2017 Renewal of Individual and Family Medical Plans

Insurance companies are mailing renewal information for individual and family policies, both benefit and premium changes. Some of the benefit changes are positive, some are not but most of these changes are dictated by The Affordable Care Act (ACA) commonly referred to as Obamacare. In most cases the premium increases are very substantial. I do not have complete rates for all the insurance companies as of yet.

Changes for 2017 cannot be made until November 1st for an effective date of January 1, 2017.

The individual health insurance market is shrinking. I will be setting phone appointments to begin on November to review plans. I strongly encourage that you to contact me. If you want to set a phone appointment with me, please respond to this e mail now and I will send you dates and times as options beginning in November.

Before your phone appointment, I will need to know the exact spelling of the names of doctors you want to continue to see, including their zip code. I will also need the exact spelling of any medications you need and the dosage.

If you believe you may be eligible for a subsidy through Covered California, I need to know your Estimated Modified Adjusted Gross Income for 2017. If you do not report a 2017 amount, I cannot complete a Covered California application as it will not be accepted into their system. I would encourage you to have a discussion with your tax professional. I need this information at the time of a phone appointment.

Some Grandfathered plans will be discontinued in 2017, we need to discuss replacement of those plans.

Blue Shield of California Individual and Family Plan 2017 Renewal

Blue Shield of California will be mailing your renewal information, both benefit and premium changes. Some of the benefit changes are positive, some are not but most of these changes are dictated by The Affordable Care Act (ACA) commonly referred to as Obamacare. In most cases the premium increases are very substantial. I do not have complete rates for all the insurance companies as of yet but I am told the rate increases will be much the same.

Here is what needs to be done:

Changes for 2017 cannot be made until November 1st for an effective date of January 1, 2017. You have to wait until November 1st.

The individual health insurance market is shrinking. I will be setting phone appointments to begin on November 1st to review your plan. I strongly encourage you to contact me. If you want to set a  phone appointment with me, please respond to this e mail and I will send you dates and times as options.

Before your phone appointment, I will need to know the exact spelling of the names of doctors you want to continue to see, including their zip code. I will also need the exact spelling of any medications you need and the dosage.

If you believe you may be eligible for a subsidy through Covered California, I need to know your Estimated Modified Adjusted Gross Income for 2017. The 2016 guide is attached for reference. The 2017 figures should be very close. If you do not report a 2017 amount, I cannot complete a Covered California application as it will not be accepted into their system. I would encourage you to have a discussion with your tax professional. I need this information at the time of a phone appointment.

Some Grandfathered plans will be discontinued in 2017, we need to discuss replacement of those plans.

 

2017 Individual and Family Medical Plans Require a Primary Care Physician

Beginning January 1, 2017 all individual and family health plans in California will require that members select a Primary Care Physician (PCP) or have one recommended by their health plan.

The terminology used in this case is confusing. A PCP has historically been a physician who is associated with an HMO which limits your choice. This is not the case in this instance.

You must choose a general physician who is in the network of your insurance company. If you do not choose a physician the insurance company will assign one to you. I know that at least one company will review your claims history in order to assign a physician that you have seen in the past.

YOU DO NOT EVER NEED TO SEE THE PHYSICIAN CHOSEN

YOU CAN CHANGE THE PHYSICIAN AT ANY TIME

The thought behind this is that if one is attached to a name of a physician, it is less likely that one will go to Urgent Care or the Emergency Room. An office visit or a phone call supposedly will lower health care spending.

In Summary, choose a physician or have one chosen for you.

Rate Increases for 2017 Medical Insurance Plans

There will be a significant rate increase for 2017 plans. The reasons given are the end of funding that was available in the first three years to offset rates, the rise in specialty medication and claims from those who enroll during Special Enrollment Periods.

In regard to the specialty medication, sometimes pharmaceutical companies are raising prices of medications when the need for a medication increases. Newer specialty medications can approach $100,000 per course of treatment and/or per year.

Below is the press release from Covered California on July 19, 2016

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Covered California unveiled its rates for 2017 on Tuesday and announced that some health insurance plans will be expanding into new areas throughout the state to compete for consumers in California.

The statewide weighted average change will be 13.2 percent, up from approximately four percent in each of the last two years. However, most consumers will see a much smaller increase — or pay less next year — if they switch to another plan.

“Shopping is going to be more important this year than ever before,” Covered California Executive Director Peter V. Lee said. “Almost 80 percent of our consumers will either be able to pay less than they are paying now, or see their rates go up by no more than 5 percent, if they shop and buy the lowest-cost plan at their same benefit level. That’s the power of shopping.”

Lee said the opportunities to shop and save show that California has succeeded in building a competitive marketplace for health insurance, with rate increases that are still below trends in the individual market before the Affordable Care Act was passed.

“This is a new era of health care, where the consumer is in the driver’s seat with the power to look easily for a better deal, and where subsidies help absorb the impact of rate changes,” Lee said. “These options did not exist before the Affordable Care Act.”

Some consumers who choose to keep their plan will see a significant increase in their premium for 2017, while others will see a more modest increase, depending on where they live and what insurance plan they have. Consumers will begin receiving notices in October, when they will have an opportunity to review their new rates and change plans for their 2017 health coverage.

For many of those insured, the bulk of the premium increase will be absorbed by the subsidy paid by the government to help enrollees buy health insurance. Approximately 90 percent of Covered California enrollees get help to pay for their premiums. The average subsidy covers roughly 77 percent of the consumer’s monthly premium, and while premiums will rise, the subsidies will rise as well.

“Even though the average rate increase is larger this year than the last two years, the three-year average increase is 7 percent — substantially better than rate trends before the Affordable Care Act was enacted,” Lee said.

Lee said the average rate increase reflects the cost of medical care for consumers, not excessive profit.

“Under the new rules of the Affordable Care Act, insurers face strict limits on the amount of profit they can make selling health insurance,” Lee said. “So, while all plans are experiencing different cost pressures, we can be confident their rate increases are directly linked to health care costs, not administration or profit, which averaged 1.5 percent across our contracted plans.”

For consumers who get a tax credit to lower their costs — which is about 90 percent of those who sign up through Covered California — the amount they pay is impacted not only by the premium choice, but by changes in their tax credit. While the average rate increase is higher than past years, Covered California’s risk mix — the ratio of consumers who are healthy vs. sick — remains one of the best in the nation according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Programs-and-Initiatives/Premium-Stabilization-Programs/index.html).

Other reasons for rate increases include:
A one-year adjustment due to the end of a funding mechanism in the Affordable Care Act known as reinsurance, which was designed to moderate rate increases during the first three years when exchanges were being established. The American Academy of Actuaries estimates this will add between 4 percent and 7 percent to premiums for 2017.
Special enrollment by some consumers who may be enrolling in health insurance only after they become sick or need care, which seems to have had a significant impact on rates for two insurance plans.
The rising cost of health care, especially specialty drugs.
Pent-up demand for health care now being accessed by those who were locked out of the health care system before the Affordable Care Act was enacted.
Lee said Covered California is working to address some of these issues on multiple fronts. The exchange is aggressively marketing to attract healthy consumers year-round, and it is working to ensure special enrollment is available only to those who meet qualifying circumstances. It is also sampling the special enrollment population to better understand how to make any further improvements needed.

“We work hard to build a robust exchange that drives competition by attracting as many consumers as possible,” Lee said. “Now, consistent with the vision of the Affordable Care Act, we will redouble our efforts to make sure our consumers and potential consumers understand the importance of signing up during open enrollment and remaining covered throughout the year.”

Lee said Covered California’s 11 health insurers are competing across the state for its 1.4 million members.

“The sheer number of enrollees and their overall health means consumers in the individual market are benefiting from competition,” Lee said.

Below is the complete list of the companies selected for the 2017 exchange:
Anthem Blue Cross of California
Blue Shield of California
Chinese Community Health Plan
Health Net
Kaiser Permanente
L.A. Care Health Plan
Molina Healthcare
Oscar Health Plan of California
Sharp Health Plan
Valley Health Plan
Western Health Advantage
Rate details by pricing regions can be found in “Covered California’s Health Insurance Companies and Plan Rates for 2017,” posted online at:http://coveredca.com/news/pdfs/CoveredCA-2017-rate-booklet.pdf

The preliminary rates are subject to a 60-day public comment period and regulatory review by the California Department of Managed Health Care. In addition, the California Department of Insurance will review Health Net’s EPO.

Some insurance carriers will be increasing their coverage areas in 2017:
Oscar will be entering the market in San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
Molina will expand into Orange County.
Kaiser will be available in Santa Cruz County.
With the expansion of its current carriers, almost all consumers (92.6 percent) will be able to choose from three or more carriers, and all will have at least two to select from.

In addition, more than 93 percent of hospitals in California will be available through at least one Covered California health insurance company in 2017, and 74 percent will be available in three or more plans.

Covered California also is improving its patient-centered benefit designs by increasing a consumer’s access to care by reducing the number of services that are subject to a consumer’s deductible.

Starting in 2017, consumers in Silver 70 plans will save as much as $55 on an urgent care visit and $10 on a primary care visit. In addition, consumers in Silver, Gold and Platinum plans will pay a flat copay for emergency room visits without having to satisfy a deductible, which could save them thousands of dollars.

These improvements build on features already in place that ensure most outpatient services in Silver, Gold and Platinum plans are not subject to a deductible, including primary care visits, specialist visits, lab tests, X-rays and imaging. In addition, some Enhanced Silver plans have little or no deductible and very low copays, such as $3 for an office visit. Even consumers in Covered California’s most affordable Bronze plans are allowed to see their doctor or a specialist three times before the visits are subject to the deductible.

In addition, the contract with health insurers for 2017 ensures consumers select or are provisionally assigned a primary care physician within 60 days of effectuation so they have an established source of care.

“Health care reform isn’t just about making insurance affordable, it’s about doing things to make it easier for consumers to get the right care at the right time,” Lee said.

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that California’s uninsured rate had fallen to 8.1 percent at the end of 2015, down from 17 percent at the end of 2013, right before the Affordable Care Act began offering coverage.

“We can all be very proud of the extraordinary gains we have made in reducing California’s uninsured rate to a historic low,” Lee said.

About Covered California
Covered California is the state’s marketplace for the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Covered California, in partnership with the California Department of Health Care Services, helps individuals determine whether they are eligible for premium assistance that is available on a sliding-scale basis to reduce insurance costs or whether they are eligible for low-cost or no-cost Medi-Cal. Consumers can then compare health insurance plans and choose the plan that works best for their health needs and budget. Small businesses can purchase competitively priced health insurance plans and offer their employees the ability to choose from an array of plans and may qualify for federal tax credits.

Covered California is an independent part of the state government whose job is to make the new market work for California’s consumers. It is overseen by a five-member board appointed by the Governor and the Legislature. For more information about Covered California, please visit www.CoveredCA.com.

This article is from the Los Angeles Times date July 20, 2016

California Obamacare rates to jump

Premiums are set to go up an average of 13.2% next year. Rising medical costs are one reason, officials say.

BY MELODY PETERSEN AND NOAM N. LEVEY

Premiums for Californians’ Obamacare health coverage will rise an average of 13.2% next year — more than three times the increase of the last two years and a jump that is bound to stir debate in an election year.

The big increases come after two years in which California officials had boasted that the program helped insure hundreds of thousands people in the state while keeping costs moderately in check.

Premiums in the insurance program called Covered California rose just 4% in 2016 after rising 4.2% in 2015 — the first year that exchange officials negotiated with insurers. The program insures 1.4 million Californians.

On Tuesday, officials blamed next year’s premium hikes in the program on rising costs of medical care, including expensive specialty drugs and the end of a mechanism that held down rates for the first three years of Obamacare.

Two of the state’s biggest insurers — Blue Shield of California and Anthem Inc. — asked for the biggest hikes. Blue Shield’s premiums will jump an average of more than 19%, according to officials, and Anthem’s rates will rise more than 16%.

For consumers, the effect will depend on whether they get taxpayer-supported subsidies for their premiums and whether they are willing to switch to less-expensive plans that may come with higher co-pays and deductibles. Changing plans could also mean a new network of physicians, which could be disruptive to care for those with chronic conditions.

The rates vary significantly by region and insurer. Los Angeles and the rest of southwest Los Angeles County will see an average increase of almost 14%.

Blue Shield’s preferred provider organization rate in Los Angeles, chosen by 21% of those using the exchange, is increasing by an average of 19.5%. For a 40-year-old single person making $17,820 to $23,760, choosing a silver level plan, the monthly rate currently is $122, while the government pays Blue Shield $196. Next year that same person would pay $170, while the government would chip in $211 a month.

“We’re paying more for less,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica. “Insurers are limiting access to doctors and hospitals while also demanding a higher price.”

Horacio Chavez, 34, of Boyle Heights said he made less than $25,000 last year as an education coordinator at a youth center. He currently pays a $100 premium for a Covered California plan that he uses for an annual checkup and a safety net in case of emergencies.

“I do want healthcare — I want the peace of mind that if anything happens to me that there’s some kind of coverage,” Chavez said. But “a 13% hike … that’s going to affect people.”

He said he’s already barely making ends meet trying to pay his rent, student loans from the University of Chicago, car payments and his health insurance premium.

“I’m already living check to check,” Chavez said.

Covered California officials defended the system Tuesday, saying that the competition among insurers offering coverage on the exchange was working to keep rates lower than they otherwise would be.

“California has a very competitive marketplace,” said Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California.

Obamacare has significantly reduced the number of uninsured Californians. Since the state’s health insurance exchange began offering coverage in 2014, the share of Californians without health insurance has fallen from 17% at the end of 2013 to 8.1% at the end of last year, according to officials.

Rates are expected to jump in other states too, although complete details won’t be available until later this year.

