Focus on fixing insurance exchange

The problems with the insurance exchange in Iowa are fixable — and not a good excuse to fund tax cuts to the wealthy by forcing tens of thousands of Iowans off health insurance.

It’s time for Iowa’s congressmen and senators to start working on immediate measures to strengthen the health care system, and specifically the health insurance exchange, or marketplace. The obsession of some with bills to repeal and replace Obamacare has been a distraction from that task.

In recent days, bipartisan groups have sprung up in both the House and the Senate to begin developing legislation to stabilize the insurance market. These groups recognize the immediate need for measures to ensure that federal payments continue for cost-sharing reductions (CSRs) that help low-income people afford their copays and deductibles. Without the assurance that these payments will continue, premiums will rise sharply.

The president has threatened to continue his efforts to sabotage the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by ordering an end to CSRs. This threat has already prompted Medica, the only Iowa health insurance company still offering plans on the exchange, to plan for another premium increase.

The bipartisan efforts to shore up the insurance exchanges could include another important measure: a reinsurance program that would reduce the risk that a small number of high-cost customers will cause insurance company losses. The “million-dollar customer” has been cited as a factor contributing to the decisions of Wellmark and Aetna to exit the Iowa exchange. Reinsurance would establish a national pool to cover high-risk cases; this would allow companies to remain in the exchanges without drastic premium increases on everyone to pay for those few cases.

The Senate’s attempts to repeal and replace failed because they were wildly unpopular. These measures would have resulted in over 200,000 Iowans losing health insurance; would have effectively ended the expansion of Medicaid that covers thousands of low-wage workers; would have reduced Medicaid benefits for thousands of seniors, children, and people with disabilities; would have raised premiums and deductibles; would have gutted protections for persons with pre-existing conditions; and would have provided billions in tax cuts to wealthy individuals and corporations.

Another attack on coverage: Graham-Cassidy

Pragmatic efforts to stabilize the health insurance market stand in stark contrast to a last-ditch attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare that surfaced this week: the Graham-Cassidy plan. Like the previous failed bills, this plan would end the Medicaid expansion that now covers 150,000 Iowans.

Unlike previous repeal and replace bills, the Graham-Cassidy plan would also end the premium assistance that makes health insurance affordable to tens of thousands of low and moderate income Iowa families. While it replaces ACA funding of premium assistance and Medicaid expansion with a block grant, it provides no guarantee that the states will use that block grant to make health insurance affordable to those who need help the most. And the bill would further destabilize the insurance market by ending the mandate to purchase insurance, while making it more expensive, leaving insurance companies with the sickest and costliest customers.

The problems with the insurance exchange in Iowa are fixable. Let’s see if our Senators and Representatives actually try to fix those problems instead of using them as an excuse to fund tax cuts to the wealthy by forcing tens of thousands of Iowans off their health insurance.

Peter Fisher is research director of the Iowa Policy Project.

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Iowa follows U.S. patterns on loss of employer-sponsored coverage

new report from the Economic Policy Institute traces the erosion of job-based health coverage across the last decade — and the slowing of that decline in the last year. Nationally, as EPI Director of Health Policy Research Elise Gould underscores, job-based health coverage has shed almost 14 million non-elderly Americans since 2000. But slow improvement in the national economy over the last year, coupled with key components of the Affordable Care Act (most notably the provision that young adults are allowed to stay on or join their parents health insurance policies) have slowed those losses since 2011.

The other important trend across this decade is the dramatic growth in public health insurance. Medicaid and CHIP (hawk-i in Iowa) have picked up coverage for at least some of those who have lost job-based coverage. While losses (2000 to 2012) in employer-sponsored insurance were greater among children than among non-elderly adults, for example, the share of children without any coverage actually fell 1.8 percentage points.

Basic RGBMuch the same pattern has played out in Iowa.  In 2000-2001, Iowa’s rate of job-based coverage for those under the age of 65 was 76.9 percent — one of the highest rates in the nation; by 2011-2012, that had fallen to 64.5 percent — closer to the middle of the pack among states.

As the graphic below shows (Iowa is the red dot), this was one of the steepest rates of loss in the nation (coverage down 12.4 percent) and represented a net loss in job-based coverage of over 200,000 non-elderly Iowans. Of those losing coverage, about half (97,075) were working-age adults and about half (111,839) were kids (indeed, the share of kids losing job-based coverage in Iowa, at 16 percent, was the highest in the country).

