Most sellers of health insurance in the United States outside of health insurance Exchanges will be forced to add $63 per member on to premiums for 2014 to cover a new tax imposed by the Affordable Care Act on the sale of such policies. That tax revenue coupled with $2 billion out of the federal treasury will go to subsidize individual policies sold on the federal Exchanges, probably lowering their gross premiums by about $525 per person. If, however, enrollment in the federal Exchanges remains considerably lower than projected and enrollment in non-grandfathered, non-Exchange plans does not compensate for the reduction, the revenue collected from the tax is likely to be in excess of that which needs to be paid to support the statutory subsidies. The $63 per member tax, which has precipitated considerable protest, thus might end up being overly high. And if the Executive branch can exercise its discretion to delay or waive taxes for one part of the ACA based on alleged new developments, why not for another?
The Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has many options for addressing the surplus. It might choose to to use the surplus tax revenue either to cut similar taxes in the subsequent years of the program or to rebate the excessive tax back to health plans and others who paid it. CMS might, I suppose, inflame people from both ends of the ideological spectrum by gifting insurers with more generous reinsurance this year. Or CMS might simply squirrel the surplus away to provide reinsurance after the normal sunset of the program in 2016. I suspect, however, that CMS is likely to use the surplus to increase the generosity of reinsurance provided in subsequent years of the program such as next year. Doing so could mask problems of adverse selection that could otherwise result in large premium increases. Such a choice would not necessarily be a bad thing: it just highlights yet again the expense of the ACA, the fragility of attempts prior to its passage to model its effects, and the problems with thinking about its interlocking web of provisions in a linear, reductionist manner.
Here’s a more detailed explanation.
The Affordable Care Act subsidizes both insurance purchases made on the individual Exchanges and individual policies still sold off the Exchange that conform with various ACA rules. Doing so lowers the price of insurance and decreases the systematic risk associated with selling policies in a new regulatory environment in which the population of insureds may have different (and worse) health profiles than those previously composing the insurance pool. A key way that the ACA does this is through a program of “transitional reinsurance” provided free of charge to insurers willing to write policies in the individual market — so long as those policies haven’t been exempted from the requirements of the ACA by being “grandfathered.” The program is “transitional” because it is supposed to end after three years. One way of thinking about all this is that free reinsurance lowers both the mean and the standard deviation of the net claims distribution faced by eligible insurers.
Under section 1341 of the ACA and the regulations CMS has developed to implement it, the transitional reinsurance program is ultimately supposed to break even. If tax revenues that fund it are less than the expenditures it requires, CMS has provided in 45 C.F.R. § 153.230(d) that reinsurance payments are cut in that year in order to prevent a deficit. If tax revenues that fund the transitional reinsurance program are greater than the expenditures it requires, CMS has stated in 45 C.F.R. § 153.235(b) that the surplus will be spent in subsequent years of the program on reinsurance benefits. The program also works with a one year lag: money is collected and paid in each year is for claims made the preceding year.
The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has funded the transitional reinsurance program this year by levying (with the help of its IRS friends) a $63 per insured life tax on most (but not all) health insurance policies sold in the United States this year. (The payments are deductible for for-profit enterprises). CMS says it is planning an exception to the tax for self-funded plans that are also self-administered, a rule that, as shown in the graphic below, CMS previously said (correctly) it lacked statutory authority to issue and that will significantly benefit labor unions. This tax revenue, coupled with a required $2 billion from the United States Treasury, is estimated to yield $12 billion to be paid in 2015 for claims arising in 2014. CMS will use the the money to provide a form of stop-loss reinsurance that attaches at $45,000 of claims per member and that provides 80% reimbursement for claims up to $250,000. In earlier versions of the regulation, the attachment point was a less generous $60,000.
How would you spend $12 billion? Well, using the “continuance tables” (statistical claims distributions) contained in CMS’s “Actuarial Value Calculator,” one can show that the expected payments under the reinsurance system created by CMS for 2014 will range from about $433 per member for a bronze plan up to about $597 for a platinum plan. The weighted average expected payment will be about about $525. The enhanced size of this subsidy, rather than other miracles of Obamacare, may explain in part, by the way, why premiums on the Exchanges came in somewhat lower than some had projected. If CMS is planning on spending about $12 billion on transitional reinsurance and it spends $525 per insured person, simple division shows that it takes about 23 million people who might trigger the reinsurance obligation in order to exhaust the fund.
