to 59, one short of the 60 votes needed to approve further changes in the House version.

In March 2010, the House agreed to pass the Senate version “as-is” to avoid sending the bill back for Senate approval. It passed  without one Republican vote. The Senate used a “reconciliation procedure,” a measure not designed for major policy bills that only requires 51 votes to pass. The House then immediately passed an amendment that made changes to the Senate version, called the Reconciliation Act of 2010, which passed the Senate immediately after. President Obama signed the Act on March 23, and the amendment on March 30 (Britannica).

Who is Impacted by the ACA?

Insurers

The ACA established new rules in the insurance marketplace that directly impacted insurers, mainly along the lines of cost. For example, insurers were no longer allowed to look at subscribers’ pre-existing conditions when offering and pricing health insurance plans, and the ACA also placed a limit on the amount from premiums insurers could devote to profit. These changes forced many insurers to choose whether or not they would participate in the ACA marketplace.

Drug Companies

One ACA provision imposed a tax on pharmaceutical companies based on sales revenue from brand-name drugs. Pharmaceutical companies passed these tax costs on to their customers in the form of higher drug prices. Another major component of the ACA was the option for the states to expand their Medicaid programs. Due to laws that require drug manufacturers to provide a fixed rebate or “best price” available, “drug manufacturers became obligated to provide their drugs for roughly three-quarters of the price to nearly a quarter of the U.S. population” (AAF).

Employers and Employees

The ACA does not require all employers to provide health benefits, but larger ones (with at least 50 full-time employees) can be penalized for not offering coverage or affordable coverage to workers. More offerings, however, do not mean lower healthcare costs for either employers or employees, as the chart shows.

Unemployed Americans

Unemployed Americans are able to find individual or family health insurance plans on the ACA Marketplace, since household size and income are the determining factors. Americans who have left their job for whatever reason and lost employer coverage qualify for a “Special Enrollment Period” in which they can enroll in an insurance plan any time of the year within 60 days of losing prior insurance, instead of waiting for the Marketplace enrollment period.

Healthcare Providers

Uncertainty regarding the ACA cast it in an unfavorable light among doctors and healthcare practitioners. In 2016, 51% of doctors in a CompHealth poll held an unfavorable view of the ACA (particularly private practice physicians, as opposed to hospital-based physicians), and only 30% viewed it positively. Over 40% of healthcare providers claimed the ACA negatively impacted the costs of healthcare, doctors’ salaries, and doctors’ abilities to meet patient demands. Sally Pipes of the Pacific Research Center adds that Medicaid pays healthcare providers less than private insurance pays, so many doctors refuse Medicaid patients, which leads to an increased use of emergency rooms.

What's the Current Status of the ACA?

The Affordable Care Act got off to a rocky start that included constant website crashes as people were trying to enroll and debacles surrounding canceled insurance plans Americans were told they could keep. Additionally, as the ACA did not pass Congress on a bipartisan basis, it has faced a series of challenges put forth by Congress, states, and attorneys general.

The Individual Mandate

The individual mandate was one of the least popular provisions of the ACA. Its goal was “to encourage healthy individuals to participate in the insurance market and not wait until they get sick to buy coverage,” as well as spread out the cost of sicker people who would enroll and use more services (CRS). In 2012, the National Federation of Independent Businesses challenged the constitutionality of the individual mandate in NFIB v. Sebelius, and in 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, passed in December 2017, repealed the ACA’s individual mandate penalties, effective January 1, 2019. The repeal did not actually remove the mandate from the law, but rather rendered the mandate null by reducing the penalty to $0.

Medicaid

The ACA expanded Medicaid, which was previously only for specific populations including  low-income children, seniors, or disabled persons. The expansion allowed any individual (notably childless adults) with low income (up to 138% of the Federal Poverty Level) to be eligible for Medicaid. In June 2012, the Supreme Court ruling in NFIB v Sebelius found the Medicaid expansion “to be unconstitutionally coercive,” and prohibited the federal government from making the expansion mandatory for states (CRS). As of 2019, 33 states and Washington, D.C. have accepted federal funding to expand Medicaid, and three more have passed ballot initiatives (see which ones here).

