Comment: What’s missing from Biden’s plans to bolster the ACA

Biden’s plan to expand health coverage is good. But we also need to fix stingy insurance plans.

By Cecille Joan Avila, Paul Shafer and Megan B. Cole / Special To The Washington Post

President Biden promised on the campaign trail to expand the Affordable Care Act to cover more of the roughly 29 million nonelderly Americans (about 11 percent of that population) who remain uninsured. He also said he’d strengthen the law by, for instance, providing an accessible and affordable public option and increasing tax credits to make it easier for people who buy insurance on their own to afford monthly premiums. Once in office, Biden immediately moved to reopen the period when people could enroll in the ACA marketplaces.

Unfortunately, the administration is paying little heed to a problem that is in many ways just as insidious as lack of insurance: underinsurance. This means they get too little from the insurance plans that they do have.

After passage of the ACA, the number of Americans lacking any insurance fell by 20 million, dropping to 26.7 million in 2016; a historic low as a percentage of population. The figure began to creep up again during the Trump administration, reaching 28.9 million in 2019. That’s the problem that the current administration wants to address, and it certainly needs attention.

But according to research by the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation focused on health care, 21.3 percent of Americans have insurance so skimpy that they count as underinsured: Their out-of-pocket health-care expenses, excluding premiums, amount to at least 5 percent to 10 percent of household income. The limits in coverage mean their plans might provide little financial protection in a health-care crisis.

High-deductible plans offered by employers are one part of the problem. Among people covered by the companies they work for, enrollment in high-deductible health plans rose from 4 percent in 2006 to 30 percent in 2019, according to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The average annual deductibles in such plans are $2,583 for an individual and $5,335 for families.

In theory, high-deductible plans, which make people spend lots of their own money before insurance kicks in, turn people into careful consumers. But research finds that people covered by such plans skip care, both unnecessary (elective cosmetic surgery, for instance) and necessary (cancer screenings and treatment, and prescriptions). Black Americans in these plans disproportionately avoid treatment, widening racial health inequities.

Health savings accounts are designed to blunt the harmful effects of high-deductible plans: Contributions by employers, and pretax contributions by individuals, help to cover costs until the deductible is reached. But not all high-deductible health plans offer such accounts, and many people in lower-wage jobs don’t have them. In the rare cases that they do, they often don’t have extra money to deposit in them.

In a November 2020 article in the journal Health Affairs, scholars affiliated with Brown University and Boston University found that enrollment in high-deductible plans had increased across all racial, ethnic and income groups from 2007 to 2018; they also found that low-income, Black and Hispanic enrollees were significantly less likely than other groups to have a health savings account; and the disparities had grown over time.

The short-term health-care plans — a.k.a. “junk” plans — that the Trump administration expanded also contribute to the problem of underinsurance. They often have low premiums but do not cover preexisting conditions or basic services like emergency health care.

Fortunately, proposals like Biden’s that make health care more affordable and accessible also tend to address the problem of underinsurance, at least in part. For example, to make individual-market insurance more affordable, Biden proposes expanding the tax credits established under the ACA. His plan calls for removing the cap on financial assistance, now set at 400 percent of the federal poverty level, in the insurance marketplaces and lowering the statutory limit on premiums to 8.5 percent of income (from nearly 10 percent).

The president also proposes to peg the size of the tax credits that subsidize premiums to the best plans on the marketplaces, the “gold” plans, rather than “silver” plans. This would increase the size of these credits, thereby making it easier for Americans to afford more-generous plans with lower deductibles.

The most ambitious Biden proposal is a public option, which would create a Medicare-like offering on marketplaces, available to anyone. Pairing this with allowing any American to opt out of their employer plan if they found a better deal on HealthCare.gov or their state marketplace — which they can’t now — would help some people escape high-deductible plans. The public option would also eliminate premiums and involve minimal to no cost-sharing for low-income enrollees; especially helpful for uninsured (and underinsured) people in states yet to expand Medicaid.

Given political realities, however, this policy may not see the light of day. So it would be best to target underinsurance directly. Most people with high-deductible plans get them through an employer. Yet unlike in the marketplace plans, the degree of cost sharing in these employer plans is the same for low-income as well as high-income employees. To deal with that problem, the government could offer incentives for employers to expand the scope of health services they cover; even in high-deductible plans. Already, many such plans exempt from the deductible some primary-care visits and generic-drug prescriptions. The list could grow to include follow-up visits and certain specialist care.

Instead of encouraging health savings accounts, the government could offer greater pretax incentives that encourage employers to absorb some of the costs that they have shifted onto their lower-income employees; that would help to prevent the insurance equity gap from widening further. The government could compensate employers that cover co-pays or other costs for their low-income employees. It could also subsidize employers that move away from high-deductible plans, at least for lower-income people.

Health insurance is complicated: More-affordable premiums are good only if they don’t bring stingy coverage. Greater investment in well-trained (and racially diverse) “navigators” — the people who help Americans enroll in plans on the federal marketplace, for example — would make it less likely that consumers would choose high-deductible plans without grasping their downsides. But it’s also important that people have options beyond risky high-deductible coverage.

The ACA expanded coverage dramatically; but the government needs to make sure that coverage amounts to more than an unused insurance card.

Cecille Joan Avila is a policy analyst with the Boston University School of Public Health. Paul Shafer is an assistant professor of health law, policy and management at the B.U. School of Public Health. Megan B. Cole is an assistant professor of health law, policy and management at the B.U. School of Public Health.

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