The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released their highly anticipated updated report on the American Health Care Act (AHCA) on Wednesday, showing that the bill would save the government $119 billion and that an additional 23 million would be uninsured to bring a total of 51 million Americans without insurance. This amounts to a net increase of 3 million additional uninsured from before the ACA was signed into law, when 48 million didn’t have coverage. The previous score released in March projected that the bill would save the government $150 billion (revised down from an initial savings of $337 billion) and would lead to 24 million newly uninsured. The CBO is the nonpartisan group tasked with determining the cost of legislation to the federal government, both in a loss of revenue and increase in spending.
The updated report was necessitated by the adoption of several amendments to the AHCA from the last time the bill had been scored. The most prominent of these was the amendment offered by Representative Tom MacArthur (R-NJ) to allow states to receive a waiver to opt out of the ACA’s essential health benefits and age and community rating provisions. These waivers would be contingent on reducing average premiums, increasing enrollment, stabilizing the market, stabilizing premiums for individuals with pre-existing conditions, or increasing the choice of health plans. In turn, states could propose one of the following:
Increase the state’s age-rating bands. The state must specify a higher age-rating band, generally defaulted at 5:1 under other sections of the AHCA, although states could opt for higher ratios.
Establish state-based requirements for essential health benefits (EHBs) in the individual and small group markets beginning in 2020. The state must precisely specify both the benefit categories and the specific benefits within the categories. This could include overriding the ACA’s prohibitions of lifetime and annual limits and cap on out-of-pocket expenditures, which could also be applied to large group and self-insured employer plans.
Permit insurers to price policies based on health status. This substitutes the AHCA’s original continuous coverage incentive’s late-enrollment penalty to allow insurers to charge higher premiums for consumers who do not maintain continuous coverage (defined as a lapse of 63 days+ over 12 months). It is important to note that the amendment would not allow states to automatically rate up consumers with pre-existing conditions. The amendment only allows for insurers to underwrite consumers with pre-existing conditions if they do not have continuous coverage in states where a waiver has met all conditions to be approved.
Waivers may be approved for a period of up to 10 years, providing they continue to meet the conditions of the waiver, and any waiver submitted by a state would be automatically approved if they are not notified of a denial within 60-days of submission. Waivers that seek to permit health status underwriting would also be contingent on the state providing financial assistance to high-risk individuals to obtain individual market coverage, providing incentives to appropriate entities to help stabilize premiums, and participating in the “Federal Invisible Risk Sharing Program,” which includes $15 billion in federal funding between 2018 and 2026 as a reinsurance mechanism to reimburse insurers for high-cost plan enrollees.
The invisible risk sharing funding was joined by two additional high-risk funding pools to bring a total of $138 billion in the amended bill overall. The original bill included $100 billion over 10 years for the Patient and State Stability Fund, and in addition to the $15 billion in invisible risk sharing, the two other amendments passed since the bill was initially considered in March include $15 billion for funding for maternity, mental health, and substance abuse care, and $8 billion specifically added for additional high-risk pool funding as a result of the MacArthur Amendment. The CBO report cautions that this funding would have a small effect and not be sufficient to reduce large increases for high-cost enrollees. For comparison, the report notes that the ACA’s pre-existing condition insurance pool covered 100,000 enrollees at a cost of $2.5 billion over two years. Further, the Patient and State Stability Fund would require significant funding by states in the out-years; states would initially only be required to provide 7% of matching funds, but this would grow to 50% required by 2026.
With these amendments and the increased state flexibility for how the AHCA would now be implemented at the state level, the CBO performed an extensive analysis of the impact of the legislation. Overall, the CBO found that it would result in a net savings to the federal government of $119 billion, a result of $1.1 trillion in reduced spending over 10 years while revenues would be reduced by $992 billion. The bulk of the reduced spending, $834 billion, comes from repealing the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and another $236 billion comes from replacing the current advanced premium tax credits ($665 billion) with less generous tax credits in the AHCA ($375 billion).
The reduced revenue is largely due to repealing the majority of the ACA’s taxes (a loss of $664 billion in revenue), of which $275 billion would come from eliminating the net investment tax, $145 billion from the health insurance tax (HIT), and additional lost revenue from taxes unrelated to health coverage proposals. The CBO also projects that delaying the Cadillac/excise tax until fiscal year (FY) 2025, as written in the AHCA, would cost the federal government $49 billion in lost revenue. Revenue would further be reduced by effectively eliminating the ACA’s individual and employer mandates by reducing those penalties to $0, although they would still statutorily exist. The employer mandate makes up most of this at $171 billion, while individual penalties would result in $38 billion in lost revenue.
The biggest cause of the increase in the uninsured rate is due to the elimination of these penalties. As with the previous report, the new report estimates that 14 million Americans would become newly uninsured next year under the AHCA, gradually increasing to 23 million for a total of 51 uninsured by 2026. The AHCA as amended would not result in as many individuals losing employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) as previously estimated. The CBO projects that there would be 1 million fewer people enrolled in ESI in 2020 (compared to 2 million in the previous estimate) and by 2026 there would be 3 million fewer enrolled in ESI, compared to 7 million as previously projected. The revised estimates are largely due to individual health insurance being far less comprehensive and individuals opting to enroll in employer coverage instead to avoid higher out-of-pocket expenses.
