The Rapidly Rising Premiums of the ACA Health Insurance Marketplaces

Guest post by Ken Perez, vice president of healthcare policy, Omnicell.

Ken Perez
Ken Perez

On May 23, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a report on individual market premium changes from 2013 to 2017 for the 39 states using the federal government’s healthcare.gov platform. The report provided a good gauge of the affordability of the ACA marketplaces.

The HHS report found that all 39 states experienced increases in individual market premiums since 2013. Average premiums rose during the four-year period by 105 percent, which translates to an average annual premium increase of $2,928. To put the 105 percent premium hike in perspective, it was more than 20 times the growth in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and more than eight times the nation’s healthcare inflation over the same period. While 16 states had premium increases under the national average of 105 percent, 20 states had premium increases between 105 percent and 200 percent. Moreover, three states—Alabama, Alaska and Oklahoma—saw premiums triple, rising more than 200 percent.

A comparable analysis of the 11 states running their own marketplaces has not yet been conducted, but from 2016 to 2017, their average approved individual market rate increase was 19 percent, over nine times CPI growth and over five times U.S. healthcare inflation.

Multiple interrelated factors have driven these premium increases, including lower-than-expected enrollment, as estimates ranging from 12 million to 15 million people—disproportionately young and healthy—who were expected to enroll in the marketplaces by the end of 2016 did not do so. Because of the lower-than-expected enrollment and relative non-participation by the young and healthy, the marketplaces have been left with an older, sicker risk pool, producing huge losses for many health plans, in spite of the previously mentioned substantial premium increases. Consequently, in 2017, 80 insurers left the ACA marketplaces while 11 entered, yielding a net decrease of 69.

The inordinate premium inflation of the marketplaces reflects a cycle that appears to be worsening, so much so that some have described it as a “death spiral.” As health insurers exit the marketplaces, competition decreases, which naturally leads to premium hikes, as well as to a narrowing of plan choices. The higher premiums and fewer choices dissuade people from signing up or cause current enrollees to drop out, further shrinking the risk pool.

If the ACA marketplaces prove to be unsustainable then access to affordable healthcare plans for millions of Americans—regardless of the availability of premium credits—will be at risk.

During the past few months, hospital organizations have lobbied for changes to the American Health Care Act (AHCA), with core concerns about possible growth of uncompensated care resulting from increases to the uninsured population and separately, the popularity of high-deductible plans with many of the insured, which raises concerns about patients’ ability to pay their hospital bills. However, as the recent HHS report compellingly points out, hospitals should not only be worried about possible ramifications of the AHCA—the serious, fundamental weaknesses of the ACA’s health insurance marketplaces constitute a clear, present and increasing challenge to hospital finances.

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