An analysis of 14 metro areas that have already announced their 2017 premiums found an average jump of 11%. The changes ranged from a decrease of 14% in Providence, R.I., to an increase of 26% in Portland, Ore., according to the analysis by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

The federal healthcare-  .gov   exchange provides insurance under the Affordable Care Act in 38 states. California and a few other states operate their own exchanges.

Around the country, several insurers, including giant UnitedHealth, have stopped selling health plans on the exchanges, and a number of new nonprofit health insurance co-ops have gone out of business.

Those decisions have fueled charges from the law’s critics that Obamacare isn’t working.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is pushing a number of specific steps to ease price pressure on consumers, including allowing Americans ages 55 to 64 to buy into Medicare.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has argued the health law should be repealed.

The health law’s next enrollment period begins a week before election day.

The state and federal health insurance exchanges provide coverage to about 12 million people nationally, representing just a fraction of the nation’s total insurance market. The vast majority of Americans — more than 250 million people — are in health plans purchased through an employer or provided by a government plan such as Medicare or Medicaid.

But the exchanges are a pillar of the Affordable Care Act’s program for guaranteeing Americans’ insurance coverage. And monthly premiums have become a closely watched barometer of how the law is performing.

Covered California’s Lee told the House Ways and Means Committee on July 12 that 2017 would be “a transitional year” for Obamacare, with rates seeing “significant adjustments” across the nation.

He said one reason for the increase was the end of a program designed to keep rates down during the insurance exchange’s first three years. The program had assessed a fee on all health insurers and then redistributed those funds among carriers whose members had the highest medical expenses, Lee said.

Lee added that some insurers had also not charged enough in the first two years because they didn’t have full data on the medical costs or health status of those signing up. Now they’re adjusting to account for those higher costs.

Mia Campitelli, a Blue Shield spokeswoman, said Tuesday that the insurer’s average 19.9% premium increase was “driven by our members using more healthcare services than we expected,” as well as the phaseout of the federal mechanism that had kept rates down in the law’s early years.

Anthem spokesman Darrel Ng said: “Factors such as increased use of medical services and added costs of drugs and medical therapies put upward pressure on rates and underscore the additional work that needs to be done to moderate the growth in healthcare costs.”

The financial pain for most Californians getting insurance through the exchange will be muted because 90% get taxpayer assistance to cover the premiums.

Americans making less than four times the federal poverty level — about $47,000 for a single adult or $97,000 for a family of four — qualify for the assistance.

Nonetheless, Americans who make too much to qualify for subsidies are likely to feel the brunt of the higher premiums. That will probably increase pressure on the new president — Democrat or Republican — to review the exchanges in 2017 for ways to make health plans more affordable.

A year ago, Lee wrote an op-ed in The Times saying that Covered California’s power in negotiating with insurers was allowing Obamacare to work in the state.

“We now have the full picture in California, where we are proving that health insurance exchanges can keep prices in check,” he wrote.

Though the Affordable Care Act has improved care for millions of Americans — for example, insurance companies can no longer set lifetime limits on care or exclude anyone because of a preexisting condition — the 6-year-old law contains few controls on overall costs.

Spending on the country’s medical system averages more than $10,000 for every American, according to statistics released by the Obama administration this month, far higher than any other nation. melody.petersen

@ latimes.com   noam.levey@latimes.com   Times staff writer Soumya Karlamangla contributed to this report.

RICH PEDRONCELLI Associated Press

“CALIFORNIA has a very competitive marketplace,” said Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California. Above, Lee discusses the program last year.

Strengthening the Marketplace – Actions to Improve the Risk Pool

Below are recommendations from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The goal is to improve the risk pool and therefore rates and benefits for Affordable Care Act Plans.

It is noteworthy to read the information on Short Term Medical Plans below which might cause discontinuation of these plans.

Date

2016-06-08

Title

Strengthening the Marketplace – Actions to Improve the Risk Pool

Contact

press@cms.hhs.gov

Strengthening the Marketplace – Actions to Improve the Risk Pool

With millions of Americans insured through the Health Insurance Marketplaces, it’s clear that Marketplace coverage is a product consumers want and need and an important business for insurers, with several major issuers expanding their Marketplace presence.  At the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), we are constantly monitoring the health of the Marketplace and are always looking to make improvements that benefit both consumers and issuers. Over the past several months, HHS has taken a series of actions to strengthen the Marketplace risk pool, limit upward pressure on rates, and ensure a strong Marketplace for the long term. We believe those actions are bringing positive results. As part of our continued commitment to the long-term strength of the Marketplace, we are announcing new measures to ensure that the Marketplace continues to provide affordable coverage for millions of Americans.

During the month of June, HHS will make three announcements regarding our ongoing efforts to: strengthen the risk pool by spreading the costs of care over a diverse mix of enrollees, work with issuers and state Departments of Insurance to improve coverage options, and step up Marketplace outreach, especially to young adults and uninsured families in advance of Open Enrollment 4.

Today, HHS is announcing a series of actions to strengthen the Marketplace risk pool. These actions include:

·         Curbing abuses of short-term plans that exploit gaps in current rules to use medical underwriting to keep some of the healthiest consumers out of the Affordable Care Act’s single risk pool.

·         Improving the risk adjustment program to more accurately reflect the cost of partial-year enrollees and to incorporate prescription drug utilization data that provide a more complete picture of enrollees’ health status. These improvements will ensure that the program continues to work as intended to compensate issuers with higher-risk enrollees and thereby help issuers sustainably serve all types of consumers.

·         Helping consumers who turn 65 make the transition to Medicare, so that older consumers are served by the program designed for them and their health needs.

·         Beginning full implementation of the Special Enrollment Confirmation Process, which ensures that eligible individuals continue to have access to coverage through Special Enrollment Periods (SEPs), but prevents people from misusing the system to enroll in coverage only if they get sick.

·         Continuing our efforts to reduce data-matching issues (DMIs). CMS outreach, education, and operational improvements have contributed to a sharp reduction in total data matching issues generated and an almost 40 percent year-over-year increase in documents submitted to help resolve income and citizenship and immigration data matching issues. Improving the resolution of DMIs benefits the risk pool because it keeps eligible consumers, often younger and healthier consumers less motivated to overcome obstacles such as extra paperwork, from losing coverage mid-year.

Risk Pool Actions

Curbing Abuse of Short-Term Limited Duration Plans
Short-term limited duration coverage is health care coverage issued for a short period of time.  Because short-term limited duration plans are designed to fill only very short coverage gaps, this coverage is not subject to any of the key rules governing the ACA’s single risk pool: they can be priced based on health status (medically underwritten), can discriminate against consumers with pre-existing conditions, and do not have to cover essential health benefits.  Some issuers are now offering short-term limited duration plans to consumers as their primary form of health coverage for periods that last nearly 12 months, allowing them to target only the healthiest consumers while avoiding consumer protections. As highlighted in recent press accounts, by keeping these consumers out of the ACA single risk pool, such abuses of limited duration coverage increase costs for everyone else, and they could have a greater impact over time if allowed to become more widespread.

