How Elimination of Cost-Sharing Reduction Payments Changed Consumer Enrollment in State-Based Marketplaces

State health policymakers are eagerly waiting to see if Congress’ omnibus budget bill released this week will attempt to stabilize Affordable Care Act (ACA) insurance markets by reinstating ACA’s cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments. An early proposal by US Sen. Lamar Alexander would fund the cost-sharing subsidies, which reduce a family’s out-of-pocket health care costs, retroactively from 2017 through 2021.

While this is a potential solution to how the federal government can subsidize health insurance for some consumers who purchase insurance through ACA markets, data collected by the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP) illustrates the complex interplay between marketplace subsidies and consumer decisions that states face.

States and insurers demonstrated incredible dexterity in quickly redesigning insurance plans in response to the Administration’s late-in-the-game decision to end CSR payments in October 2017. The result was that consumers faced new confusion as insurance plans were revamped and repriced in 2018, resulting in major enrollment shifts both off and within health insurance marketplaces. Below, NASHP presents 2018 enrollment data collected by state-based marketplaces (SBMs), which closely manage their own exchanges, highlight how state actions to address the loss of CSR funding influenced market decisions in 2018. Key findings indicate:

  • Decreased enrollment in marketplace silver plans, especially among consumers who no longer had access to CSR subsidies and who did not qualify for tax credits;
  • Enrollment growth in marketplace bronze plans;
  • Mixed enrollment growth or declines in gold plans; and
  • Mixed growth, and some declines in the total number of subsidized enrollees in the marketplaces.

The findings do not provide a complete picture of what has occurred in markets nationwide, as the data represent only 10 states and do not include complete information about off-marketplace enrollment patterns or full consideration of other factors that may have influenced enrollment during the 2018 enrollment period, including shortened enrollment periods and other factors influencing premium costs. However, they provide a glimpse into how states’ markets reacted to federal policy shifts and the serious ramifications of CSR changes wrought by Washington on consumer purchasing behaviors.

Under the CSR program, insurers are required by federal law to cover certain out-of-pocket expenses (e.g., deductibles, copayments, coinsurance) for enrollees with incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). CSRs are only available through silver-level health plans purchased on the state or federal health insurance marketplaces. Typically, silver-level plans have an actuarial value (AV) of 70 percent, meaning that the plan must cover in aggregate at least 70 percent of the health care costs received under the plan. CSRs change the AV of plans by varying amounts depending on the income of the qualifying consumer (see Table 1).

Table 1. Qualifying for CSRs
To qualify for the ACA’s CSR program, consumers must purchase silver-level health plans and have incomes between 100 to 250 percent of FPL, which in 2018 ranged from $16,642 to $30,150 for individuals and from $33,948 to $61,500 for a family of four.
CSR-Eligible Plan Standard Silver Silver 73 Silver 87 Silver 94
Income Any 200-250% FPL 150-200% FPL 100-150% FPL
Actuarial Value 70% 73% 87% 94%

The ACA designed the CSR program so that insurers would be reimbursed for expenditures incurred under the program, and would be paid back whatever costs were charged to ensure that consumers who received services were only paying out-of-pocket expenses in line with the AV of their CSR-eligible health plan.

Questions about the exact language of the CSR law spurred litigation over whether it was legal for the government to issue reimbursements without an explicit appropriation for the program. Pending the outcome of this litigation, the Administration stopped issuing CSR reimbursements.

Response to Elimination of Federal CSR Reimbursements
After the Administration stopped CSR payments last October, most state regulators directed their insurance carriers to adjust their 2018 premium rates to account for CSR losses. Not responding to the issue would have left insurers exposed to the lost federal funding, possibly resulting in insurers opting to not participate in markets. As CSR payments most directly affected silver-level plans sold on the marketplaces, most states and carriers opted to load premium increases onto silver-level plans offered through their insurance marketplaces. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that silver plan premiums increased by 10 percent on average in 2018 in response to elimination of CSR funding. Among the states that operate their own marketplaces, only three did not load the increases onto their silver plans. These included:

  • Colorado, which advised its insurers to distribute premium increases across all metal levels to mitigate the effect on silver-level plans;
  • Vermont, which similarly distributed premium increases across all metal levels due to uncertainty over the effects of the changes on its uniquely-merged individual and small group markets; and
  • Washington, D.C., which calculated that elimination of the CSR payments would have minimal effect on its market due to low enrollment of CSR-eligible individuals.

CSR Loading Had Differing Impacts on Subsidized and Non-subsidized Consumers
Silver-loaded premiums shifted the affordability and value of plans offered through marketplaces, distorting costs and participation in the markets. For consumers who were eligible for premium tax credits to subsidize their coverage (82 percent of marketplace consumers in 2017), some coverage options became even more affordable. This is because the tax credit is calculated based on the second-lowest-cost silver plan available to a consumer. As a result, as silver premium costs increased in response to CSR elimination, so did the total amount of tax credit a qualifying consumer could receive. This increase in tax credits — combined with more marginal increases in premiums for bronze- and gold-level plans than for silver plans — meant that both bronze and gold plans became more affordable for these consumers. Availability of these more affordable plans may have attributed to the enrollment increases seen in some states’ marketplaces.

