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October 21, 2015

Get What You Pay For & Pay for What You Get

This post is co-authored by Seth Trueger & Cedric Dark and also appears on Policy PrescriptionsSee also the related post on Narrow Networks (PolicyRx).

Andrew Sprung and I had a great conversation about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's claim that premiums are rising (see the Storify below). Our view: premiums are generally flat. There is a lot of variation around this, mostly geographic, and also largely based on whose premiums you're talking about. Comparing premiums from before Obamacare to today’s is like comparing 1995 and 2015 cell phone plans. [caption id="attachment_5826" align="alignleft" width="300"]Source: Lauren (Flickr/CC) Source: Lauren (Flickr/CC)[/caption] Yes, some people who were insured on the non-group market prior to the ACA saw their premiums go up significantly. But this is a meaningless critique. First, the fraction of people who had non-group plans prior to the ACA is (and still is) pretty small - about 5% in 2011 [source: KFF]. Second, remember that most people who have individual plans only have them for a fairly short period of time; most only enroll in a plan for 6-18 months, such as for a few months while searching for a job and until their next employer-sponsored plan kicks in (see this post for example). And while some were happy with their coverage, remember the two most important caveats to pre-ACA nongroup premiums:
  1. What did these plans cover?
  2. Who didn't these plans cover?
The first of these big problems: people who ostensibly had insurance would find that it didn't help them when they needed it, because they hit annual or lifetime benefits limits; certain medical problems or services weren't covered; or, the insurer cancelled their plan when they made a claim. Even in the best-case situation, remember how frustrating it is to deal with actually getting an insurance claim paid.
"If you think government healthcare is bad, wait until Comcast runs it." - Seth
Personal example #1: I (Seth) had cheap private insurance for a few years in med school after getting kicked off my parents plan well before age 26 (Thanks, Obama) and I paid $60+ a month for essentially useless coverage that didn't really cover anything. Fortunately, I never got sick and I only really needed my insurance to satisfy my school’s requirement (and, maybe, piece of mind. But not really). While we don't know how many people were "happy" with their pre-ACA plan, we can estimate. Per Andrew Sprung, about half of the 16% of people in the non-group market now have grandfathered plans... which is roughly 1/2 of 1/6 of 1/20 of the insurance market, so 1 in 240 insurance plans. The second of these major issues that arises when comparing premiums before and after the ACA: preexisting conditions. How many people were completely blocked from getting insurance because of a preexisting medical problem? And relatedly, how many people were either charged higher premiums because of a preexisting condition? Or, were only given a plan that didn’t cover anything remotely related to their preexisting condition? ("You can buy insurance from us but we won't cover surveillance or treatment for a relapse of your Hodgkin's Lymphoma.") Personal example #2: My (Seth’s) wife was previously charged more (plus had to do a ton of frustrating paperwork) for the preexisting condition of "having a pre-cancerous benign mole removed." Remember: private insurance companies aren’t incentivized to keep us healthy; they are incentivized to keep us healthy until we turn 65. While a small fraction of individuals now pay a little more for their premiums, their insurance actually now has to cover stuff; and, they aren't getting a discount by excluding all the people who have serious health problems (or benign moles). Given all these caveats, it's really remarkable that premiums are pretty much flat at all. Let’s consider one last thing. “Premium price" can mean a lot of things. Is it subsidized or unsubsidized? Subsidized premiums are most likely pretty flat, and are what individuals actually pay. Unsubsidized premiums have gone up, but not by as much as people like Trump claim. I'm the first to admit that probably the biggest question the ACA poses is: will premium subsidies simply cost too much? And so far, it doesn't seem like it.
We have a great review forthcoming from Laura Medford-Davis on this issue. Stay tuned! - Cedric
Premium subsidies are simply the price we pay for insuring millions and millions of Americans in a functioning market for non-group insurance. And let’s not forget the quasi-secret but much, much, larger subsidies we already provide to people insured through their employers. We shouldn’t decry subsidies for insurance bought on the market while spending hundreds of billions of dollars subsidizing employer-sponsored insurance.

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