The employer-based market currently enrolls more than 175 million Americans in health insurance coverage and NAHU strongly supports measures to maintain this system. As with the previous CBO report, NAHU remains concerned about the impact of the AHCA on ESI. The new report reiterates the previous assumption, which projected a gradual erosion of ESI, stating that over time, some employers would decline to offer insurance to their employees due to the loss of the mandate penalties and because the AHCA’s tax credits would be available to a broader group of individuals than those under the ACA. It expects that both employers and employees would decide against coverage, with some employers opting to drop coverage as employees would be eligible for tax credits, and some individuals who are offered ESI choosing not to enroll given the absence of tax penalties for being uninsured. Notably, previous CBO reports similarly expected that the ACA would result in a drop in employer-based coverage, a projection that has not materialized.
The report notes that premiums would generally be lower in the individual market because the health plans would be less comprehensive and cover fewer benefits and a smaller share of healthcare costs for the consumer. Additionally, there would be considerable cost-shifting on enrollees with significantly more out-of-pocket expenses, particularly those enrollees who use services that are no longer covered by plans, who would see substantial increases in out-of-pocket expenses. The CBO projects that consumers in this situation, such as those who require expensive prescription drugs no longer covered by health plans, could have increases of thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses each year. Some consumers may choose to purchase policies with riders for specific conditions for this reason, particularly for maternity coverage.
The report notes that while premiums would generally go down for individual market insurance, net premiums after factoring for tax credits would range considerably depending on the particular consumer. Older people with lower incomes would see dramatic increases in their net premiums, while younger people with lower incomes would see little change, and people with higher incomes would see their net premiums reduced as they could access tax credits previously unavailable to them. And while overall more individuals will be able to access the tax credits under the AHCA, those subsides are far less generous than those under the ACA. The report illustrates the effect on a 64-year-old at 175% of the poverty level; under current law with a $15,300 premium, they would have a tax credit of $13,600 and a net premium of $1,700; under the AHCA’s flat tax credits, they would only be eligible for a tax credit of $4,900 and with an adjusted premium of $21,000, they would face a net cost of $16,100 in premiums alone—nearly ten-fold over the ACA and roughly 60% of their total annual income on health insurance premiums alone.
Additionally, some individuals may be able to purchase policies that would have no net cost to them, as the existence of a baseline level of tax credits could encourage some insurers to offer skinny plans at the value of the tax credit. However, the CBO cautions that these plans would effectively not provide enough financial protection in the event of catastrophic care needs to legitimately be considered insurance.
The CBO effectively made three separate estimates based on how states could respond to the AHCA as passed with the MacArthur Amendment. The first is the group of states that choose not to apply for waivers, which cover roughly half of the population, and would likely be among the seven states that prohibited medical underwriting before the ACA. The second is those that apply for limited waivers, which cover a third of the population, and would be likely be among the 11 states that had limitations on medical underwriting. And the third is states that apply for waivers to significantly modify EHBs and community rating rules, which cover a sixth of the population, and are among the 32 states that had no limitations on medical underwriting. States with lower premiums would generally fall with those that eliminate one or more EHB categories that were not typically available prior to the ACA.
The AHCA would bring needed stability for much of the country’s health insurance markets; however, states that choose to pursue the waivers created under the MacArthur Amendment would conversely become more destabilized. The states that opt for waivers to allow for medical underwriting or to modify their EHBs to eliminate the ACA’s ban on annual and lifetime limits would lead to significant increases in expenses for some consumers. The CBO notes that many of these individuals with pre-existing conditions could face markets where coverage would be either prohibitively expensive or they might not be able to purchase coverage at all. Additionally, many consumers move in and out of the individual market as access to insurance changes and many of these could fail to meet the continuous coverage requirement. As healthier consumers move to medically underwritten plans, the community-rated plans will become increasingly filled with less healthy consumers, and therefore become increasingly more destabilized.
The updated CBO report marks an important milestone for the AHCA. Republicans tasked themselves with coming up with a reconciliation bill that would reduce the deficit by a minimum of $2 billion over 10 years. After passing the AHCA as amended without an updated score, the House had initially delayed sending it over to the Senate to ensure that it would meet the benchmarks laid out in the reconciliation instructions. Had the CBO report indicated that the bill didn’t meet these requirements, the House would have had to once again vote on an updated bill that would meet them. And had the bill already been enrolled by the Senate with a score that didn’t meet the requirements, they would no longer have been able to use the FY 2017 reconciliation vehicle for healthcare and either would have had to use the FY 2018 reconciliation vehicle they planned for tax reform, or wait until next year to try again. Because the new score by the CBO meets the requirement by projecting a net savings of $119 billion, the bill can now be enrolled with the Senate and they can formally begin deliberations on their version of health reform.