Today, the Department of Labor, Department of Treasury, and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a proposed rule to revise the definition of short-term, limited duration coverage.  Under the new rules, short-term policies may be offered only for less than three months, and coverage cannot be renewed at the end of the three month period. The proposed rule also improves transparency for consumers by requiring issuers to provide notice to consumers that the coverage is not minimum essential coverage, does not satisfy the health coverage requirement of the ACA, and will not prevent the consumer from owing a tax penalty. The proposed changes will help strengthen the risk pool by ensuring that short term limited duration plans are used only as intended, to fill truly temporary gaps in coverage.

Maturing the Risk Adjustment Program
By reducing incentives for issuers to try to design products that attract a disproportionately healthy risk pool, risk adjustment lets them design products that meet the needs of all consumers, protecting consumers’ access to a range of robust options.  Updating risk adjustment to more accurately assess every enrollee’s risk makes it more effective in achieving this goal. Earlier this year, CMS made a number of changes to improve the stability, predictability, and accuracy of the risk adjustment program for issuers. These changes include better modeling of costs for preventive services, changes to the data update schedule, and earlier reporting of preliminary risk adjustment data where available.  We also published a Risk Adjustment White Paper and hosted a conference on March 31, 2016 to solicit feedback from issuers, consumers, and other stakeholders on additional areas for improvement.

Building off the Risk Adjustment White Paper and stakeholder feedback, today we are announcing two additional important changes to risk adjustment that we intend to propose in future rulemaking. First, we intend to propose that, beginning for the 2017 benefit year, the risk adjustment model include an adjustment factor for partial-year enrollees.  By more accurately accounting for the costs of short term enrollees in ACA-compliant risk pool, this change will support the Marketplace’s important role as a source of coverage for people who are between jobs, experiencing life transitions, or otherwise need coverage for part of the year.  Second, we intend to propose that, beginning for the 2018 benefit year, prescription drug utilization data be incorporated in risk adjustment, as a source of information about individuals’ health status and the severity of their conditions.  We are also considering proposing additional changes to the model for 2018 and beyond.

Transitioning Consumers to Medicare
The Marketplace serves as an essential backstop for consumers as they transition between different types of coverage over their lifetime.  For example, many early retirees access Marketplace coverage until they become eligible for Medicare when they turn 65.  But once individuals turn 65, most people should end their Marketplace coverage and switch to Medicare.  In fact, if consumers do not enroll in Medicare Part B when they turn 65, they could face financial consequences for years into the future, because they could owe higher Medicare premiums.  Meanwhile, the Marketplace is intended to serve consumers who are not Medicare eligible, and continued enrollment by individuals who are eligible for Medicare can raise costs for other consumers.

To make sure consumers understand the steps they need to take to move to Medicare, this summer the Marketplace will start contacting enrollees as they near their 65th birthday. This outreach will provide consumers with the information they need to enroll in Medicare if they are eligible and end their Marketplace coverage if they choose to.   This builds off the changes we made to the HealthCare.gov application this year which included new pop ups with reminders for consumers who are about to turn 65 that they may be eligible for Medicare.

Implementing the Special Enrollment Confirmation Process
Over the last several months, the Marketplace has taken a number of steps to ensure that Special Enrollment Periods (SEPs) are there for consumers when they need them while avoiding misuse or abuse.  We’ve strengthened our rulesand clarified our processes for SEPs, so that the people who need to can still easily get coverage, while making it hard for anyone thinking about taking advantage. We also eliminated 7 SEPs, including the SEP for individuals who paid the tax penalty for not having health insurance, contributing to an almost 30 percent year-over-year drop in the number of SEP enrollments during the three months after Open Enrollment.

Continuing that work, today we are announcing that, consistent with the process we announced in February, starting June 17 individuals enrolling in coverage through Special Enrollment Periods will be asked to provide certain documents. We are also providing models of the eligibility notices that consumers will receive with the list of documents that people enrolling through a Special Enrollment Period will need to prove their eligibility for their SEP. Consumers should provide the appropriate documents by the deadline listed in their notice to confirm eligibility for a Special Enrollment Period to avoid any disruptions to their coverage.

Reducing the Impact of Data Matching Issues
CMS takes very seriously its obligation to ensure that access to coverage and financial assistance are limited to those individuals who are indeed eligible.  The Marketplace verifies eligibility for most consumers through electronic trusted data sources, but if consumers’ data cannot be matched electronically we generate a data matching issue to request additional information from enrollees.  Consumers who do not provide the necessary information will have their coverage or financial assistance ended or modified.

Unfortunately, eligible individuals sometimes lose coverage or financial assistance through the Marketplace during the year because they have trouble finding documents or navigating the data matching process. In addition to the direct impact on consumers, avoidable terminations due to data-matching issues also negatively impact the risk pool, since younger, healthier individuals appear to be less likely to persevere through the data matching process. In fact, in 2015, younger open enrollment consumers who experienced a data matching issue were about a quarter less likely to resolve their problem than older consumers.

This year, CMS made a range of improvements to the data matching process to help consumers avoid generating data matching issues in the first place and to help them resolve these issues once generated.  More recently, we have also intensified our outreach, and partnered with issuers so that they are reaching out to consumers about data-matching issues as well. These efforts are beginning to pay off, with a sharp reduction in total data-matching issues generated and an almost 40 percent year-over-year increase in the number of documents consumers have submitted to resolve these issues. Continued progress in this area should benefit both directly affected consumers and other consumers who will benefit from a stronger risk pool.

 

Medicare for More

The following article from the Atlantic states that lowering of the Medicare age from 65 to a younger age might infuse needed money into the Medicare system. Additionally, rates for those who are younger and not Medicare eligible might benefit if older sicker people enroll in Medicare. All will depend on the healthcare needs of those who are shifted around.

Hillary Clinton’s new proposal to expand coverage for middle-aged adults provides a glimpse at how she would make Obamacare her own.

VANN R. NEWKIRK II

MAY 23, 2016

What’s the next step for Obamacare? Much of the 2016 presidential race functions as a referendum on just what to do with the the six-year-old Affordable Care Act. Despite some mixed returns on costs and the stability of insurance markets, the health-reform law has brought the uninsured rate to its lowest point in American history. Reflecting that mixed legacy, most Americans now favor modifications to the ACA over continuing to implement it as it is or repealing it.

LATEST FROM POLITICS
That puts most Americans on the opposite side of whatever Donald Trump’s health care plan might be. But both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have plans to modify and expand Obamacare. Sanders’s plan of “Medicare for All,” a radical overhaul of the current system based on a single-payer system, has received most of the attention. Clinton’s more modest proposals to expand tax credits and allow undocumented immigrants access to health-insurance marketplaces have garnered less press. But recently, Clinton has made waves with a new idea to allow people over 50 or 55—the specifics have not yet been announced—to purchase Medicare plans.  At present, only those over 65 and a select few of their dependents are eligible for Medicare. This “Medicare for More” concept is a significant addition to the Clinton health plan, but what does it mean for the future of Obamacare?