ESI changes in statesclick on graph for interactive version

Again, public programs pick up some of this slack. Since 2000, Iowa has enrolled about 120,000 more working age adults in Medicaid, and added another 80,000 to the ranks of the uninsured. For Iowa’s kids, public coverage (Medicaid and hawk-i) has been much more effective — picking up 140,000 Iowans under the age of 18 since 2000, while actually reducing the number of kids uninsured.

Colin GordonPosted by Colin Gordon, Senior Research Consultant

Iowa’s decline in job-based health insurance

When the costs of insurance keep rising, that makes it tougher on the household budget — or results in people not having insurance.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette today offered an interesting look at the question of where Iowans get their insurance. It’s less and less something that comes through employment. And when the costs of insurance keep rising, that makes it tougher on the household budget — or results in people not having insurance.

This is a trend we’ve been watching and reporting on at the Iowa Policy Project for many years, as have several good research organizations such as the Economic Policy Institute.

The Affordable Care Act offers at least a partial remedy. As health insurance exchanges are developed, affordable insurance should be more readily available. Tax credits for employers providing insurance will provide a targeted incentive to offer employees a better option than what employees might find on the individual insurance market.

Colin Gordon
Colin Gordon

Our State of Working Iowa report for 2012 offers another good look at this issue. As author Colin Gordon observes, wage stagnation, erosion of good jobs and recession have combined to batter workers, at the same time non-wage forms of compensation, health and pension benefits, also have declined. This has eroded both job quality and family financial security, and increased the need for public insurance. In Chapter 3, “The Bigger Picture,” Gordon writes that Iowa is one of 15 states, including five in the Midwest, to lose more than 10 percent of job-based coverage in a decade. He continues:

These losses reflect two overlapping trends. The first of these is costs. Health spending has slowed in recent years, but still runs well ahead of general inflation. Both premium costs … and the employee’s share of premiums have risen sharply — especially for family coverage — while wages have stagnated.

In 1999, a full-time median-wage worker in Iowa needed to work for about 10 weeks in order to pay an annual family premium; by 2011, this had swollen to nearly 25 weeks. Steep cost increases have pressed employers to drop or cut back coverage, or employees to decline it when offered. High costs may also encourage more employees to elect single coverage — counting on spousal coverage from another source and kids’ coverage through public programs. The second factor here is the shift in sectoral employment outlined above: Job losses are heaviest in sectors that have historically offered group health coverage; and job gains (or projected job gains) are strongest in sectors that don’t offer coverage.

This graph looks at the rate of employer-sponsored coverage, by industry sector, from 2002 to 2012.

job-based coverage comparison, Iowa 2002-2012

An interactive version of that graph in the online report allows the reader to toggle between those two years; the colored balloons sink on the graph in moving from 2002 to 2012, as if they all are losing air — the result of declining rates of coverage.

Good public policy could help to fill them again.

2010-mo-blogthumbPosted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

 

Does Iowa have the will to govern itself?

Can we govern ourselves? Apparently national candidates will come calling in Iowa without worrying about that. So maybe we should answer it for ourselves.

Does Iowa have the will to govern itself?

How ironic that we have reason to ask that question, a week after a presidential election that capped three-plus years of courting of Iowa voters, and a few days before a potential 2016 candidate visits to start all of it brewing again.

Yet the question is unavoidable. Consider two pieces in today’s Des Moines Register.

First, the Register reports, the federal Environmental Protection Agency may take over water quality enforcement in Iowa due to weak efforts by Iowa’s state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

As IPP’s David Osterberg recently told EPA officials to hold DNR more accountable because the state is underfunding water protection.

“EPA should help the agency in bargaining with a legislature that has shown itself to be less concerned with water quality protection than tax cuts. … There is no question that if EPA simply accepts the agency’s agreement to try to do better, water quality will not improve in this state.”

If the EPA admonishment of Iowa’s lax environmental enforcement were not enough, we also are waiting for the state to offer its long-overdue decision on how to proceed on health reform. The 2012 election affirms the Affordable Care Act will not be repealed, so the state’s dragging its heels on creating a health insurance exchange no longer makes sense — if it ever did.