What does expanded Medicaid look like? Both enrollment and total costs have been higher than anticipated, mostly due to the federal match to state spending. According to the most recent CMS report, the average estimated cost for a newly eligible adult on Medicaid was about $5800 in 2016. Spending on the newly eligible between 2017 and 2026 is expected to total $938 billion, most of which will be paid for by the federal government. A 2017 Health Affairs study found expansion led to an 11.7% increase in overall Medicaid spending, and while the federal matching rate may help states save money, it does not provide states an incentive to be efficient and vastly increases federal spending. Between 2013 and 2014, federal Medicaid expenditures increased by 13.6% due to increases in Medicaid enrollment. The CBO predicts federal Medicaid spending will grow by 4% per year until 2021, then by 6% per year until 2029.

What Are the Results of the ACA?

As illustrated above, healthcare policy is not easy. Despite being called the Affordable Care Act, the ACA did not excel in making healthcare affordable, although it did expand coverage to millions of Americans. In the U.S. today more people can say they have healthcare coverage since its implementation. Unfortunately, having health insurance doesn’t mean you won’t have a bill due after you have gone to a healthcare provider. Even with health insurance, some people still avoid doctors offices because they can’t afford to pay for care.

Some say it’s a true, clean-functioning market mechanism that will improve care and decrease costs. The ACA went in the opposite direction by inserting a larger government role in healthcare, which can lead to an increase in unintended consequences in the healthcare market.

Coverage

Before the ACA, individual market insurers could charge higher premiums or deny coverage to applicants with pre-existing conditions because they were considered risks. CMS estimates between 50 and 129 million non-elderly Americans, including 4 to 17 million children under age 18, have at least one pre-existing condition that could threaten their health insurance without ACA protections. Pre-existing conditions also affect older Americans, who are more likely to have or to have had a health condition: based on conditions insurers generally look for in a patient’s medical history, 86% of people ages 55 to 64 could be denied coverage without added protections.  Under the ACA, insurers were no longer allowed to deny these populations coverage or charge them at higher rates. This stipulation along with federal subsidies helped many people without employer-provided health benefits attain insurance. Unfortunately, opening a government-funded market to more sick people who have not maintained health coverage (and likely have not maintained their health check ups) is going to increase costs of care for everyone in the system.

The ACA expanded coverage to almost 20 million people, meaning more Americans have access to health insurance. Before the ACA expansions in 2012, 72% of uninsured adults had been without coverage for over 2 years; in 2018, this number had decreased to 54%. Additionally, coverage gaps have become shorter. In 2012, only 35% of people experiencing gaps in coverage were able to find and enroll in a new plan in fewer than 6 months. Since the 2012 expansions, this has increased to over 60%.

Although uninsured rates are still at all-time lows, the number of uninsured Americans rose for the first time in a decade between 2017 and 2018. This appears to be mostly due to a positive change:  declines were primarily in Medicaid coverage because rising wages have left fewer people in need of Medicaid. Additionally, many insurers have left the marketplace. This has required those who lost coverage due to a failed insurer to start from scratch  to meet deductibles and other out-of-pocket expenses with a new provider. As a result, many individuals have opted out of insurance altogether, especially since the individual mandate was rendered null.

Insurers

According to the Wall Street Journal, UnitedHealth Group’s insurance exchange unit lost $425 million in 2015, and in 2016 estimates rose from $525 million in losses to $650 million. CEO Stephen Hemsley said UnitedHealth would withdraw to “only a handful of states” in 2017.  In 2018, Aetna withdrew from 223 counties across 4 states, Blue Cross Blue Shield withdrew from 105 counties across 3 states, and Humana from 155 counties across 11 states. For 2020, Aetna and Humana do not intend to offer ACA plans (WSJ).