A new report from Avalere extrapolates what it might mean for the future of 50-somethings. There are about 13 million people between the ages of 50 and 65 who are either uninsured or have purchased private insurance on the Obamacare marketplaces. This population represents most people in the age range without affordable employer- or group-insurance coverage and who don’t qualify for Medicaid. Assuming that this is the population that would be eligible for Clinton’s Medicare for More, Avalere reports that it is “unclear” if Medicare would automatically be a good deal for them.

With no knowledge of premiums or subsidies yet, a Medicare buy-in might just be too costly for those uninsured adults above 50 who have low incomes but are ineligible for Medicaid because of state rules. For those in private plans, Medicare has a distinct number of cost disadvantages, including a 20 percent cost-sharing requirement, no lifetime cap on out-of-pocket expenditures, and drug benefits that are generally less generous. Also, it is unclear if people under 65 could qualify for the Medicare Advantage plans that help fill in gaps in coverage. Sicker elderly adults regularly run up against the limits of Medicare, and it is hard to envision cases in which Medicare would make more financial sense for near-elderly adults with serious chronic illnesses than medium-cost marketplace plans.

Medicare for More is a step away from Clinton’s position as a defender of President Obama’s legacy and towards her central policy identity as an architect of American health policy.

But Medicare has always been a good deal for those who don’t use many health-care services, and it might beat out low-cost marketplace plans for healthy adults between 50 and 65 with few health problems. Medicare provides access to one of the broadest networks of physicians, providers, and benefits possible, and consumers value continuity. A buy-in at 50 could allow people to remain on the same insurance coverage with the same providers for the rest of their lives. Also, while Medicare has not been shown to have a serious effect on health trajectories for uninsured adults who become enrollees at age 65, at age 50 it might provide services early enough to change outcomes. Medicare also provides protection against medical debts, and if premiums could be made affordable to uninsured adults over 50, it could have serious value as health issues mount with age.

Medicare for More might have more value to the Medicare program than to any individual beneficiary. People between 50 and 65 are healthier than those over 65, and many of the costs that penalize high utilization can be seen as offsets for having to cover the most expensive population in the country. Even for Medicare, which has broad power to affect prices and policy, covering services, visits, drugs, surgery, and hospital stays costs money, and as patients near costly end-of-life holding patterns, the cost curve skyrockets. Adding healthier, younger people to the risk pool might bring down the per-person costs of the program. If the subsidies are equivalent to marketplace subsidies, premiums and savings from the over-50 crowd could actually cut back net costs for the Medicare albatross. Removing more middle-aged adults from marketplace risk pools might actually make insurance cheaper for young adults as well.

The results of a Medicare buy-in for potential beneficiaries and the program will likely depend on specifics as detailed by the Clinton campaign, but its rhetorical value is much more readily assessed. Allowing private purchase of one of America’s two big public-insurance programs is an addition to Obamacare’s willingness to blur the lines between public and private insurance, risk, and public-health responsibility. The proposal gives Clinton ammunition both against Sanders in the primary and, should she win, Trump in the general.

But above all, Medicare for More is a step away from Clinton’s position as a defender of President Obama’s legacy and towards her central policy identity as an architect of American health policy. Obamacare could very well be a platform for Clinton to achieve some of the goals that remain unfulfilled from the 1993 health plan that she spearheaded. Combined with some recent support from Clinton for the idea of a public option, a Medicare buy-in can be seen as a very Clinton-esque way of using the market to provide universal care. The free market solution to coverage, along with the major expansion of Medicare as a coverage pathway for non-elderly adults, is reminiscent of the ‘93 plan, and the population that it impacts is massive. Medicare for More would also cement Obamacare as the foundational law of all of American health policy, and establish a regime of incrementalism not unlike the coverage shifts seen in the decades between Medicare and Obamacare. The proposal might open the door for other shifts, such as allowing even younger people or government employees Medicare buy-ins.

For those further to Clinton’s left, however, Medicare for More might close the door for hopes of more radical overhauls while the figurative iron is still hot and while the ACA is still a hotly debated law. Sanders’s plan rests on frustrations about the compromising nature of the Affordable Care Act, which whittled down some of the more ambitious coverage plans in favor of  a market-based solution that still leaves millions uninsured. The current Obama-Clinton doctrine of health-care views zero uninsurance as a lofty and likely unreachable goal more than a first-order cause. Much of Sanders’s momentum with Medicare for All comes from the fact that the liberal benchmark––a universal public option supported by high, progressive taxes––has still not been reached. Clinton’s incrementalism would in all likelihood reset the clock on that dream.

Medicare for More isn’t Sanders’s Medicare for All, and it certainly isn’t what many Sanders supporters are looking for, but it is a step for Clinton and would be a significant addition to the massive impact of Obamacare. If Clinton does wind up in the White House, it could be the beginning of a piecemeal process to bring the ACA closer and closer to its originally intended ideal of universal coverage, as Obamacare is a perfect platform for incremental increases in coverage. Now, it is another sign that the work of providing coverage and making the health care system more affordable and better is not yet done.

Eliminating Confusing Health Plans

It has been my experience as an insurance broker that some insurance companies have far too many plan designs which are very confusing for the consumer. Hopefully changes will be adopted to make the process of choosing a plan more consumer friendly.
Below is a partial excerpt from Covered California’s Daily News, dated March 9, 2016 which discusses the issue.
________________________________________
New Analysis Urges Shift to Patient-Centered Benefit Designs to Cut Costs and Help Consumers Get Care
Posted: 09 Mar 2016 02:52 PM PST
Lessons Learned in California Can Help Avert a Collision Between Conflicting Reform Initiatives

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A new analysis urges state-based marketplaces, the employer-sponsored insurance market and health insurance plans to take action and move toward plan benefit designs that put consumers first, and remove existing barriers to getting needed health care.
In an article written in the New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. Elliott Fisher, Director of The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, and Covered California Executive Director Peter V. Lee, both stress the importance of patient-centered benefit designs to reach the next level of health care reform.

“Health plans, states and employers should take to heart the lesson that offering a lot of different designs does not serve consumers well,” Fisher said. “Too many health plans, in exchanges and the employer sector, offer confusing benefit designs with out-of-pocket costs that prevent people from seeing their doctor.”

Lee said Covered California has a model that has worked for its consumers since the agency opened its doors in 2014.

“Covered California has led the way in the fight for consumers by shaping benefit designs that help consumers make apples-to-apples comparisons and to get the health care they need,” Lee said. “A good patient-centered benefit design is critical to making sure consumers get the right care at the right time.”

Fisher and Lee noted that the current health care system seeks to improve care and cut costs through provider-focused and consumer-focused reform initiatives that directly conflict with one another.
For example, provider-focused initiatives encourage physicians, hospitals and other providers to coordinate and improve care to lower costs. However, the consumer-focused approach discourages people from seeing their provider because of increased cost-sharing.

Studies show the proportion of Americans with employer-sponsored coverage involving deductibles of more than $1,000 has increased from 10 percent to 46 percent since 2006, with many plans requiring people to fully meet their deductible before receiving any coverage for primary care. A 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research study showed the adoption of a high-deductible health plan in a relatively high-income population led to a 10 percent reduction in the use of preventative services and an 18 percent drop in physician visits, with the greatest reductions occurring in the sickest patients.

