The third open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act, best known as Obamacare, has been ongoing for roughly five weeks now. And as seems to be the trend around this time of year, more questions than answers appear to be swirling around healthcare's law of the land.
Big changes lead to an uncertain future
Obamacare is facing a number of changes in the 2016 calendar year, and, frankly, no one is certain yet how those changes might affect enrollment or patient mix for insurers.
For example, insurance premiums are rising at about their fastest rate in about a decade. The Great Recession held premium rate inflation in check for years, but the failure of more than half of Obamacare's health cooperatives, coupled with many low-cost insurers coming to the realization that their rates were unsustainably low, are leading to big premium hikes in the upcoming year.
Data from the Washington Examiner showed that 231 insurers requested double-digit percentage premium price hikes in 2016 compared to just 121 in 2015. Furthermore, the magnitude of these hikes -- 61 plans are looking for a minimum premium increase of 30% this year -- is much higher than 2015. In short, there's concern that higher premiums could reduce the affordability of the program for those who don't qualify for a subsidy, leading to a higher uninsured rate.
Meanwhile, the employer mandate will be fully implemented on Jan. 1, 2016. The employer mandate will require that businesses with 50 or more full-time-equivalent employees (FTE's) offer eligible health coverage to those FTE's and their dependents under the age of 26, as well as provide financial assistance in instances where low-income FTE's would be paying more than 9.5% of their modified adjusted gross income out of pocket toward their premium. If qualifying businesses fail to follow the rules, they could be looking at a $2,000 to $3,000 fine per employee.
The big question here is how businesses will respond. Will bigger companies step up and supply health insurance for their workers or will we see layoffs, hour cutbacks, or a move to private health exchanges?
Obamacare's big changes in 2016 are leading to a seemingly uncertain enrollment outlook in the near term.
Obamacare's incredibly important goal that you probably overlooked
The easiest way to measure the success of Obamacare has always been by its overall enrollment totals. Obamacare was first and foremost designed to reduce the number of uninsured and to utilize the individual mandate and employer mandate to make that happen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in Q1 2015 that just 9.2% of U.S. adults remained uninsured, including Medicare patients, which is the lowest figure on record. By this token, Obamacare would appear to be hitting its primary goal.
But there's an even more important long-term goal that's often lost on critics when discussing Obamacare's success or failure -- namely, the impact that preventative (and earlier) medical access could have on reducing long-term medical costs.
For insurers, Obamacare is a bit of a give and take. Insurers are enrolling more people than ever, and they're also being required to accept members with pre-existing conditions. The result is that some insurers, such as the nation's largest, UnitedHealth Group, are dealing with adverse selection and losing money on their individual marketplace plans because they've enrolled a large number of sicker individuals. Even though some of its large peers such as Anthem are healthfully profitable, the margins most insurers are generating on Obamacare plans (if they're even profitable in the first place) are relatively small.
Now here's the catch: In exchange for spending more money on their members up front, it's possible that chronic and serious diseases that are the primary expense culprit for insurance companies can be caught before they become a serious issue. Thus, while health benefit providers may be spending more now than they would like to, their long-term outlook is also looking brighter presuming the current generation of members is now going to be healthier than the last generation given expanded access to medical care.
This could be the outcome we've been waiting for
This last point sounds great on paper, but it's difficult to prove that Obamacare is really making a dent in lowering long-term healthcare costs, especially since it's only been the law of the land for about two years. All that consumers and critics can focus on at the moment are the rapidly rising premium prices.
However, a new study from the American Cancer society that was published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association late last month appears to show that there is a correlation between Obamacare's expansion and a higher rate of cervical cancer diagnoses in select patients.
Researchers from the Department of Epidemiology at Emory University and from the ACS' Department of Intramural Research analyzed a large database of cancer cases within the United States, separating cervical cancer diagnoses for women ages 21 to 25 in one group from cervical cancer diagnoses in women ages 26 to 34 in the other cohort. The reasoning behind this split? Persons under the age of 26 are still eligible to be covered under their parents' health plan under Obamacare, and thus the expansion of this dependent clause should give researchers a reasonable correlation of how well Obamacare is affecting the rate of cervical cancer diagnoses.
After examining cervical cancer diagnosis rates for both cohorts before and after the implementation of Obamacare, researchers noted that there was a substantial increase in the number of cervical cancer diagnoses for women ages 21 to 25, whereas the age 26-34 cohort had a relatively consistent number of diagnoses before and after Obamacare's implementation.
On the surface, a rising rate of cervical cancer diagnoses may not sound good at all. But, in a different context it could be just the news we've been hoping for. The key to beating cervical cancer is discovering it early, and presumably being able to stay on their parents' health plans until age 26 helped the 21- to 25-year-old cohort gain this vital medical access. It's possible that this early diagnoses not only saved lives, but for insurers that it kept them from shelling out big bucks in mid- to late-stage cancer treatments.
Keep in mind that this is just one example, and one example does not make a trend. However, it's long been postulated that reducing the barriers to health insurance would lead to a higher medical utilization rate for consumers and a better chance of discovering potentially serious and chronic conditions at an earlier time, thus saving the patients' lives and cutting insurers' long-term medical expenses. It's possible we could be witnessing the first signs of that.
Understandably, we'll want to see additional studies emerge that examine disease diagnosis and treatment rates in a pre- and post-Obamacare setting so we can make a conclusive ruling as to whether or not Obamacare could actually lower long-term healthcare costs and improve long-term patient survival rates. The initial signs, though, are very encouraging.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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