The October surprise that Washington knew about all along finally arrived yesterday, as the Obama administration announced that premiums would increase by nearly 25 percent nationally for Obamacare’s individual insurance. With the exchanges already struggling to maintain their long-term viability, the premium increases place the administration in a political vise, as it tries to encourage people to buy a product whose price is rising even as it presents a poor value for most potential enrollees.
In the 40-page report the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released, breaking down premium and plan information for 2017, one interesting number stands out. Among states using Healthcare.gov, the federally run exchange, the median income of enrollees in 2016 topped out at 165 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). In other words, half of enrollees made less $40,095 for a family of four. And 81 percent earned less than $60,750 for a family of four, or less than 250 percent of the FPL.
Even as it stands now, however, the exchanges are little more than Medicaid-like ghettos, attracting a largely low-income population most worried about their monthly costs. To moderate premium spikes, insurers have done what Medicaid managed-care plans do: Narrow networks. Consultants at McKinsey note that three-quarters of exchange plans in 2017 will have no out-of-network coverage, except in emergency cases. And those provider networks themselves are incredibly narrow: one-third fewer specialists than the average employer plan, and hospital networks continuing to shrink.
In short, exchange coverage looks nothing like the employer plans that more affluent Americans have come to know and like. Case in point: At a briefing last month, I asked Peter Lee, the executive director of Covered California, what health insurance he purchased for himself. He responded that he was not covered on the exchange that he himself runs but instead obtained coverage through California’s state-employee plan. Which raises obvious questions: If Covered California’s offerings aren’t good enough to compel Lee to give up his state-employee plan, how good are they? Or, to put it another way, if exchange plans aren’t good enough for someone making a salary of $420,000 a year, why are they good enough for low-income enrollees?
— Chris Jacobs is the founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm based in Washington.