By Avik Roy
First, there was the delay of Obamacare’s Medicare cuts until after the election. Then there was the delay of the law’s employer mandate. Then there was the announcement, buried in the Federal Register, that the administration would delay enforcement of a number of key eligibility requirements for the law’s health insurance subsidies, relying on the “honor system” instead. Now comes word that another costly provision of the health law—its caps on out-of-pocket insurance costs—will be delayed for one more year.
According to the Congressional Research Service, as of November 2011, the Obama administration had missed as many as one-third of the deadlines, specified by law, under the Affordable Care Act. Here are the details on the latest one.
Obamacare contains a blizzard of mandates and regulations that will make health insurance more costly. One of the most significant is its caps on out-of-pocket insurance costs, such as co-pays and deductibles. Section 2707(b) of the Public Health Service Act, as added by Obamacare, requires that “a group health plan and a health insurance issuer offering group or individual health insurance coverage may not establish lifetime limits on the dollar value of benefits for the any participant or beneficiary.” Annual limits on cost-sharing are specified by Section 1302(c) of the Affordable Care Act; in addition, starting in 2014, deductibles are limited to $2,000 per year for individual plans, and $4,000 per year for family plans.
Out-of-pocket caps drive premiums upward
There’s no such thing as a free lunch. If you ban lifetime limits, and mandate lower deductibles, and cap out-of-pocket costs, premiums have to go up to reflect these changes. And unlike a lot of the “rate shock” problems we’ve been discussing, these limits apply not only to individually-purchased health insurance, but also to employer-sponsored coverage. (Self-insured employers are exempted.)
These mandates have already had drastic effects on a number of colleges and universities, which offer inexpensive, defined-cap plans to their healthy, youthful students. Premiums at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C., for example, rose from $245 per student in 2011-2012 to between $2,507 in 2012-2013, forcing the school to drop its coverage requirements. The University of Puget Sound paid $165 per student in 2011-2012; their rates rose to between $1,500 and $2,000 for 2012-2013.
According to the law, the limits on out-of-pocket costs for 2014 were $6,350 for individual policies and $12,700 for family ones. But in February, the Department of Labor published a little-noticed rule delaying the cap until 2015. The delay was described yesterday by Robert Pear in the New York Times.
Delay needed to align ‘separate computer systems’
Notes Pear, “Under the [one-year delay], many group health plans will be able to maintain separate out-of-pocket limits for benefits in 2014. As a result, a consumer may be required to pay $6,350 for doctors’ services and hospital care, and an additional $6,350 for prescription drugs under a plan administered by a pharmacy benefit manager.”
The reason for the delay? “Federal officials said that many insurers and employers needed more time to comply because they used separate companies to help administer major medical coverage and drug benefits, with separate limits on out-of-pocket costs. In many cases, the companies have separate computer systems that cannot communicate with one another.”
The best part in Pear’s story is when a “senior administration official” said that “we had to balance the interests of consumers with the concerns of health plan sponsors and carriers…They asked for more time to comply.” Exactly how is it in consumers’ interests to pay far more for health insurance than they do already?
It’s not. Unless you have a serious, chronic condition, in which case you may benefit from the fact that law forces healthy people to subsidize your care. To progressives, this is the holy grail. But for economically rational individuals, it’s yet another reason to drop out of the insurance market altogether. For economically rational businesses, it’s a reason to self-insure, in order to get out from under these costly mandates.
Patient groups upset
While insurers and premium-payers will be happy with the delay—whose legal justification is dubious once again—there are groups that grumbled. Specifically, groups representing those with chronic diseases, and the pharmaceutical companies whose costly drugs they will use. “The American Cancer Society shares the concern” about the delay, says Pear, “and noted that some new cancer drugs cost $100,000 a year or more.” But a big part of the reason those drugs cost so much is because manufacturers know that government-run insurers will pay up.
“The promise of out-of-pocket limits was one of the main reasons we supported health reform,” says Theodore M. Thompson of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society . “We have wonderful new drugs, the biologics, to treat rheumatoid arthritis,” said Patience H. White of the Arthritis Foundation. “But they are extremely expensive.”
The progressive solution to expensive problems? More subsidies. But subsidies don’t reduce the underlying cost of care. They only excuse the high prices that manufacturers and service providers already charge.
It’s one of the many aspects of Obamacare that should be repealed, if we are to combat the rate shock that the health law imposes on tens of millions of Americans. But that will require Republicans to come up with a smarter strategy than shutting down the government.