Lack of overall growth in the ACA market has made insurers that pulled out, like Aetna and Humana, stay away. This caused the Marketplace to contract, and those insurers that remained sharply increased their rates to offset their predicted costs of remaining in the Marketplace. As of 2017, these companies have begun to generate profits. Some, including Cigna and Centene, announced further expansion of their offerings, but only a limited few have announced moderate premium decreases for 2020 (WSJ).

In 2014, there was an average of five insurers in each state’s marketplace, with as few as one in West Virginia to as many as sixteen in New York. In 2018, there was an average of 3.5 insurers per state; for 2019, the average rose to four insurance companies per state. However, some companies do not participate statewide, and even though every county in the U.S. had at least one insurer, rural areas most often had the fewest insurance options. In fact, there is an average of 2.3 insurers in every metro-area county and an average of 1.8 insurers in non-metro areas (KFF).

Insurer Costs

Medical Loss Ratio (MLR)

The ACA Medical Loss Ratio (MLR) was a controversial rule. It was meant to provide consumer protections against overpriced health plans but at the same time involved the federal government dictating how businesses should handle their finances. MLRs require health insurers to spend at least 80% of premium revenue on claims or quality improvement expenses, rather than on administrative costs. If profits from premiums exceed 20%, insurers must rebate the excess to consumers (Commonwealth Foundation). For 2019, insurers are expected to issue approximately $1.3 billion in rebates. This is the highest rebate amount of any year since the ACA was implemented in 2010, since 2018 was the most profitable year for insurers.

Even though 2018 was technically profitable, insurers are warning that losses from the past decade of the ACA are unsustainable: In the fall of 2019, the Supreme Court will hear a $12 billion suit from insurers against the federal government regarding the so-called “risk corridor” program. The program was established to “help insurance companies cope with the risks they took on when they decided to participate in the marketplaces.” Under the program, insurers that paid out more on policy claims then they took in from premiums “were entitled to government compensation for part of their losses” (Reuters). 

For fiscal years 2015, 2016, and 2017, Congress passed appropriations bills with riders that barred the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from making such compensation payments with general funds. This meant the government could only compensate insurers with money collected from insurers who paid less on claims than they took in from premiums. These funds have not been enough; HHS statistics indicated in 2017 the shortfall was $12 billion.

Cost-Sharing Reduction Program

The Cost-Sharing Reduction (CSR) programs introduced in the ACA were meant to compensate insurers for the cost of healthcare for people who signed up for ACA plans. These programs help cover some of the expenses of deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance for people with incomes below 250% of the Federal Poverty Level. In 2014, the Republican-led House of Representatives sued HHS, arguing CSR payments to insurers were improper because HHS did not have congressional appropriation. A federal district judge agreed, finding in House v. Azar in May 2018 that HHS could not constitutionally reimburse insurers without explicit congressional appropriation. As of February 2019, there have been at least 12 separate lawsuits filed by insurers against HHS in the Court of Federal Claims for unpaid CSRs, including a class action lawsuit with 91 insurers. The majority of judges have found insurers entitled to unpaid CSRs, regardless of explicit congressional appropriation. This means the government owes more money to insurers, adding to the already ballooned fiscal burden of healthcare – just another illustration that nothing is easy in health care reform and much of government activity drives consequences no one was expecting.

Subscriber Costs

The CBO estimates net federal subsidies for health insurance coverage will total $737 billion in 2019. While less than 10% of this amount will go directly towards providing people coverage under the ACA, another 40-45% will go to Medicaid payments to states and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which includes the Medicaid expansion plans enacted under the ACA.

In the U.S., healthcare costs continue to rise faster than Americans’ incomes: For individual Americans, “the cost…to buy a health plan – if they don’t get it from a job or the government – is higher than ever.When insurance companies could no longer charge sick people more or refuse to cover them, costs for healthy people went up. One 2019 analysis showed that as premiums increase, the proportion of consumers buying ACA health plans without federal subsidies declines as these out-of-pocket costs are too much for many households. A report by eHealth found that, compared to 2018, the average individual monthly premium increased 2% in 2019 and has risen 65% since 2014 (to $448 in 2019). For a family, the average monthly premium has risen 73% since 2014 (to $1403 in 2019). 

The government doesn’t generate income except from what it collects from taxpayers, so it needs to find revenue sources to pay for its programs, such as the ACA. In this case, it forced insurers to foot the bill, and they charged healthy people more to pay for sick people. This is why premiums have risen so rapidly. 

In the employer market, businesses have had workers take on increasing shares of health costs; the ACA employer mandate, another controversial component, imposed a minimum coverage requirement, but employees can still have a large bill as well as high deductibles and copayments. The average annual premium for employer-based family coverage rose 5% in 2018 to $19,616 and another 5% to $20,567 in 2019. For single coverage, it rose 3% to $6,896 in 2018 and another 4% to $7200 in 2019. Covered workers contributed 18% of costs for single coverage and 29% of costs for family coverage in both years (NCSL, WSJ).

These annual increases have large, long term effects. Families like the Buchanans in North Carolina saw their 2018 insurance premium of $1691 per month (already triple their mortgage payment) increase to $1831 for 2019. On top of their $5000 per-person deductible, having and using their insurance could cost them over $30,000 annually. Like many other American families across the nation, they are reevaluating their budget and saying, “We’re not poor but we can’t afford health insurance.

Underinsured Americans

Increases in costs have left more people than ever underinsured. A person is underinsured if he or she has deductibles of 5% or more of household income or has annual out-of-pocket medical expenses (excluding premiums) of 10% or more of household income or 5% or more of household income if gross earnings fall 200% below the Federal Poverty Line. 

Being underinsured means having health insurance coverage, but not being able to use it because of the compounding costs of actually receiving care. Due to high out-of-pocket costs and deductibles, an estimated 44 million people were underinsured in 2018, up from 29 million in 2010. Compared to insured adults with adequate coverage, underinsured adults are more than twice as likely to not fill a prescription, to skip a recommended test, treatment, or follow-up appointment, and to have medical debt.

Consumer Oriented and Operated Plans (CO-OPs)

CO-OPs were originally created by the Affordable Care Act to “create new, private non-profit health issuers set up through the Exchanges” and “to provide affordable health insurance to their members and increase competition and choice in the marketplace.” Only four of the original 23 CO-OP plans are still offering coverage in 2019. The four CO-OPs selling plans in five states “are showing signs of overall stability,” but only two having successfully implemented rate decreases for 2019 (Health Insurance).

Why did CO-OPs fail? Like all plans, the co-ops underpriced the cost of covering people at the onset of the exchanges. Premiums were too low, benefits were too generous, and competition from bigger health insurers with larger reserves overwhelmed the CO-OPs. Unlike private insurers, the CO-OPs “did not have the savings on hand to make up for their losses in initial years.”

Rural Disparities

Healthcare CO-OP closures narrow consumers’ choices, and counties that are mostly rural are disproportionately affected. In almost two-thirds of rural counties, a CO-OP offered one of the two least expensive silver plans.

Rural hospitals also continue to face reimbursement cuts and regulations that many hospital administrators and board members say have caused more harm than good. Since the Affordable Care Act was passed, rural critical-access hospitals have closed at an increasing rate. According to The North Carolina Rural Health Research Program (NC RHRP) at the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research, there were 115 rural hospital closures between January 2011 and September 2019 (an average of 12.7 per year), compared to 53 closures between 2005 and 2010 (an average of 8.8 per year). More than half of all rural hospital closures since 2010 were in the South and few Southern states have expanded Medicaid under the ACA.