“We want consumers to be able to see their doctor when necessary, so their health care needs can be met in the most effective and efficient way possible,” Fisher said.

The authors cite California’s approach as an example of how it might be possible to avoid this collision between provider- and consumer-focused efforts. Covered California, the state’s insurance exchange, requires plans to adopt patient-centered benefit designs that allow consumers at every metal tier (cost-sharing split between insurer and enrollee) to visit their primary care physician without the cost being subject to a deductible. “When a consumer is able to get the right care at the right time, it cuts down health care costs for everyone,” Lee said.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently announced it would allow health insurance companies to offer patient-centered benefit designs on the federal exchange.
“This is a good step for consumers,” Lee said. “However, more needs to be done if we are going to reach the next level in health care reform.”

The article, “Toward Lower Costs and Better Care – Averting a Collision between Consumer- and Provider-Focused Reforms,” is available atwww.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1514921.

About The Dartmouth Institute
Since 1988, The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice has been working to find solutions to some of the most challenging problems in health care delivery. Our goal is to help create an affordable, high-performing health system for everyone.

About Covered California
Covered California is the state’s marketplace for the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Covered California, in partnership with the California Department of Health Care Services, was charged with creating a new health insurance marketplace in which individuals and small businesses can get access to affordable health insurance plans. Covered California helps individuals determine whether they are eligible for premium assistance that is available on a sliding-scale basis to reduce insurance costs or whether they are eligible for low-cost or no-cost Medi-Cal. Consumers can then compare health insurance plans and choose the plan that works best for their health needs and budget. Small businesses can purchase competitively priced health insurance plans and offer their employees the ability to choose from an array of plans and may qualify for federal tax credits.

Covered California is an independent part of the state government whose job is to make the new market work for California’s consumers. It is overseen by a five-member board appointed by the governor and the Legislature.

INSURERS SPUR A DROP IN C-SECTION BIRTHS

Will a drop in C-Sections decrease insurance rates?

I have personally know someone whose C-Section was performed for the convenience of the doctor.

Below is an article from the Los Angeles Times dated March 8, 2016.

Low-risk surgeries in state hospitals fell from 27.3% in 2013 to 26.1% in 2014 amid pressure to cut costs.
BY SOUMYA KARLAMANGLA AND RYAN MENEZES
At hospitals across California, administrators are pushing doctors to perform fewer caesarean deliveries, hiring birth coaches and asking pregnant women to stay in labor longer.
For years, medical experts have said that C-sections were being done too often, yet the rates kept climbing.
In 2014, however, delivery hospitals in California reduced the number of C-sections performed by more than 1,000 compared with 2013, according to a Times analysis of new data.
What’s changed recently, some experts say, is the nature of the healthcare system, which focuses increasingly on eliminating unnecessary expenses.
In the era of the Affordable Care Act and its emphasis on low-cost medical care, C-sections — which cost more than vaginal deliveries — have become a sticking point for hospitals and a target for the people paying the bills.
Childbirth is the most common reason for hospitalization in the U.S., said Katy Kozhimannil, a health policy professor at the University of Minnesota, so when insurers and self-insured employers “look at where their costs are going, you start to see caesarean delivery rises to the top.”
Hospitals not only face direct pressure from insurers to curb C-sections, but they’re also concerned that a high rate could affect business. As more data on medical facilities is available to patients, hospitals don’t want to fall to the bottom of the pack and lose patients who see higher C-section rates as unfavorable.
Dr. Allyson Brooks, an obstetrician and chief quality officer at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, remembers that a few years ago the hospital was under fire from its insurer because of a higher-than-average C-section rate.
In California, maternal care plus a vaginal delivery cost commercial insurers $15,259 on average, while maternal care plus a C-section cost $21,307, according to a report commissioned by the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform, a nonpartisan research center.
Over the last two decades, many U.S. doctors began opting for C-sections in part out of convenience, because the procedure is often much quicker than waiting for a woman to deliver vaginally, experts say.
Some patients chose to have C-sections — a trend made famous by celebrities in the 2000s and labeled “too posh to push.”
Though generally safe, C-sections are still invasive surgeries, with a longer recovery time than vaginal deliveries.
And once a woman has one C-section, she has a 90% chance of delivering her next babies by C-section.
The World Health Organization says the ideal C-section rate is around 15%, but in the U.S. it reached 32.9% in 2009.
The rates were influenced by factors such as the culture of a hospital and type of community it serves. Three years ago, Brooks recalled seeing posts on social media by Orange County residents such as, “If you want to have a vaginal delivery go to a different hospital, if you want to have a C-section go to Hoag.”
Brooks said that though most obstetricians agree C-section rates are too high, it can be difficult to get them to consider doing fewer.
They worry that trying to bring down rates will harm women. C-sections can be necessary if the umbilical cord is dangerously tied around a baby’s neck or a woman’s uterus is at risk of rupturing.
So she began calculating a low-risk, or NTSV, C-section rate for her hospital. It includes only women considered the least likely to need C-sections — first-time mothers, having a single baby around their due date, and carrying a baby positioned head down.
The U.S. surgeon general has called for reducing the low-risk C-section rate to 23.9% by 2020.
Hoag began requiring that doctors show clear medical reasons to induce labor in women, and also started calculating and sharing each doctor’s low-risk C-section rate.
At Hoag, the low-risk C-section rate dropped from 31% in 2013 to 26% in 2014, one of the biggest declines in the state.
And it wasn’t just Hoag. From 2013 to 2014, the rate of C-sections among low-risk moms in California dropped from 27.3% to 26.1%, a reduction of 1,219 procedures statewide, according to data released last month by the California Hospital Assessment and Reporting Task Force and analyzed by The Times.
The analysis also found that the percentage of California’s 244 delivery hospitals that met the surgeon general’s goal jumped from 32% to 42% between the two years.
Hoag negotiated with its insurer to be paid an equal rate for C-sections and vaginal deliveries so it wouldn’t lose money when rates dropped.
But other hospitals that have reduced their C-sections rates have faced financial consequences.
The six Providence Health & Services hospitals in Southern California took a revenue hit from doing fewer C-sections, said Regional Chief Medical Officer Michael Bernstein. They also spent money to hire obstetricians to staff the labor and delivery wards in shifts, so doctors wouldn’t feel rushed and opt for C-sections because they’re quicker procedures.
Bernstein said he thinks the change is better for patients and could be good for the hospital group in the long run.
Increasingly, under changes set into place by the Affordable Care Act, hospitals aren’t paid per treatment, but based on the quality of the care. Hospital leaders say C-section rates could become one of the metrics used in such calculations.
But Dr. Aaron Caughey, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine, said there’s no single low-risk C-section rate that all hospitals should aim for, and that rates will vary from hospital to hospital because of differences in the patient population.
“I would hate it if Medicaid said, ‘Every hospital whose rate is above the median, we’re not going to pay you a chunk of money.’ That is a bad approach because then people squeeze it down without attention to what’s best for patients,” Caughey said.
Even if hospitals aren’t being officially penalized for high C-section rates, administrators are worried about the financial effect of losing patients who want a vaginal birth.
Deliveries aren’t big moneymakers for hospitals, but once a hospital treats a mother, it’s likely to care for the rest of her family in the years to come.
Some mothers say that they felt as if their physicians rushed into C-sections, and they don’t want to repeat the experience.
When Anastasia Stone, 32, was pregnant with her first child, her doctor told her she needed to be medically induced to begin labor, which resulted in a C-section. “I was a typical first-time mom,” she said.
Stone, who lived in Santa Cruz at the time, said she later came to believe she could’ve had a vaginal delivery instead of a C-section if her physician had waited.
When she was pregnant with her second child, Stone went looking for a doctor who would try for a vaginal birth.
Dr. William Gilbert, regional medical director for women’s services at Sutter Health in the Sacramento region, said Sutter Davis Hospital has drawn such women from around the area because it had the lowest C-section rate in the state in 2014 — 12%.
The hospital uses nurse midwives, who deliver most of the babies, and reserves obstetricians for backup. Birth is treated as a natural process instead of a “health condition” that always requires medical intervention, said Carolyn Campos, nursing manager of the hospital’s birthing center.
Gilbert thinks that as more data on specific rates of procedures or treatments is available, patients will increasingly turn to that information when choosing where to seek care.
In 2014, low-risk C-section rates ranged from 12% to 70% at California hospitals.
Six years ago at Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento, Gilbert began encouraging physicians to allow longer labor in women, and began posting each physician’s low-risk C-section rate in the doctors’ lounge.
From 2010 to 2014, the hospital’s low-risk C-section rate dropped from 31% to 27%.
Gilbert thinks that most of the success came from publishing the doctor’s rates internally.
“Doctors don’t want to be the highest rate,” he said. soumya.karlamangla
@latimes.com
Twitter:
@skarlamangla ryan.menezes
@latimes.com
Twitter:
@ryanvmenezes

MARK BOSTER Los Angeles Times
LOW-RISK C-section rates at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, where Dr. Allyson Brooks is chief quality officer, fell from 31% in 213 to 26% in 2014.

Health Law Insurance Plans to be Rated by Network Size

Below is an article from the New York Times date March 6, 2016 which also discusses the increase in out of pocket costs for 2017.

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, responding to consumer complaints, says it will begin rating health insurance plans based on how many doctors and hospitals they include in their network.

At the same time, the maximum out-of-pocket costs for consumers under the Affordable Care Act will increase next year to $7,150 for an individual and $14,300 for a family, the administration said. Consumer advocates said those costs could be a significant burden for middle-income people who need a substantial amount of care.
Under new rules to be published Tuesday in the Federal Register, insurers will still be allowed to sell health plans with narrow networks of providers. But consumers will know in advance what they are getting because the government will attach a label indicating the breadth of the network for each plan sold on HealthCare.gov.
About 12.7 million people signed up or had their coverage automatically renewed in the third annual open enrollment season, which ended on Jan. 31.

Many health plans offered in the public marketplaces provide a limited choice of doctors and hospitals, and some insurers narrowed their networks this year by excluding some doctors and dropping popular teaching hospitals.
Consumers have grumbled about the changes, and some say they have had difficulty finding medical specialists. But cost-conscious consumers have gravitated to these plans because they tend to offer lower premiums than health plans providing a greater choice of doctors and hospitals.
Consumers can already find out which health plans include a specific doctor. But until now they had no reliable way to determine if a health plan had a large or small network of providers. The new ratings will indicate how the breadth of a health plan’s network compares with that of other plans in the same geographic area.
“This could be really helpful for a lot of consumers,” said Sabrina Corlette, a consumer advocate and professor at the Health Policy Institute of Georgetown University.
Consumers have also complained about the out-of-pocket costs for many health plans under the Affordable Care Act.
“For many people, $7,000 of costs can be a huge impediment to actually receiving care,” especially if patients incur those costs in a month or two at the start of a year, said Marc M. Boutin, the chief executive of the National Health Council, a coalition of advocacy groups for people with chronic diseases.
Out-of-pocket costs, as defined by the government, include deductibles and co-payments, but not the premiums that people pay for insurance. Each insurer sets limits on out-of-pocket costs for its health plans, and the limit cannot be higher than the maximum specified by the government. The maximum for an individual will exceed $7,000 next year for the first time. It will go up by $300 in 2017, after an increase of $250 this year.
Consumer groups say this rate of increase is unsustainable. Moreover, they say, high out-of-pocket costs have deterred some people with insurance from using expensive prescription drugs.
Ben Wakana, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said that in setting the new ceiling on out-of-pocket costs, the administration had used a formula laid out in the Affordable Care Act. Before the law was adopted, he said, people with cancer or other serious illnesses could be bankrupted by hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills, and the law provides new protections.
People with low incomes can obtain discounts that reduce their deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs if they choose midlevel silver plans. Slightly more than half of the people with marketplace coverage received such “cost-sharing reductions” last year.
Ms. Corlette, the Georgetown University professor, said that in writing the new rules, “the administration was walking a very delicate line, pushing forward with consumer protections while trying to keep insurers onboard and participating in the marketplaces.”
In some markets, consumers can choose from dozens of health plans. In a move intended to simplify the shopping experience, the Obama administration has devised six model health plans that it describes as standardized options. Federal officials specify the amount of deductibles, co-payments and other charges for doctors’ services, hospital care, X-rays, laboratory tests and prescription drugs.
The standard features will make it easier for consumers to compare plans, officials said, and the government will highlight these plans in some way on HealthCare.gov. But the government is not requiring insurers to offer the standardized options or limiting their ability to offer other plans in 2017.
Another new requirement is meant to guarantee “continuity of care” for certain patients. If a health plan drops a doctor from its network without cause, the insurer must allow patients in “an active course of treatment” to continue seeing the doctor for up to 90 days. This protection would apply, for example, to patients receiving chemotherapy or radiation therapy for cancer and to women in the second or third trimester of pregnancy.
Under the new rules, consumers using the federal marketplace will be able to get help year-round from insurance counselors financed by the government. The counselors, known as navigators, help people sign up in the annual open enrollment period. The administration is expanding their duties to include teaching people how to use insurance, appeal denials of coverage and obtain exemptions.

Obamacare Fraud

Below is an article from the Associated Press, followed by a GAO publication.