Yet, we now have a real question of whether it’s a good idea for the state to move ahead on its own with an exchange, where Iowans can shop for affordable insurance and not be denied coverage, or having the federal government do it for us. As the Register opined in an editorial today, “It is too important for this state to mess up.” Citing problems implementing temporary high-risk pools, and political dealings in previous legislative attempts to create an exchange, the Register noted:

“Iowans need the coming insurance marketplace to work for them in years to come. But state leaders have shown they are not the ones to design it.”

Can we govern ourselves? Apparently national candidates will come calling in Iowa without worrying about that. So maybe we should answer if for ourselves.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Newspapers, above all, must stick to facts

Newspaper editorial boards have no more leeway in civic discourse than anyone else. They are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

It is always disappointing to see a reputable newspaper miss a chance to raise the level of political debate.

In one sweeping ideological rant, the Dubuque Telegraph Herald editorial board adopted false, political spin as its message and discarded legitimate research without reference in (1) complaining that the state of Iowa “offers a totally free insurance package to employees” when this simply is not true, and (2) asserting without evidence the idea that pay for public employees is competitive with private employees.

Regarding the first point, the newspaper’s complaint simply defies common sense.

Once and for all, let’s get one thing straight: Health benefits are part of compensation for work performed. Benefits are not “free,” any more than a paycheck is “free,” and it is absurd for anyone to suggest otherwise. Public employees receive those benefits because they put in the hours and provide the services as agreed upon by both employee and employer. They are not a gift.

Furthermore, any reduction of those bargained benefits would presumably be compensated with increased pay on the wage/salary side — unless the TH is making a case for a unilateral pay cut without offering any reason for it.

Ironically, the July 18 editorial comes about 13 months after the TH itself declared the public pay assertion to be “NOT TRUE” — the newspaper’s headline in a story noting the myth that obscures the very real pay gap favoring private-sector employees over public-sector counterparts. That story cited research by the Iowa Policy Project and others. IPP’s report may be found here. The IPP report has continued to be cited by many to correct the mythology on this issue and has yet to be substantively refuted by anyone, the TH editorial board included.

Newspaper editorial boards have no more leeway in civic discourse than anyone else. They are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. We should be able to expect that principle in every editorial, especially from newspapers that have given us a reason to expect it.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

The policy effects of Supreme Court ruling — beyond politics, legal arguments

The central purpose of the law should not be lost in the discussion: to expand health insurance coverage and help create a health system that works for everyone.

Andrew Cannon

While many are focusing on the political and judicial ramifications of today’s Supreme Court ruling affirming the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), it’s important to focus on how the law will affect health coverage.

ACA provisions at the heart of the Supreme Court decision are the personal responsibility requirement (or individual mandate) and the Medicaid expansion. Both provisions are not scheduled to take effect until January 1, 2014.

However, a number of provisions have been in effect since 2010 — shortly after the law’s passage, and have helped make insurance coverage accessible and more affordable for millions of Americans. Today’s ruling upholding the law means that millions of Americans will retain that coverage and those benefits.

Among the provisions currently in effect:

  • Young adult coverage — Uninsured persons age 18 through 25 may continue to be insured as a dependent on their parents’ health coverage. This provision has extended health care coverage to an estimated 6.6 million young Americans.[1]
  • Protections against pre-existing condition exclusions for children — The ACA prevents insurers from denying coverage to sick children. In Iowa, there are up to 51,000 children who have pre-existing conditions.[2]
  • The end of lifetime and annual benefit limits — Consumers with serious health conditions and treatment expenses no longer need to worry about bumping against maximum amounts an insurer will pay.
  • The elimination of the Medicare “doughnut hole” — Under existing Medicare law, seniors with high prescription costs had to pay for prescriptions entirely out-of-pocket. The ACA gradually eliminates this “doughnut hole,” providing seniors a 50 percent discounts on name-brand drugs and a 7 percent discount on generic drugs.
  • Tax credits for small businesses — Small businesses that meet specified qualifications may presently receive a tax credit if they offer their employees coverage and cover at least half of the premium cost.[3] Estimates of the number of eligible businesses vary, from about 2.6 million to about 4 million.[4] Take-up has been limited, partially due to lack of awareness.