The problem, however, is that, given recent developments, there are unlikely to be 23 million persons in 2014 (a) who might trigger the reinsurance obligation (“reinsurance triggering”) and (b) who are insured by reinsurance-eligible insurers (“reinsurance eligible”). You could just take my word on this point and skip to the end of this entry or, better yet, follow the accounting done here.
Let me concede, temporarily and for the sake of discussion, that there will be 6 million people on average in 2014 who are paying premiums based on policies purchased in the individual Exchanges. That’s hard to believe given (a) that the number with a month to go is probably about 3.2 million (President Obama’s alleged 4 million enrollment reduced by 20% shrinkage for nonpayment); (b) that the number of insured in the Exchanges would have to be 7 million post March for there to have been 6 million on average during all of 2014; and (c) Vice President Joe Biden’s augury that 5 million would be a “heck of a start.” I will grumpily concede it nonetheless.
How many off-Exchange purchasers should we then add? Here the numbers are slippery too. I am indebted, however, to some careful work by the Kaiser Family Foundation on this point. You can read it here. The highest estimate I have seen for the number of nonelderely persons covered by a plan purchased directly from an insurer at any one time in a calendar year is 19 million. But many of these 19 million will (a) not have insurance the entire year; (b) will have insurance that is secondary to other insurance and thus unlikely to accumulate the $45,000 attachment point in claims; and (c) will be in grandfathered policies not eligible for reinsurance and persisting through 2014 only by dint of President Obama’s magic waiver of the terms of the ACA. When one looks at the situation at any given point in time — which is the proper basis for figuring out an average — it looks as if there might be 13-14 million who have some form of individual health insurance and 10-11 million who have primary health insurance coverage of the sort that might trigger a reinsurance obligation.
So, should I add 11 million to the 6 million and say that there are 17 million insureds that might trigger a reinsurance obligation? No! That would ignore two substitution effects. We know from various studies that a lot (perhaps 65% – 89%) of the people purchasing policies on the Exchanges simply swapped non-Exchange policies that would not be eligible for the other big federal subsidy — premium tax credits — for Exchange policies. So, even if we assume, contrary to the evidence, that only half of the Exchange purchasers came from the ranks of the uninsured, that means there are really only 3 million new purchasers of policies eligible for reinsurance. Moreover, the 10-11 million figure isn’t right anymore either. For 2014, individual insurers have to choose. They can stop selling their policy altogether, they can expand benefits to conform with the tougher requirements of the ACA and obtain a right to reinsurance or, at least in some instances, they may be able to grandfather their policy and avoid many ACA mandates but forfeit a right to reinsurance. I have not seen any good statistics on how many of the 11 million will persist into 2014, but I would be surprised if more than 80% did. So, rather than 11 million, it seems to be the better upper bound on the number of extant non-Exchange, reinsurance eligible policies is 9 million.
It thus seems to me as if the better upper bound on the number of policies that might trigger a reinsurance obligation is 12 million: 3 million genuinely new policies plus 9 million sold outside the Exchange but eligible for reinsurance. This means, however, that if CMS’s estimates of claims under the ACA are correct, a reasonable upper bound on reinsurance payments under section 1341 of the ACA are likely to be at most $6.3 billion ($525 x 12 million) rather than $12 billion.
Given all this, there are two aspects of CMS’ s behavior that are a bit puzzling. Why is CMS not adjusting the reinsurance benefit for this year say to provide 100% coverage rather than 80% coverage and/or removing the $250,000 cap on claims triggering reinsurance? Or, given the belief of the President that he has discretion to waive taxes in light of changed circumstances, why is CMS not waiving, say, half of the taxes that would otherwise be owed. (Not that I think this is constitutional).
The answer to the puzzler, I suspect, is either a cognitive failure or a very clever strategy. It is possible that it has not dawned on CMS that changing enrollment patterns means that it will not be able to exhaust the $12 billion it expects to receive pursuant to section 1341. More likely, however, someone at CMS has done the math and has been delighted to discover a slush fund that it can use the money to provide extra generous reinsurance next year and thus keep the price of premiums down. How will we know? If we see an announcement from CMS in the next few months changing the parameters for the 2015 reinsurance plan to be considerably more generous, believe that it is the result of collecting “too much” in taxes in 2014. In the meantime, however, we have another example of ACA “details” that don’t seem to stand up under close scrutiny.