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House Republican leaders are working to win the votes needed to pass a revised version of their health care reform bill, the American Health Care Act (AHCA), that aims to lower health insurance premiums for some individuals by letting states obtain waivers to opt out of the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) essential health benefits, community rating, and age banding requirements.

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It has been a month since the American Health Care Act was pulled because House Republicans lacked the votes to advance it to the Senate. Here’s a run-down of all that has happened since then, including our perspective on what it means to employers.

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After their failed attempt to pass ACA repeal and replace legislation, President Trump and House Speaker Ryan indicated that they were “moving on” to other legislative priorities. On Tuesday, we learned that Republicans have restarted their conversations about healthcare. On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported the GOP was discussing a new vote as early as next week.

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A couple of weeks ago (feels like ages) we launched a brief survey to find out where employers stood on specific provisions in the House GOP repeal-and replace-bill, the American Health Care Act (AHCA). We closed the survey on Thursday with more than 900 responses.  As I was reviewing the results on Friday, the bill was apparently dying -- but now House leaders and President Trump are signaling that it may be revived. Either way, the health reform debate is far from over, and many of the provisions introduced in the AHCA will likely remain part of the discussion.

 

The survey asked health benefit professionals how key provisions would affect their organization’s health benefit program, employees, and business success -- as opposed to how they might affect the individual market or people without access to employer-sponsored health insurance. They could also respond that the provision would not affect their organization one way or the other. 

 

HSA changes, repeal of employer mandate seen as positive

We didn’t ask for an overall opinion of the bill, but employers’ reactions to individual provisions added up to a less-than-ringing endorsement. To start with what they liked: 66% said that liberalizing HSA rules -- such as allowing higher contributions -- would have a positive effect on their organizations. That’s in the ballpark of the percentage of large employers nationally that offer HSA-eligible plans (53% in 2016). If you don’t offer an HSA-eligible plan and don’t intend to, or if you do offer one but none of your employees are likely to hit the maximum account contribution, you might not believe this provision would have much of an impact, like 29% of our respondents. 

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Last week Republican leaders abruptly canceled a House vote on the proposed American Health Care Act (AHCA) because it was clear that it wouldn’t pass. At a March 24 press conference, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-WI, said that the party will now "move on" to tax reform and other policy priorities.

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One possible fix for the public exchanges? Repeal the ACA provision expanding dependent coverage.  Allowing young adults up to age 26 to be covered under their parents’ plans has been one of the law’s most popular provisions, especially since it went into effect at a time when many young people were struggling to find full-time work in the wake of the recession. But it also took these same people out of the potential pool of enrollees when the exchanges opened in 2013. While many factors have contributed to premium spikes in exchange coverage in some states, one quoted across the board has been that fewer young people than expected signed up for coverage. Had young adults not been able get coverage through their parents’ plans, it’s possible a portion of them would have signed up for exchange coverage. And having these younger, and generally healthier (i.e., lower risk) individuals in the pool might have helped to keep the premiums down. 

 

Leading up to Thursday’s vote in the House on the AHCA, the GOP’s repeal and replace bill, lowering the dependent eligibility age to 23 was on the list of possible amendments but then withdrawn. As acknowledged in thisPolitico article, repealing the provision would be political suicide for anyone that proposes it; people don’t react well to losing a benefit they’ve gotten used to having. Yet the upsides for removing this provision are, in principle, aligned with GOP repeal and replace goals, namely, removing additional costs imposed through the ACA and helping to stabilize the individual market.

 

One approach might be to phase out this provision, or grandfather individuals born before a certain date, so that families have time to prepare and plan for alternative coverage for their older children. Of course, this only works if there’s an affordable health care option for these young adults on the exchanges. If the current subsidies are reduced to the levels proposed under the AHCA (an individual under 30 would only receive $2,000 towards health coverage per year regardless of income or location beginning in 2020), then leaving these individuals to the mercy of the individual market may not be wise; it could create a “black hole” of coverage from age 26 perhaps until the age when people are starting their families and see an absolute need for care.  So while employers as well as the individual market could benefit from a rollback of this provision, adequate subsidies on the exchanges would need to be in place to help these individuals purchase and maintain continuous coverage.

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Before the ACA, many self-employed individuals found it challenging to find a health plan on the individual market that met their needs, let alone to pay for it. Post ACA, the ability to obtain affordable coverage not tied to an employer has givenentrepreneurs in the growing ‘gig’ economy the flexibility to pursue their goals without having to worry about maintaining health coverage.  These days may be coming to an end if the new GOP health care bill passes, however.  Under theAmerican Health Care Act or AHCA, subsidies are dependent on age, as opposed to income (like under the ACA), and are not adjusted for geography, even though health costs vary widely depending on where you live.  This could mean big changes in the amount of assistance an individual would receive under the AHCA compared to under the ACA.  As cited in the article, a 40 year-old in San Francisco making $30,000 a year would receive $800 less a year under the new plan, and a 40 year-old living in Santa Cruz County, CA would see a $2,490 less per year -- potentially putting coverage out of reach. 