Provisions that will take effect in 2014:

  • Expanding Medicaid coverage — Under the ACA, uninsured individuals with earnings at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level ($30,657 for a family of four in 2012) will qualify for enrollment in Medicaid.  If Iowa fully participates in the Medicaid expansion, as many as 114,700 Iowans may receive coverage.[5]
  • Creation of new insurance marketplaces, or “exchanges” — The ACA instructs states to construct new insurance marketplaces, accessible by Internet, in which those who don’t receive insurance through their employer may shop for insurance coverage. Individuals who don’t qualify for Medicaid coverage will receive tax credits to help them cover the cost of their heath premium. This is the group affected by the individual mandate. According to estimates, as many as 250,000 Iowans could find their health coverage through the new insurance marketplace, or exchange.[6]

While legal scholars and political pundits will undoubtedly have much to say for months on today’s decision, the central purpose of the law should not be lost in the discussion: to expand health insurance coverage and help create a health system that works for everyone.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate


[1] Sara R. Collins, Ruth Robertson, Tracy Garber and Michelle M. Doty, “Young, Uninsured, and in Debt: Why Young Adults Lack Health Insurance and How the Affordable Care Act is Helping,” the Commonwealth Fund. June 2012. <http://www.commonwealthfund.org/~/media/Files/Publications/Issue%20Brief/2012/Jun/1604_collins_young_uninsured_in_debt_v4.pdf>.

[2] Christine Sebastian, Kim Bailey, and Kathleen Stoll, “Health Reform: A Closer Look. Help for Iowans with Pre-Existing

Conditions,” Families USA. May 2010. <http://www.familiesusa.org/assets/pdfs/health-reform/pre-existingconditions/iowa.pdf&gt;.

[3] See “Right Balance for Small Business in Health Reform,” Iowa Fiscal Partnership, July 22, 2010. <http://www.iowafiscal.org/2010docs/100722-IFP-HCR-credits.pdf>.

[4] “Small Employer Health Tax Credit: Factors Contributing to Low Use and Complexity” (GAO-12-549), Government Accountability Office, May 2012. <http://gao.gov/assets/600/590832.pdf>.

[5] John Holahan and Irene Headen, “Medicaid Coverage and Spending in Health Reform: National and State-by-State Results for Adults at or Below 133% FPL,” Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, May 2010. <http://www.kff.org/healthreform/upload/medicaid-coverage-and-spending-in-health-reform-national-and-state-by-state-results-for-adults-at-or-below-133-fpl.pdf>.

[6] Matthew Buettgens, John Hollahan, and Caitlin Carroll, “Health Reform Across States: Increased Insurance Coverage and Federal Spending on the Exchanges and Medicaid,” Urban Institute, March 2012. <http://www.urban.org/uploadedpdf/412310-Health-Reform-Across-the-States.pdf>.

Look at more than public employees’ health benefits

A comprehensive and holistic look at public employee compensation reveals that the political talk driving some public policy proposals is mere myth.

Andrew Cannon

It will not be surprising, in the post-Wisconsin-recall world, if policymakers feel emboldened to challenge public employee compensation. Governor Branstad has already signaled that some of his policy initiatives in the coming years will bear the stamp of Wisconsin. In a June 12, 2012, meeting with Des Moines Register reporters and editors, the Governor said he intends to require public employees to contribute 20 percent of the cost of their health insurance.

If that sounds reasonable — considering that private-sector workers contribute, on average, more than 20 percent of their health insurance premiums — it misses the realities of overall public employee compensation.

While it is true that public employees contribute less on average to their health insurance plans than private-sector workers, they have negotiated the benefit as part of overall compensation packages that, all political hyperbole and “conventional wisdom” aside, typically leave public employees behind their private-sector counterparts. As IPP research has demonstrated, public workers tend to be paid considerably less than similarly educated workers in the private sector. Generally better health insurance benefits do not compensate for the deficiency, so a gap remains.

After controlling for experience, education, and other demographic factors, public-sector employees still receive 6 percent to 8 percent lower overall compensation — that is, pay, health, dental, life and disability insurance, and retirement benefits — than private workers.

A comprehensive and holistic look at public employee compensation reveals that the political talk driving some public policy proposals is mere myth.

Requiring an employee contribution of 20 percent of health insurance premiums is a disguised cut in compensation and amounts to a repudiation of contracts that have been negotiated in good faith between public employees and the state. Furthermore, it would widen the gap between public and private sector pay.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate