Friday, January 26, 2018
ACA/Obamacare: Why Were Coverage Gains So Tepid? Why Do So Many Remain Uninsured?
"Friends and foes of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) alike tend to target the relative effectiveness of the (soon-to-be-repealed) individual mandate as the key factor behind relatively higher levels of insurance coverage since the law was enacted in 2010.
ACA supporters might wish that the mandate was much stronger, but they still claim that its repeal will trigger rising premiums and leave millions more Americans uninsured in the years ahead.
Many ACA foes often can’t decide whether repealing the mandate remains the key to unraveling Obamacare or if it simply should be eliminated as a matter of principle, regardless of the cost and coverage consequences.
Spoiler alert: They were both wrong about the past. They are likely to remain mistaken about the future.
In reality, overall coverage gains under the ACA hit a modest, but relatively stable, plateau well before last month’s tax-cutting budget reconciliation law decided to eliminate further penalties under the individual mandate as of 2019. Those initial reductions in the number of uninsured Americans were due primarily to expanded eligibility for Medicaid and, secondarily, to generous subsidies for lower-income enrollees in state-based health insurance exchanges.
The less-explored question involves why Obamacare’s overall combination of taxpayer subsidies, expanded insurance programs, health benefits requirements, AND coverage mandates had so much less of an effect than the law’s architects envisioned.
It turns out that many of the nominally uninsured still have other alternatives to health care than just through heavily-subsidized Medicaid and exchange-based insurance. You might call such uncompensated care either an option for “implicit insurance” or a hidden tax on acquiring more formal coverage.
Health policy researchers Amy Finkelstein, Neale Mahonem and Matthew Nolowidigdo unravel the puzzle in a recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper. They explain why there is less “demand” than expected for the increased “supply” of subsidized coverage for lower income individuals and more limited take up of subsidized coverage than once predicted.
The bottom line is that the nominally uninsured (before and after Obamacare’s implementation) pay only a small share (one-fifth to one-third) of their medical expenses. Hence, they value formal health insurance at substantially less than its full cost to insurers providing such coverage.
Among the sources of other financing for care provided to the uninsured are federal and state subsidies for uncompensated care, such as Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments (reduced more gradually and later than originally envisioned under the ACA), as well as part-year insurance coverage, direct care programs, and private donations.
The federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) also requires hospitals to provide “emergency care” to screen and stabilize uninsured patients on credit. Nonprofit hospitals claim provision of charity care as one of the primary ways to fulfill their community benefit requirements for tax-exempt status. Retroactive look-back coverage under Medicaid also has provided a further modest financial cushion for some providers treating the nominally low-income uninsured.
Keep in mind, too, that the accounting lines between charity care and bad debt are far from clear cut, and they can be adjusted somewhat to match the financial reporting needs of nonprofit versus for-profit providers. Recovery rates for uncompensated care provided to low-income uninsured individuals with few assets are limited (roughly 10-20 percent at best) and further shielded by personal bankruptcy protections.
So, while financial and medical life for lower-income uninsured individuals is far from comfortable or stable, Finkelstein, Mahonem, and Nolowidigdo find that these various backup “options” do reduce the willingness of low-income individuals to pay for the full --and in many cases even the generously subsidized, out-of-pocket -- premium costs of insurance coverage. For example, other research by Finkelstein estimates that adults living below the Federal Poverty Level would be willing to pay only 20 to 50 cents per each dollar of Medicare insurance coverage spent on their “behalf,” and they would rather give up Medicaid than pay the insurance costs of providing it." - The Real Hidden Tax on Increased Insurance Coverage, economics21.org, 01/25/2018
Link to the entire essay appears below: