Healthcare.gov enrollment declines; plan affordability a factor

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that in 2018, 5 percent fewer people enrolled in healthcare.gov individual market health insurance plans available on the exchanges than in 2017, most attributable to plan affordability. The GAO noted that premiums increased more than expected in 2018, detracting from enrollment. Conversely, larger tax credits helped exchange enrollment. Additionally, the report found that HHS reduced its consumer outreach for the 2018 open enrollment period (GAO Report, GAO 18-565, July 24, 2018).

Background

The exchanges, established by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-149) allow consumers to enroll during an annual open enrollment period. HHS, along with other agencies, conduct outreach for the open enrollment period to encourage enrollment. The GAO report examined both outreach and enrollment for the exchanges using healthcare.gov.

According to the report, about 8.7 million consumers enrolled in heathcare.gov plans during the open enrollment period for 2018 coverage, five percent less than the 9.2 million enrolled for 2017 coverage. This decline represents a trend from the 2016 plan year, when 9.6 million consumers enrolled in these plans. Moreover, in 2018, enrollees new to healthcare.gov coverage comprised a smaller proportion of total enrollees in 2018 compared to 2017.

Affordability

Plan affordability likely played a “major role” in 2018 exchange enrollment. For example, in 2018, premiums across all healthcare.gov plans increased by an average of 30 percent. The GAO stated that because of the premium increases, plans were less affordable as compared to 2017 for exchange consumers without advance premium tax credits. Most stakeholders interviewed chalked up lower enrollment to decreased affordability of plans.

Although premium affordability reportedly played a role in enrollment, interviews with shareholders revealed that other factors likely affected 2018 healthcare.gov exchange enrollment. Many reported that there was consumer confusion about the ACA and its status, including the possibility or repeal or replace. As a result, the confusion played a “major role” in detracting from 2018 healthcare.gov enrollment. Other shareholders, however, dismissed this viewpoint, pointing to other factors for the decline.

As for consumer outreach, the report revealed that HHS drastically reduced the amount it spent on paid advertising, a 90 percent reduction, compared with advertising spending for the 2017 open enrollment period. Notwithstanding, HHS declared its advertising campaign in 2018 success. The GAO found that HHS reduced navigator funding by 42 percent for the 2018 open enrollment period compared to 2017. According to HHS, this was the result in a shift in its priorities, specifically HHS using a narrower approach and with “problematic data.” This included some consumer application data HHS acknowledged was unreliable and some “navigator organization-reported goal data that were based on an unclear description of the goal, and which HHS and navigator organizations likely interpreted differently.”

No targets

HHS did not set numeric enrollment targets for open enrollment in 2018, as it had in the past. According to the report, the lack of these numeric targets hampered HHS’ ability to evaluate its performance related to the specific open enrollment period, which in turn made it more difficult for HHS to make informed decisions related to its resources.

The GAO recommended that the HHS ensure that the data it uses to determine navigator organization awards is accurate, and recommended that HHS set numeric enrollment targets. Additionally, the GAO recommended that the HHS assess other aspects of the consumer experience. HHS agreed with all but the recommendation to set numeric enrollment targets

Democratic lawmakers question move to shut down HealthCare.gov during open enrollment

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md), the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill), the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Health Care, Benefits, and Administrative Rules, are pressing the Trump Administration on its apparent decision to shut down HealthCare.gov during the upcoming open enrollment season.

Earlier, the Trump Administration announced that it would conduct maintenance outages from midnight to noon Eastern Standard Time on all but one Sunday during the upcoming open enrollment period and that it would shut down HealthCare.gov on Wednesday, November 1, 2017, the first day of open enrollment.

Why wasn’t the work done earlier? On September 29, the Congressmen sent a letter requesting documents and information relating to the decision by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to schedule outages of the website at that particular time. Cummings and Krishnamoorthi pointed out that HHS has had the entire year to conduct routine maintenance without any disruption purchasers of healthcare plans through HealthCare.gov during the open enrollment period. Moreover, this year’s open enrollment period was reduced from 90 days to 45 days. And prior enrollment periods that lasted twice as long reportedly required fewer maintenance outages, according to the lawmakers.

Cumming and Krishnmoorthi also noted that there were earlier reports that the Trump Administration has withdrawn funding for open enrollment advertising and outreach as well as for the ACA’s Navigator program.

After the House of Representatives failed to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148) in March, President Donald Trump argued that “the best thing we can do politically speaking is let Obamacare explode.”

