Yes, you can pick your health plan or your doctor for now, but prepare to start paying a lot more for the privilege

Much has been written about the general issues associated with higher premiums for plans purchased on the various Exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. The fear is that higher premiums will price individuals out of the market — at least lower risk individuals — and result in a spiral of premium increases. Supporters of the ACA counter, however, that increases in gross premiums — the amount insurers say they charge — does not matter much because the amount most individuals pay under the Affordable Care Act does not depend on gross premiums so much as it depends on one’s income. Recent studies, after all, suggest that about 87% of purchasers receive tax credits to purchase plans that depend solely on their income.

The truth, however, about the effect of premium increases under Obamacare is more complex. Basically, increases in gross premiums for basic silver plans can have a non-linear and frightening effect on increases in the net premiums Americans pay to persist in plans that are more generous either because they afford greater choice in selecting one’s doctors or because they require less cost sharing by insureds. The remainder of this blog post explains why.

Let’s start with a simple example drawn from real life to illustrate the general idea. Data taken directly from healthcare.gov shows that in my home city of Houston (Harris County, Texas), the gross premium for the second lowest silver plan (an HMO plan) is about $250 per month for a 40 year old individual. If that person’s net income is $25,000, under 26 U.S.C. § 36B their net premium can be computed as  $143 per month for that second lowest silver plan; the remainder is supposed to be paid via a $107 tax credit from the federal government. (Mathematica notebook containing the analysis available on request)  Suppose, however, the individual does not want an HMO plan but wants a PPO plan so they can have greater choice of doctors. The cheapest one in Harris County has a gross premium of $338 per month or about 35% more. But, because the tax credit stays constant at $107, the net premium is $231. This means that the right to select one’s own doctor costs our hypothetical individual 57% more in the amount they actually pay.

The situation is similar if one is willing to accept an HMO plan but one wants the plan to pay a higher percentage of expected medical expenses. The second least expensive gold plan in Harris County is $297 per month or 18% more than the second lowest silver plan. Again, however, because the tax credit remains the same, there’s a problem: the actuarial value of the gold plan is actually just 14% higher than its silver counterpart, but because of the way subsidies are calculated, the cost is 33% higher. Only two types of people would likely be willing to incur this “double payment” to get a better plan: people who are unhealthy for whom a small improvement in a plan might mean a great deal or people who are just extremely risk averse.

The situation persists for the few platinum purchasers. If one goes from the second lowest silver plan all the way to the second least expensive platinum plan, it turns out that the net premium increases a whopping 138%. And this is true even though the while the gross premium goes up by 79% to $448 per month and the actuarial value of the policy goes up only about 29% and the gross premium goes up “only” by 79%. One can imagine that the only people of this income level willing to incur this high a premium increase in exchange for only somewhat better coverage would be those who expected to use the coverage extensively — exactly the people that force insurers to increase future prices.

Some of the same mathematical logic that drives the disproportionate increases in net premiums in a single year applies in a similar way to premium changes over time. Let us consider our same individual and project forward to 2016. Imagine that they purchased that PPO silver plan in 2015 and wish to continue in it. To do the computations, we’ll have to make a few assumptions: (1) that the federal government’s expected contribution from income increases for 2016 at the same rate it increased for 2015 and that the federal poverty levels for 2016 likewise increase at the same rate that they did in 2015. Suppose further that the gross premium for the second lowest silver plan and the gross premium for the increases by 4% but the gross premium for the gold HMO plan or the silver PPO plan increase by 8%. If our individual’s income again increases by 10%, the net price of the more generous policy jumps by 13.5%. The effect is non-linear.

And what if we start talking not about individuals, but about families?  Consider, now, the family of four with two adults each age 40. We’ll give the family an income of $50,000 per year. Again, for concreteness, I’ll place them in Harris County, Texas. The gross premium for the second lowest silver plan (an HMO) is $748 per month. But with a tax credit of $456, the net premium for that policy is $292 per month. If the family wants to purchase a silver PPO, the cheapest one will feature a gross premium of $1013. Since the tax credit stays the same at $456 per month, this means the net premium is $557 per month, an increase of 91% just to get more choice in picking doctors. Or, if the family wants to purchase the second cheapest Gold HMO, that will cost $890 gross and $434 net. This is an increase of 49% just to get a plan with 14% richer expected benefits. Now, whom do you suppose might pay such a disproportionately higher amount?

The diversity of metal levels and of plan types has always been touted as a benefit of Obamacare. It is supposed to distinguish the ACA from  administratively simpler (“one size fits all”) regimes such as single payor plans. But the existence of premium subsidies pegged to the price of the second lowest silver plan means that the present diversity of plans may be a short run phenomenon or that the diversity may exist only on paper. There may technically still be gold plans or PPOs, but very few may be purchasing them. Assuming Obamacare lasts a few more years, we may effectively see the demise in the marketplace of Gold and Platinum plans and, even more likely, the demise of Gold and Platinum PPO plans. Choosing one’s doctor may, as a practical matter, become a sensible option only for the few wealthy purchasers that do not depend on subsidies.

Might this all be just sort of bug that would be easy to fix if only Congress were more cooperative? Actually, not. The high marginal costs of more generous policies is a fundamental feature of Obamacare’s architecture. It is one  that is simply becoming more apparent as the program matures. Once you tell people that government will essentially buy you an HMO silver plan if you contribute some amount based on your income – but will pay no more – the net costs of buying anything more generous than that inevitably look very high.

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