 

A study published by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that U.S. has between 54 million and 68 million ‘independent workers’, with some working independently full-time and others using independent/freelance work to supplement their primary income. With the proposed changes under the AHCA, some individuals may try to seek traditional employment for the purpose of healthcare coverage, or they may just choose to go without coverage completely. While critics of ACA subsidies have said they discourage people from seeking employment or advancing their careers since an increase in income would result in a decrease in subsidies, this new plan could have the same discouraging impact on the next generation of entrepreneurs.  

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Despite last week’s cold snap, the bloom of cherry blossoms along Washington DC’s Tidal Basin is now under way – a peaceful sight that belies this stormy moment in Congress, where new healthcare legislation is being debated and the headlines seem to shift from moment to moment. However, one thing is for sure: any legislation affecting the US healthcare system must consider the impact on employer-sponsored health insurance – the source of coverage for 177 million Americans, 16 times the number enrolled in public exchanges.

 

That’s why the leadership of MMC companies Mercer and Oliver Wyman created a health policy group to help formulate MMC’s views on ACA repeal-and-replace legislation. Our efforts led to the issue of a policy paper that showcased original Mercer research on changing the tax treatment of employer-sponsored coverage.  

 

Last month, we took this research to the US House of Representatives to meet with policymakers actively working on the newly proposed American Health Care Act, or AHCA. We demonstrated that the excise tax on high-cost plans, currently law under the ACA, is not an effective method of penalizing rich “Cadillac” plans because plan design is only one factor affecting plan cost and often less important than location and employee demographics. 

 

This would also be true of a cap on the employee individual tax exclusion for employer-provided health benefits, a provision included in an early draft of the AHCA and favored by powerful voices such as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), House Ways and Means Chair Kevin Brady (R-TX) and new HHS head Tom Price. Mercer had also modeled the impact such a cap would have on the effective tax rates of Americans based on their income. The hardest hit, by far, would be lower-paid workers with families. Some staffers faced with this information for the first time were visibly struck.

 

When the bill was released for mark-up, the cap on the exclusion was not included, and the Cadillac tax was delayed until 2025 (and possibly 2026). But while we were pleased with this outcome, we also knew the bill was a long way from becoming law and the cap could easily resurface.  

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In an effort to garner more support for their ACA repeal legislation, House Republican leaders revealed changes to the legislation on Monday night pending the Rules Committee vote before going to the House for their vote. Of greatest interest to employer plan sponsors is the delay in the Cadillac Tax from 2025 to 2026. The bill’s amendment repeals some of the other ACA taxes retroactively to the beginning of 2017 instead of 2018 as originally proposed. Other changes include additional funding to increase tax credits for older Americans and some Medicaid revisions.

 

In light of the changes, the House Freedom Caucus has indicated they won’t oppose the legislation, but they may still have enough “no” votes to kill the bill. President Trump went to the Hill on Tuesday to help the House Leaders secure support for the bill. In the meantime, the CBO is analyzing the changes and is expected to issue a new CBO score before Thursday’s House vote. The Brookings Institution doesn’t expect a meaningful improvement in the score.

 

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The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that House Republicans' legislation repeal and replace much of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will reduce federal deficits by $337 billion and increase the number of uninsured by 24 million -- for a total of 52 million uninsured people -- by 2026.

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On Monday the CBO released its much-anticipated score of the American Health Care Act, the Republican legislation to repeal and replace the ACA. The CBO projection shows a loss in healthcare coverage for 24 million Americans over the next decade, accompanied by a reduction in the federal deficit of $337 billion. The state Medicaid programs are taking the biggest  hit, with a decrease in funding of $880 billion during the same time period. In the short term, the CBO projects that health insurance premiums in the individual market will increase 15-20% and 14 million fewer Americans will have coverage as soon as next year.

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This article discusses the tax conundrum Republicans are facing as they try to repeal portions of the ACA. In short, legislation passed through reconciliation cannot increase the deficit beyond the budget window. With the proposed repeal of most of the ACA taxes, Republicans are using the Cadillac Tax to “smooth over the budget math.” The Cadillac Tax is disliked on both sides of the aisle so there’s still hope for a full repeal before the 2025 effective date. In the meantime, employer groups like the Alliance to Fight the 40, American Benefits Council, and ERIC continue to oppose the tax.

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