What to watch for in the individual health insurance market

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber speaks during a protest against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act outside the Capitol Building in Washington, U.S., March 22, 2017.
Editor's note:

This analysis is part of The Leonard D. Schaeffer Initiative for Innovation in Health Policy, which is a partnership between the Center for Health Policy at Brookings and the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics. The Initiative aims to inform the national health care debate with rigorous, evidence-based analysis leading to practical recommendations using the collaborative strengths of USC and Brookings.

On Tuesday, March 6, the Brookings Institution’s Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy and the USC-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy co-hosted an event examining where the individual health insurance market is today and where it is heading. The event featured an opening presentation followed by a panel discussion featuring speakers from a variety of perspectives. The discussion examined how the individual market has evolved since the implementation of the main Affordable Care Act (ACA) reforms in 2014, the likely impact of recent policy changes implemented by the Trump Administration and Congress, and how federal policy toward the market might evolve in years to come.

Here are highlights from each of the participants.

Fiedler’s opening presentation: An overview of recent individual market trends and policy changes

The event opened with a presentation by Matthew Fiedler, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Health Policy (slides available here). Fiedler started by showing that individual market enrollment grew significantly after implementation of the ACA’s reforms in 2014, but that individual market insurers also incurred significant losses. Those losses set the stage for a pricing correction in 2017, which he estimated returned premiums to a roughly sustainable position.

Fiedler then examined the implications of three significant policy changes under the Trump Administration: the end of cost-sharing reduction payments, the pending repeal of the individual mandate, and the proposed expansion of short-term, limited-duration plans. Fiedler argued that “the market will survive and will find a new equilibrium” because many enrollees in the ACA-compliant individual market are eligible for large subsidies that will make remaining in the market attractive.

Nevertheless, he concluded that repeal of the individual mandate and the expansion of short-term plans, will reduce the number of people covered, increase the number of people with lower-quality coverage, and reduce pooling of risk between healthier and sicker individuals. On the other hand, he argued that the Trump Administration’s decision to end cost-sharing reduction payments will have the unintended consequence of lowering premiums after subsidies for many enrollees and increasing federal spending.

Corlette: Short-term plans pose risks to consumers

A major topic for the panel discussion was the Trump Administration’s proposal to expand the definition of “short-term, limited duration” plans from a plan lasting less than 3 months (with no renewals permitted) to a plan lasting less than 12 months (with renewals permitted). Short-term plans are exempt from a broad range of federal regulatory requirements, including the ban on varying premiums based on health status and the ACA requirement to cover the so-called essential health benefits package.

Panelists noted that broader availability of short-term plans is likely to weaken the market for ACA-compliant plans since many healthier enrollees will migrate into the short-term market. Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown University, argued that short-term plans pose significant risks not only to the market for ACA-compliant plans but also to consumers who buy them. These short-term plans are potentially harmful, she argued, because they “walk and talk a lot like traditional comprehensive health insurance” but many consumers will find themselves liable for “thousands of dollars of medical bills because these things simply don’t cover anything.”

Capretta: Recent policy changes are expanding state flexibility in beneficial ways

In discussing various policy changes implemented by the Trump Administration, James C. Capretta, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that many of these policy changes have the effect of increasing state flexibility. He argued that state flexibility could help illuminate the path forward for federal policy. Given the stalemate at the national level, maybe we need a two or three-year period where a lot of states try a couple of different things,” he said. “If some states want to re-impose the individual mandate they can do so. If they want to impose continuous coverage penalties they can do so. They can restrict which plans are sold on the insurance market,” he said.

Patterson: What is the next national goal for health policy?

Panelists discussed their views on next steps for federal policymakers. Kevin Patterson, CEO of Connect for Health Colorado, said that policymakers need “to think about what we are going to challenge ourselves to actually deal with.” Patterson noted that the Affordable Care Act had a national goal of improving access to care. “But what’s the next national goal? Is there one?,” Patterson asked. Patterson identified reducing the underlying cost of care as a potential priority. Patterson noted that the “big bad insurance company” often gets blamed for high premiums, “but a lot of what they have to do is just reflect the cost that they’re seeing in what the provider networks are charging.”

Geraghty: Increasing competition among providers can reduce the cost of care

Following on Patterson’s comment, Geraghty highlighted the importance of increasing competition among health care providers if the goal is to reduce costs. “We as a country have not looked at competition on the delivery side,” he said. Geraghty noted that there were particular challenges in many rural markets.  “If you’re in a rural area and you’ve got one hospital and they bought up the physician groups around them, they now set the market and they set the price,” he explained. Geraghty argued that improvements in communications technology might make it possible to deliver more care remotely, which could facilitate increased competition in many markets with a small number of providers.