Silver Switcharoo

2018 MIDTERM ELECTION

Time: D H M S

A couple of months ago, I sounded a (semi-muted) alarm about the future of Silver Loading and Silver Switching of Cost Sharing Reduction costs when CMS Administrator Seema Verma not only failed to state flat-out that she wouldn't attempt to stop these workarounds, but started giving indications that she was actively considering doing just that.

If this were to happen, then it would be devastating to millions of people while helping almost no one, as my colleagues Dave Anderson, Andrew Sprung, Louise Norris and I explained in Health Affairs a few weeks back.

Well, it appears that this particular bullet will be dodged for at least one year, anyway:

HHS won’t ban silver-loading this year, Azar admits after being pressed. No time to write broad-loading regs for 2019 plan year.

I had actually already written about Vermont doing this back in March, but seeing how it was one of only 2 states (+DC) which didn't allow Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) costs to be loaded onto premiums at all this year, I figured I should mention it here as well. Once again:

  • 20 states went the full #SilverSwitcharoo route (the best option, since it maximizes tax credits for those eligible for them while minimizing the number of unsubsidized enrollees who get hit with the extra CSR load);
  • 16 states went with partial #SilverLoading (the second best option: Subsidized enrollees get bonus assistance, though not as much as in Switch states; more unsubsidized enrollees take the hit, but they aren't hit quite as hard);
  • 6 states went with "Broad Loading", the worst option because everyone gets hit with at least part of the CSR load except for subsidized Silver enrollees;
  • 6 states took a "Mixed" strategy...which is to say, no particular strategy whatsover. The state insurance dept. left it up to each carrier to decide how to handle the CSR issue, and ended up with a hodge podge of the other three
  • 3 states (well, 2 states + DC, anyway) didn't allow CSR costs to be loaded at all. Their carriers have to eat the loss, which makes little sense, but what're ya gonna do?

99% of what I write is posted either exclusively here at ACASignups.net or, at most, is cross-posted over at Daily Kos. Once in blue moon I've written a freelance piece for healthinsurance.org, and I even wrote one piece for Cracked.com last year. Today I'm proud to announce that an article which I co-wrote with three other healthcare wonks (David Anderson, Louise Norris and Andrew Sprung) has been published by HealthAffairs:

Implications Of CMS Mandating A Broad Load Of CSR Costs

In October 2017, the Trump administration eliminated federal funding to reimburse insurers for cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidies, which they are obligated to provide to qualifying enrollees in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Marketplace. President Donald Trump had threatened to eliminate CSR funding throughout 2017, so insurers and insurance regulators in many states had anticipated the move by adding the cost of CSRs to premiums for 2018.

Louise Norris is an awesome source for all sorts of healthcare policy/insurance data, but she's especially on top of developments in her home state of Colorado, where she and her husband Jay run a small brokerage outlet.

Today Jay and Louise have a couple of interesting tidbits out of The Centennial State (yeah, I had to look up their nickname myself).

First, according to Jay (via the Connect for Health Colorado exchange itself), as of May 7, 2018, C4HCO had exactly 142,474 people enrolled in effectuated ACA exchange policies statewide. This is noteworthy mainly because 161,764 people selected Qualified Health Plan (QHP) policies during the 2018 Open Enrollment Period.

That's (sort of) an 88% retention rate through early May. I say "sort of" because this presumably includes some amount of churn (if 100 people drop coverage and 100 off-season enrollees sign up, that'd be a net change of zero). Even so, it's actually slightly better compared to prior years, when the national effectuation number had usually dropped to around 87% by the end of March.

Well, Keith Hall, Director of the Congressional Budget Office, just confirmed pretty much everything that we've been saying for a year or more now:

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), in section 1402, requires insurers who participate in the marketplaces established under that act to offer CSRs to eligible people who purchase silver plans through the marketplaces. CBO views that requirement as establishing an entitlement for thoseeligible.

