Could the American Enterprise Institute possibly be right there is this massive second wave of cancellations coming?

Short answer: The AEI estimate looks high but, yes, a massive second wave of cancellations is coming

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has received considerable press over the past 24 hours for asserting that the Affordable Care Act will generate a massive second wave of insurance cancellations this summer as small employers (and their employees) will be compelled to abandon policies that do not provide “Essential Health Benefits” and meet other standards of the Affordable Care Act.  Fox News has asserted that the AEI statement means that up to 100 million people could be canceled next year.  Other news sources and  at least one influential conservative radio talk show host are making similar claims.

If this were true, it would obviously be a subject of considerable importance.  Anyone doubting this point should consider the firestorm that erupted over the recent cancellations of a much lower number of individual health insurance policies as a result of the Affordable Care Act’s insistence that health insurance meet its full standards starting in 2014 and the tough limitations on “grandfathering” exemptions for older health insurance plans.

But, is it true?  Is it really true that there could be a large number of cancellations?  Could we really be talking about 100 million people? Could the very conservative AEI  be making political hay rather than something more factual? Let’s look at the argument.  It’s part legal and part statistical. I’m going to break the argument down into pieces and see how it holds up.

1. Legal Basis

The legal part stems from the claim that although large businesses (more than 100 employees) are not required to provide “Essential Health Benefits” under the Affordable Care Act for all insurance plans beginning after January 2, 2014, small businesses are.  That appears to be true.  Section 1201 of the Affordable Care Act, which, among other things, amends section 2707 of the Public Health Service Act, reads as follows: “A health insurance issuer that offers health insurance coverage in the individual or small group market shall ensure that such coverage includes the essential health benefits package required under section 1302(a) of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care.”  (emphasis added. It does not say “in the individual, small group or large group market” but rather “in the individual or small group market.”  And if one goes through the statutory labyrinth from Section 1304(a)(3) of the ACA to 1304(b), one learns that, at least until 2016, the small group market means insurance purchased by employers with 100 or fewer employees.

There is, however, an exemption for grandfathered plans.  Section 1251(a)(2) makes clear that almost all of the provisions of the Subtitle that contains section 1201 of the ACA doe not apply to “to a group health plan or health insurance coverage in which an individual was enrolled on the date of enactment of this Act.” There’s an exception to the exemption, but it does not apply to this situation.

So, it sure looks to me as if all non-grandfathered plans issued in by 100 of fewer workers will, beginning for plan years that begin after January 1, 2014, be compelled to provide “Essential Health Benefits” along with other requirements of the ACA.

2. How many policies are we talking about?

The Census Bureau keeps track of how many employees are employed by firms of different sizes. The last time they looked, 2010, there were roughly 39 million people employed in such firms.  So, an upper bound on the number of policies — note, policies, not persons — affected is 39 million.

The 39 million policy figure must be reduced, however, in figuring out how many cancellation notices are likely to go out in 2014. This is so for several reasons (two of which I will confess to having forgotten about during a very transitory first posting of this blog entry).

The first reason the 39 million figure is too high is that not all small employers provide health benefits.  According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2013 Annual Survey of Employer Health Benefits (page 39), about 57% of employees in firms with under 200 employees provide health benefits.  It doesn’t have data on firms under 100 employees, but if one eyeballs the data that is provided, I don’t think one would be too far off estimating that about 50% of firms with fewer than 100 employees provide health benefits. So, this takes us down to about 19.5 million employees.

But the 19.5 million employee figure needs to be reduced because not all employees accept health insurance even when it is offered. According to Kaiser (same report as above, page 49), the take up rate among those with fewer than 200 employees is 62%.  It doesn’t look like it varies too much according to firm size in that range, so we’ll say there are roughly 12 million employees in small firms who get health insurance through their jobs.

But the 12 million figure needs to be yet further reduced because some policies will remain grandfathered and thus exempt from the Essential Health Benefits requirement.  According to the same Kaiser report  (page 223), about 49% of employees in firms with under 200 employees were in grandfathered plans.  It doesn’t have data on firms under 100 employees, but if one eyeballs the data that is provided, I think it is fair to say that about 50% of employees in firms with under 200 employees were in grandfathered plans as of 2013. This figure needs to be reduced, however, to take account of the decay in the proportion of plans that can remain grandfathered as time goes on.  From 2011 to 2012, for example, the percentage of workers in smallish firms in  non-grandfathered plans grew from 37% to 46%. And from 2012 to 2013,  the percentage of workers in smallish firms in  non-grandfathered plans grew from 46% to 51%.  So, it’s not unreasonable to believe that something like 56% of workers in firms with 100 or fewer workers will be in non-grandfathered plans at some point during 2014.  Could be a few percentage points higher, could be a few percentage points lower.