PROBE: HEALTHCARE.GOV ‘PASSIVE’ ON HEADING OFF FRAUD
BY RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR
ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON (AP) — With billions in taxpayer dollars at stake, the Obama administration has taken a “passive” approach to identifying potential fraud involving the president’s health care law, nonpartisan congressional investigators say in a report released Wednesday.
While the Government Accountability Office stopped short of alleging widespread cheating in President Barack Obama’s signature program, investigators found that the administration has struggled to resolve eligibility questions affecting millions of initial applications and hundreds of thousands of consumers who were actually approved for benefits.
The agency administering the health law – the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services – “has assumed a passive approach to identifying and preventing fraud,” the GAO report said. In a formal written response, the administration agreed with eight GAO recommendations while maintaining that it applies “best practices” to fraud control.
Release of the report came as the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on the Department of Health and Human Services budget.
GAO “raises many red flags,” committee chairman Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said in a joint statement with other Republicans. “Perhaps the most unsettling is that while HHS agrees there are many vulnerabilities, the agency has no urgency or plan to fix these critical errors.”
Asked about the report at the hearing, HHS Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell defended her department. “With regard to the issue of making sure the right people are getting any taxpayer subsidy, we take it very seriously,” she said.
The health care law offers subsidized private insurance to people who don’t have access to job-based coverage, provided that they are citizens or legal immigrants, and fall within a certain income range. The GAO report raised numerous questions about the government’s system for verifying eligibility for those benefits.
Advocates for low-income people say the problem isn’t fraud, but a convoluted documentation system that leaves out hundreds of thousands of consumers legally entitled to benefits because their personal information may not exactly match what’s in government files. About 12.7 million have signed up for coverage this year.
When people apply for coverage through HealthCare.gov and state insurance exchanges, a behind-the-scenes electronic system called the “data services hub” pings federal agencies such as Social Security, IRS, and Homeland Security to verify their personal details. In a key finding, the GAO said that the administration does not aggregate, track and analyze the results of data hub inquiries – instead just using the responses to process individual applications.
By not tracking, the administration “foregoes information that could suggest potential program issues or potential vulnerabilities to fraud,” GAO said.
Its investigators approached the individual agencies assigned to verify personal information and found large numbers of inquiries in which the data hub could not confirm details.
For example, for the 2014 coverage year Social Security could not verify citizenship for about 8.2 million inquiries in which the applicants claimed they were citizens, the report said. (For 2015, that number was down by more than half, to 3.6 million.)
At IRS, income and family size information – critical for health insurance subsidies – was not available for inquiries representing 30.7 million people in 2014. GAO said the number hadn’t changed much for 2015. It was down to 29.2 million.
All those inquiries don’t result in final applications, much less ones that get approved.
And HealthCare.gov is legally permitted to approve applications with unresolved documentation issues. Consumers then get about three months to straighten out paperwork issues.
However, GAO concluded that the process for resolving documentation issues does not appear to be highly reliable.
The investigators’ analysis determined that 431,000 applications from 2014 still had unresolved paperwork issues in April of 2015, months after the coverage year had ended. Those applications involved $1.7 billion in taxpayer subsidies.
In addition, there were 35,000 applications with unresolved questions involving matching Social Security numbers, which represented $154 million in subsidies for insurance premiums.
Finally, there were about 22,000 applications where it wasn’t clear if the beneficiary was serving a prison sentence. Those accounted for $68 million in subsidies. (Prisoners are not eligible for coverage under the health care law.)
It would be a clear waste of taxpayer dollars if “Obamacare” subsidies are going to prisoners, Upton said.
HealthCare.gov “is at risk of granting eligibility to, and making subsidy payments on behalf of, individuals who are ineligible to enroll,” said the report.

Online: GAO report – http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-29
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What GAO Found
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) requires applicant information be verified to determine eligibility for enrollment or income-based subsidies. To implement this verification process, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) created an electronic system called the “data services hub” (data hub), which, among other things, provides a single link to federal sources, such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration, to verify consumer application information. Although the data hub plays a key role in the eligibility and enrollment process, CMS does not, according to agency officials, track or analyze aggregate outcomes of data hub queries—either the extent to which a responding agency delivers information responsive to a request, or whether an agency reports that information was not available. In not doing so, CMS foregoes information that could suggest potential program issues or potential vulnerabilities to fraud, as well as information that might be useful for enhancing program management. In addition, PPACA also establishes a process to resolve “inconsistencies”—instances where individual applicant information does not match information from marketplace data sources. GAO found CMS did not have an effective process for resolving inconsistencies for individual applicants for the federal Health Insurance Marketplace (Marketplace). For example, according to GAO analysis of CMS data, about 431,000 applications from the 2014 enrollment period, with about $1.7 billion in associated subsidies for 2014, still had unresolved inconsistencies as of April 2015—several months after close of the coverage year. In addition, CMS did not resolve Social Security number inconsistencies for about 35,000 applications (with about $154 million in associated subsidies) or incarceration inconsistencies for about 22,000 applications (with about $68 million in associated subsidies). With unresolved inconsistencies, CMS is at risk of granting eligibility to, and making subsidy payments on behalf of, individuals who are ineligible to enroll in qualified health plans. In addition, according to the Internal Revenue Service, accurate Social Security numbers are vital for income tax compliance and reconciliation of advance premium tax credits that can lower enrollee costs.
During undercover testing, the federal Marketplace approved subsidized coverage under the act for 11 of 12 fictitious GAO phone or online applicants for 2014. The GAO applicants obtained a total of about $30,000 in annual advance premium tax credits, plus eligibility for lower costs at time of service. The fictitious enrollees maintained subsidized coverage throughout 2014, even though GAO sent fictitious documents, or no documents, to resolve application inconsistencies. While the subsidies, including those granted to GAO’s fictitious applicants, are paid to health-care insurers, and not directly to enrolled consumers, they nevertheless represent a benefit to consumers and a cost to the government. GAO found CMS relies upon a contractor charged with document processing to report possible instances of fraud, even though CMS does not require the contractor to have any fraud detection capabilities. CMS has not performed a comprehensive fraud risk assessment—a recommended best practice—of the PPACA enrollment and eligibility process. Until such an assessment is done, CMS is unlikely to know whether existing control activities are suitably designed and implemented to reduce inherent fraud risk to an acceptable level.
Why GAO Did This Study
PPACA provides for the establishment of health-insurance marketplaces where consumers can select private health-insurance plans. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of subsidies and related spending under PPACA at $37 billion for fiscal year 2015. GAO was asked to examine the enrollment process and verification controls of the federal Marketplace. For the act’s first open-enrollment period ending in March 2014, this report (1) examines the extent to which applicant information is verified through an electronic system, and the extent to which the federal Marketplace resolved “inconsistencies” where applicant information does not match information from federal data sources and (2) describes, by means of undercover testing and related work, potential vulnerabilities to fraud in the federal Marketplace’s application, enrollment, and eligibility verification processes. GAO analyzed 2014 data from the Marketplace and federal agencies, interviewed CMS officials, and conducted undercover testing. To perform the undercover testing, GAO submitted or attempted to submit 12 fictitious Marketplace applications. The undercover results, while illustrative, cannot be generalized to the full population of enrollees.
What GAO Recommends
GAO makes eight recommendations, including that CMS consider analyzing outcomes of the verification system, take steps to resolve inconsistencies, and conduct a risk assessment of the potential for fraud in Marketplace applications. The Department of Health and Human Services concurred with GAO’s recommendations.
For more information, contact Seto J. Bagdoyan at (202) 512-6722 or bagdoyans@gao.gov.

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