To qualify for CSRs, people must purchase a plan through a marketplace and generally have income between 100 percent and 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines (also known as the federal poverty level, or FPL). The size of the subsidy varies with income.

CSRs reduce deductibles and other out-of-pocket expenses like copayments. For example, in 2017, by CBOs estimates, the average deductible for a single policyholder (for medical and drug expenses combined) with a silver plan varied according to income in the followingway:

A few weeks ago I posted an entry title, "Will Trump's HHS Dept. do the stupidest thing possible? Reply Hazy; Try Again Later."

The "stupidest thing possible" being referred to was whether or not CMS Administrator Seema Verma is planning on putting the kibosh on Silver Loading and the Silver Switcharoo starting in 2019:

The head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would not say Thursday if the Trump administration is considering setting limits on how insurers that sell Obamacare plans structure subsidies for their customers.

"I'm not going to comment on the agency's deliberations," CMS Administrator Seema Verma said when asked by the Washington Examiner about rumors that had circulated about the issue. When pressed about whether any conversations had occurred, Verma said, "I'm just going to leave it at that."

NOTE: I've modified the headline to clarify that it's CSR reimbursements which are dead, not the actual CSR subsidies. Those eligible for CSR assistance will still receive it from the insurance carriers..it's just that the carriers aren't/won't be reimbursed for doing so. In response, they've jacked up the premium rates on others to cover their losses.

And in the end...neither Alexander-Collins, Alexander-Murray, Collins-Nelson or any other "ACA stabilization bill" was included in the final version of the "must-pass" omnibus bill last night.

As I understand it, this means that unless a standalone bill of some sort passes, there will be no significant legislative changes to the ACA exchange/individual market status for the 2019 Open Enrollment Period at the federal level...and that's extremely unlikely to happen this year.

A few days ago I warned Congressional Democrats that while I agree that appropriating CSR reimbursement payments at this point would be a net negative move thanks to the clever Silver Load/Silver Switcharoo workaround developed last year, there's one possible cloud surrounding that silver lining, so to speak: What if the Trump Administration were to attempt to put the kibosh on Silver Loading altogether?

I don't know the legality of such a move, mind you, but It has been thrown around the rumor mill of late, so I figured I should remind them to keep that possibility in mind.

Well, today I received some reassurance...

Azar Says He Is Not Aware Of Discussions On Blocking ‘Silver-Loading’ in 2019

Note: This is more of a placeholder for the moment; it'll be updated as soon as the numbers are available.

At around 10:30am this morning, Covered California will be announcing their final, official 2018 ACA Open Enrollment Period numbers, along with other various demographic info.

Keep in mind that California is second only to Florida in terms of ACA exchange enrollees, with around 13% of the national total each year, so this is a big deal.

The most recent updates from the largest state-based exchange pegged their numbers at 1,542,000 QHP selections as of January 21st, including:

  • "more than" 1.2 million renewing enrollees, and
  • "more than" 342,000 new enrollees signing up.

Last year Covered CA's 1/31 total hit 1,556,676 (or just under 15,000 enrollees higher). In 2016 they had their all-time high of 1,575,340, so they'd have to have tacked on about 34,000 more over the final 10 days of Open Enrollment this year in order to beat their record.

Over at the Obamacare: What's Next? Facebook group, John Bruder raised an odd premium situation he ran across in Hawaii.

According to our CSR Load Load spreadsheet, Hawaii is supposed to be one of the 20-odd states using the full "Silver Switcharoo" strategy. It also has a single Rating Area, and only has two carriers (Kaiser and HMSA) participating in the individual market (on or off-exchange) anyway, making it a pretty easy state to run a full apples-to-apples year over year comparison.

Kaiser is offering a total of 11 plans on the ACA exchange (3 Bronze, 3 Silver, 3 Gold and 2 Platinum), while HMSA lists 10 (2 Bronze, 3 Silver, 3 Gold and 2 Platinum). I couldn't run a perfect comparison to 2017 since each carrier changed a couple of their offerings, but it's pretty darned close.

Until today, I operated under the assumption that my home state of Michigan was among the 18 states which took the "Silver Load" approach to dealing with the Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) cut-off by the Trump administration. Reviewing the SERFF rate filings of the various carriers participating in the individual market, it looked like most of them were loading the CSR cost onto both on and off-exchange Silver plans. I didn't check every single carrier, but that seemed to be the trend, so I filed the state under "Silver Load".

HOWEVER, earlier today, commenter "Cayo" chimed in to say:

I'm signing up for a plan off the exchange with Priority Health in Michigan. ON-Exchange, the plan is $365 a month, but off exchange (directly from their website), the price is $300 per month. I don't qualify for a subsidy, but it's still cheaper than my 2017 plan with BCBSM. That was the Multi-State Plan in Region 7 with Dental and Vision.

No one has been promoting the Silver Switcharoo option (in states which allow it) louder or more emphatically than I have for the past few weeks.

To summarize (again), this is where someone whose household income is too high for them to qualify for ACA tax credits (400% of the Federal Poverty Line) chooses an ACA-compliant off-exchange Silver plan instead, which is either identical or nearly identical to the same on-exchange policy in every way except that the additional CSR load hasn't been tacked onto it.

Here's a perfect example found by Louise Norris...ironically, this is via Priority Health here in Michigan, which (until today) I thought was a "Silver Load" state, not "Silver Switcharoo". I'll have to do some more research to be sure, but it sounds like at least one MI carrier (Priority) is going full Switch:

 

I've written a lot in recent weeks about the real world impact that Trump cutting off CSR reimbursement payments will have on 2018 premiums in various states depending on how they choose to load the additional cost. As I've noted repeatedly, there are basically four strategies they can take: They can assume the payments will continue; they can spread the load across all ACA-compliant policies; they can load all of the cost onto Silver plans only; or they can load all of the cost onto on-exchange Silver plans only, while also creating (if one doesn't exist) a special off-exchange-only Silver plan as a backstop for unsubsidized Silver enrollees (aka the "Silver Switcharoo").

As of this writing, most states have gone with the third or fourth of these options, but a handful are still pursuing the first or second.

A healthcare wonk-blogger colleague, Andrew Sprung of Xpostfactoid, described the four CSR loading strategies as The Four Sons from the Passover Seder:

A week or so ago, David Anderson, Louise Norris, Andrew Sprung and I co-wrote an article explaining how different states were planning on handling 2018 individual market pricing given the massive uncertainty surrounding ongoing Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) reimbursement payments.

Our timing couldn't have been more fortuitous: Less than 48 hours after we posted the piece, Donald Trump announced that, sure enough, he's finally following through on his threat to pull the plug on CSR payments, effective immediately.

Covered California (CA's ACA exchange) just issued the following press release:

Covered California Keeps Premiums Stable by Adding Cost-Sharing Reduction Surcharge Only to Silver Plans to Limit Consumer Impact

  • In the absence of a federal commitment to continue funding cost-sharing reduction (CSR) reimbursements through the upcoming year, Covered California health insurance companies will add a surcharge to Silver-tier products in 2018.
  • However, because the surcharge will only be applied to Silver-tier plans, nearly four out of five consumers will see their premiums stay the same or decrease, since the amount of financial help they receive will also rise. Those who do not get financial help will not have to pay a surcharge.
  • Financial help means that in 2018, nearly 60 percent of subsidy-eligible enrollees will have access to Silver coverage for less than $100 per month — the same as it was in 2017 — and 74 percent can purchase Bronze coverage for less than $10 per month.
  • California and individual markets across the nation still need a clear commitment that the federal government will continue to make CSR payments to promote lower premiums, save taxpayer money and ensure health insurance companies participate.

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