The Wall Street Journal takes a closer look at hospital closures and the state of healthcare in rural areas:

Short-Term Plans

Since 2014, an unintended impact of the ACA has been an increase in the use of short-term plans. These plans are traditionally sold to consumers trying to fill gaps in their coverage for a few months. For many Americans, short-term policies cost significantly less than conventional ACA-compliant plans. However, because short-term plans do not have to comply with ACA market reforms, short-term insurers can charge higher premiums, exclude coverage for pre-existing conditions, and require higher out-of-pocket costs. On average, short-term plans pay out 67% of their earnings on medical care, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. As noted earlier, ACA plans require insurers to spend at least 80% of premium revenue on medical claims. This means brokers and insurers of short-term plans generate more revenue than ACA plans (KHN).

By HIPAA definition, short-term plans last no longer than 12 months from the effective start date. In 2010, the Obama administration limited short-term plans to a maximum duration of three months based on concerns these plans were being sold as primary coverage. This trend is harmful to the goal of the ACA: short-term plans attract healthy people needed to help make the ACA finances work.

In October 2017, President Trump signed an executive order expanding the availability of short-term plans and expanding duration back to 12 months. A final rule went into effect in October 2018 with the goal of allowing short-term coverage to be sold along side ACA coverage, and was upheld by a federal district judge in July 2019. The final rule also adopted a disclosure notice informing consumers that short-term plans may not cover services “such as hospitalizations, emergency services, maternity care, preventive care, prescription drugs, and mental health and substance use disorder services.” Administration officials estimated 600,000 people would enroll in short-term plans in 2019, with between 100,000 and 200,000 dropping ACA coverage to do so. Various states have taken their own actions to regulate short-term plans.

 

What's Next for the ACA?

Congress failed to repeal and replace the ACA after several attempts in 2017, so it’s unclear what is on the horizon. Some lawmakers have suggested attempting bipartisan fixes, but it remains to be seen exactly what that may look like as no consensus on a replacement plan has been reached. However, several policy prescriptions have attracted widespread support:

Technological innovation and digitization to help providers adopt cost-saving measures and empower patients to be more in control of their treatment options.

Healthcare is also playing a prominent role in the 2020 presidential primary season, with many Democratic candidates putting forth proposals that expand coverage, such as through “Medicare-for-all” or a public option. However, a July 2019 KFF Health Tracking Poll found about half the public (48%) view the ACA favorably, while 41% view it unfavorably. Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents would prefer to build on the existing ACA (55%) instead of replace the ACA with a national Medicare-for-all plan (39%).

Current Controversy: Constitutionality

After the individual mandate tax penalty was reduced to $0, it opened the door for another challenge to the ACA. In Texas v. United States, Texas and 17 other states argue the Supreme Court upheld the individual mandate in NFIB v Sebelius as a tax only. Since the 2017 tax reform law eliminated the tax, “the ACA must be invalidated because the entire law depends on the mandate.” A Texas federal judge agreed in December 2018 and declared the ACA invalid. California and 16 other states appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the individual mandate can be separated from the rest of the ACA. Oral arguments were held in July 2019. A decision has yet to be released as of November. For more on this case, the ACA’s constitutionality, and potential outcomes, listen to this National Constitution Center podcast.

 

Conclusion

 

We are a large, diverse nation that develops leading-edge, life-saving innovation for the entire world. Our efforts to perfect our hybrid government-private sector system to guarantee every single person in our nation access to quality and affordable healthcare is no small task. Healthcare reforms are constantly analyzed and new proposals are always under debate, and what the government-run ACA will ultimately look like is anyone’s guess. From calls to repeal and replace the ACA and lawsuits debating its constitutionality, to proposals to build on the ACA or even go beyond with other government-run options like Medicare-for-All, one thing is clear: the U.S. healthcare system is a complex beast that will continue to be reformed and improved upon.