Questions. Cummings and Krishnamoorthi requested documents and communications to address several questions, including:

  • What technical issues warrant shutting down HealthCare.gov during this year’s open enrollment period, and when were they identified?
  • What steps is the HHS taking to ensure that people are fully informed of when these outages will occur?
  • When were you made aware of the days and times for the scheduled website downtime during this year’s open enrollment period?
  • How was the decision made to shut down the website on Sundays from midnight to noon?
  • What alternatives to scheduled outages were considered? What, if any, consideration was given to the website traffic during that period in other time zones?

“Unfortunately,” the lawmakers wrote, “in addition to undermining the ACA, the Trump Administration’s recent actions may harm many Americans who are seeking to obtain health insurance to protect themselves and their families.”

Webinar: Delay, Deregulate, Derail — Health Care Roiled by Actions of Trump and Congress

Since January, both President Trump and Republican leaders in Congress have talked about a three-step process for repealing and replacing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). While the first six months of the Trump administration has seen mixed results, its efforts to reign in or hold back regulations, combined with its delay in filling lower-level agency roles, has impacted regulatory review and issuance of new regulations. So, despite Congress’ inability to pass legislation to change parts of the ACA, there is still plenty for providers to be concerned about.

Join Associate Managing Editor Kathryn Beard, JD, on Wednesday, August 2, for this half-hour live webinar covering attempts by the Trump Administration and Congress to delay, deregulate, and derail significant parts of federal health policy. She will discuss the two “repeal and replace” bills, FDARA, and significant executive and regulatory actions taken by the Trump administration which directly impact ACA provisions.

Registration Link:

Preventing and fighting surprise medical billing: steps consumers should take

Thirty-two percent of insured individuals who had problems paying medical bills reported receiving care from an out-of-network provider that their insurance did not cover, while 69 percent of those individuals said they were not aware that the provider was not in their plan’s network when they received the care, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) survey published in January 2016. Betsy Imholz, special projects director and a surprise medical bill expert at Consumer Reports, noted in a January 17, 2017, article that “the problem is only growing worse as our healthcare system grows more complex and more insurance companies narrow the network of doctors they contract with or shift to insurance plans that eliminate coverage for out-of-network services.”

What is a surprise medical bill?

A medical bill that an insured individual receives from an out-of-network provider when the individual is unaware that the provider is out-of–network is referred to as a “surprise medical bill.” Out-of-network providers may charge patients whatever they choose and may bill the patient for the amounts that were not paid by the patient’s health plan, referred to as a “balance bill.”

According to a March 2017 KFF report on surprise medical bills, such bills may arise from an emergency when the individual does not have the ability to select providers. Often, emergency room (ER) physicians do not participate in the same health plan networks as the hospitals where they work. In addition, the patient may not have had the ability to choose the hospital or the ambulance provider. In situations when a patient receives planned care, such as a planned surgery from an in-network provider (for example, a hospital or ambulatory surgical center), other providers involved in the surgery may not be in the same network. In many nonemergency situations, the in-network provider rather than the patient arranges for the other providers participating in the procedure or treatment. Such providers may include anesthesiologists, radiologists, pathologists, and surgical assistants.

What consumers can do

Individuals can prevent surprise medical bills by avoiding receiving services from out-of-network providers, when possible, and fight surprise medical bills after receiving them. A Center on Health Insurance Reforms (CHIR) report identified the following steps for patients to take to prevent unexpected charges:

  • Use provider directories and other plan provided information to identify in-network providers;
  • Ask providers if they are in the patient’s health plan network;
  • After receiving a balance bill, the patient should review the plan’s explanation of benefits and notices about consumers rights;
  • Before paying a balance bill, the patient should contact the health plan and the provider to find out if the plan is willing to pay the bill and/or if the provider will accept a lesser amount; and
  • Contact the state insurance department to see if there is a remedy under  state law.

Additional tips for patients were addressed in an April 6, 2017, article in Consumer Reports written by Donna Rosato. In cases of emergency care or if ambulance service is needed, Rosato recommended the individual to ask the first responders or ER doctors to provide documentation confirming that the individual had no choice and transport by ambulance was medically necessary. She noted, however, as a preventive measure, that individuals find out, before needing to go to an ER, which nearby hospitals are in-network and which ER physicians are in-network. Then, in an emergency, if possible, the individual can request to be taken to an in-network ER. In nonemergency situations, such as a planned surgery, Rosato also suggested that individuals obtain a list from the doctor’s billing staff (and hospital) of other providers that may be part of the procedure or treatments such as an anesthesiologist, radiologist, and pathologist. Then contact the insurance plan and ask if the providers identified are in-network. If the providers are out-of-network, the individual should notify the attending physician and request providers who are in-network.