If we do the multiplication, however, that means that we are at roughly 7 million policies that will be required to provide Essential Health Benefits at some point during 2014.  But we need to do a little more subtraction because, surely, there must be some of these policies that are essentially in compliance with the ACA right now.  There might be “cancellation notices” with respect to these policies but if the policy content and prices doesn’t change as a result, few people will care.  How many such compliant policies are there?

I will confess that I don’t know how many small group policies already comply with the requirements of the ACA and would thus likely not change substantially if they needed to be cancelled. But my guess is that the number is rather small.  The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation noted several years back that a lot of individual and small group policies did not provide Essential Health Benefits such as substance abuse benefits. The independent research firm HealthPocket found recently that only 2% of individual health insurance plans covered all Essential Health Benefits and that the average plan covered about 76% of those benefits.  HealthPocket did not, however, study small group policies.

In the absence of great evidence, I am going to assume, probably quite liberally, that 1/3 of the plans that will be required to provide Essential Health Benefits either already provide them or provide something sufficiently close to them that any cancellation of those policies will not require significant alteration of the plan. This means, however, there are — just to keep the numbers round — 5 million small group policies that will be cancelled in 2014 and that will need to be altered significantly as a result of the ACA’s EHB requirement.

3. How many people are we talking about?

But policies do not equal people.  There is often more than one person on a policy: a spouse and a dependent or two. This means that while 5 million is a plausible lower bound on the number of people who will be getting potentially unwelcome cancellation notices in 2014, it is likely to low an estimate. And on this point, we have decent data. A 2009 report by America’s Health Insurance Plans found that the average policy covered 3.03 lives.  There is no reason to think that this number has either materially changed over the past few years or that small group plans are different from other plans.

So, again doing some rounding, if we do the multiplication of 5 million policies by 3 lives per policy, that means that 15 million or so Americans now getting health insurance through a small employer are likely to get meaningful cancellation notices this coming year. Another 6 million Americans now getting health insurance through a small employer will get cancellation notices but might receive similar coverage without large disruption. 

4. Conclusion

Is the claim true?

Bottom line: so far as I can see at this time, the American Enterprise Institute statement is truthy but somewhat exaggerated. The 100 million figure looks very high to me, but the real number of something like 15 million Americans (many of whom will be voting in Congressional elections right after receiving the notice) should be high enough to get the nation’s attention. Indeed, if my figures on the number of already-compliant policies is overly generous, the real number might be as high as 21 million Americans.

Does it matter?

To be sure, some of the plans into which these displaced Americans may end up may be better than those they have presently. Not being able to keep your health insurance doesn’t always make you worse off.  Some of the adjustments that need to be made to bring the policies into compliance may be relatively small and relatively inexpensive.  Many of the policies will not have been the sort of “junk” that can exist in the individual market. and thus transitioning to compliant plans, though initially stressful, may not end up being permanently traumatic. Moreover, under section 1421 of the ACA (26 U.S.C. § 45R), for some employers with 25 or fewer (not well paid) employees there will be tax credits of up to 50% to help them purchase insurance.

But the fact that the cancellation notices may not be calamitous for some does not mean that they will not pose serious problems for millions of employers and employees. For the many employees in firms with more than 25 employees or who are in firms with fewer than 25 employees but who are somewhat better paid, the tax credit provision offers no relief.  For the many small businesses whose policies were close to compliant, even having to pay a little more for “better” policies may be a big deal.  If the experience of these 15 million policyholders is similar to those of the millions of those with recently ACA-cancelled individual policies, many of them are going to find that the better insurance policies mandated by the ACA comes with a significant price tag that they or their employer, or a combination of the two, are going to pay.

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5 thoughts on “Could the American Enterprise Institute possibly be right there is this massive second wave of cancellations coming?”

  1. Employers of 50-100 employees are not likely to accept the burden of administering both grandfathered and not grandfathered plans. Since new employees are not eligible for the grandfathered plans, employers will likely offer only ACA plans or none at all. This may change your calculations substantially.

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