Silver Switcharoo

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.

Via Email from the Connect for Health Colorado exchange...

Customers Receiving Financial Help Through Connect for Health Colorado® Seeing a 14% Drop in Net Monthly Premium Cost

DENVER – Coloradans who get financial help buying health insurance through Connect for Health Colorado® are paying an average 14 percent less in “net premium” – what they pay after assistance – compared to the average net premium in 2018, according to data released today.

Three of every four current Connect for Health Colorado customers qualify for financial help to reduce the monthly cost of health insurance. The average net premium for those Coloradans is $117 per month, down from $136 per month last year.

“We are happy that we are able to make health insurance affordable for so many people,” said Kevin Patterson, Chief Executive Office of Connect for Health Colorado. “The number of our customers receiving help rose this year by seven percentage points, to 76 percent, an important increase. We know we have more work to do, and are committed to expanding our impact as we work with policy makers, our stakeholders and our customers throughout the state.

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.

This year, thanks to their reinsurance program, ACA individual market premiums dropped by around 23.6% on average, from a whopping $1,040/month to "only" $795/month per enrollee.

HOWEVER, they would have dropped about 4.5 percentage points more if not for Trump cutting off Cost Sharing Reduction reimbursement payments, or roughly $560/year per enrollee. AK averaged around 16,000 effectuated ACA-compliant individual market enrollees per month in 2017, so that amounts to right around $8.9 million total. 6,930 enrollees qualify for CSR assistance this year, so that averages around $1,280 apiece in CSR help, which sounds about right to me.

Last fall I wrote a lot about how different states would be dealing with the tens of millions of dollars in losses they were facing after the Trump Administration decided to cut off Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) reimbursement payments to them. As a quick reminder, there basically four (or five, depending on your POV) options available to each carrier and/or state insurance commissioner for dealign with CSR costs for 2018:

  • No Load: They could gamble that the CSR problem would be resolved and the payments would be made after all (i.e., they would price normally).
  • Broad Load: They could spread the CSR cost out evenly across all of their 2018 ACA policies, on exchange & off.
  • Silver Load: They could load the CSR costs onto all Silver plans only (both on & off exchange).
  • Silver Switcharoo: They could load CSR costs onto all on-exchange Silver plans only, while also creating "mirror" Silver plans off-exchange without any CSR load.
  • Mixed Load: Each insurance carrier could choose whichever of the other 4 strategies they wanted to and let the chips fall where they may. Not sure if this really counts as a "strategy", since it's more or less "all of the above".

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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