While the silver-loading strategy served the important purpose of insulating lower-income consumers from CSR losses, it resulted in increases costs for consumers who were ineligible for tax credits. The increased premiums escalated affordability concerns and forced many of these consumers to seek cheaper options, either by enrolling in lower-value bronze plans or by disenrolling from marketplace coverage entirely. These changes had important repercussions for both consumers and insurers participating in the markets.

  • Distorted market competition and enrollment. CSR payment elimination had disproportionate effects on marketplace insurers as they adjusted premium rates differently based on the proportion of CSR-eligible consumers enrolled in their plans. Insurers with a greater proportion of CSR-eligible individuals increased premiums by a higher amount than those with fewer CSR-eligible enrollees. In California, for example, CSR-induced premium rate increases ranged from 8 percent to as much as 27 percent. This lead to a distortion of premium prices between insurers and generated shifts in market share as consumers switched to insurers whose plans had smaller premium growth.
  • Increased consumer susceptibility to out-of-pocket spending. The lower-cost bronze plans, which offer less coverage, enticed more consumers to purchase them. While this lowered consumers’ annual spending on premiums, the lower AV of bronze plans means that these consumers are at greater risk of higher out-of-pocket spending. This is especially true for consumers who were once CSR-eligible but switched from silver to bronze plans without considering the resulting out-of-pocket costs.
  • Complete disenrollment from individual market coverage. While the total impact of CSR changes on enrollment cannot be known without additional data about off-marketplace enrollment, it is highly probable that premium increases and confusion over the changes in premium costs spurred some non-subsidized consumers to drop insurance coverage altogether. These drops in coverage led to altered market risk pools and premium increases.

Consumers Shifted Purchasing Patterns in 2018
While it is not possible to determine the absolute effect of CSR elimination on consumers’ behavior, initial data collected by the 10 SBM states indicate that state and insurer decisions to silver-load influenced consumers’ choices in 2018. Key patterns that emerged include:

  • Disenrollment in silver-level health plans, especially among unsubsidized consumers: While the majority of consumers from these states continued to select silver-level health plans, there was an almost a universal drop in the proportion of enrollees selecting silver-level plans (exceptions include Colorado and Vermont, which did not silver-load, and Minnesota, whose Basic Health Program for consumers earning up to 200 percent FPL offset the effect of CSR losses.) As expected, shifts away from silver plan selections were more common among individuals who did not receive tax credits.
  • Growth in enrollment in bronze plans: There was almost universal growth across all states in the proportion of enrollees who selected bronze plans, with the exception of Minnesota and Vermont, which only saw marginal reduction in bronze plan selections.
  • Varied growth or disenrollment in gold plans: Changes in gold selections vary across states, from Colorado where the proportion of gold enrollments dropped by nearly one-third to Maryland where gold enrollments increased nearly four-fold.

Different trends in enrollment among subsidized and unsubsidized consumers in these states indicate that CSR policies did not by themselves drive shifts in enrollment. It is also likely that the total effect of the CSR issue varied greatly across all states, depending on several factors including:

  • The proportion of unsubsidized marketplace consumers in the state — especially those enrolled in silver plans who were most susceptible to silver-loaded premiums; and
  • Baseline premium prices of bronze or gold alternatives for consumers seeking to shift away from silver plans.

Investments in education and outreach also affected how consumers responded to CSR-loading in various states. The Massachusetts’ Health Connector, for example, was among several states that took extensive steps to urge its unsubsidized silver-plan enrollees to seek more affordable options either on or outside the marketplace. Connector officials reported that they were successful in moving 82 percent of affected enrollees into new coverage plans. This meant that 18 percent of unsubsidized consumers remained in silver plans, despite its aggressive outreach efforts to inform consumers about the availability of more affordable options.

Outlook for States and Markets Pending Federal Action
While this information provides a snapshot of enrollment patterns in 2018 from 10 states, it indicates that responses to the CSR funding elimination had diverse effects on states’ markets and consumers. Similarly, if CSR funding is reinstated, the effect will reverberate differently across states’ markets and consumers. Significant changes could mean another year of disruption for insurers, who will need to adapt products and rates based on shifting federal policy, and consumers, who may need to once again actively shop around and switch plans next year. The CBO estimates that 500,000 to 1 million consumers would become uninsured from 2020 to 2021 if CSR funding was reinstated. These would mostly impact consumers with incomes between 200 to 400 percent FPL who would no longer would benefit from tax credits, which are larger than CSR subsidies.

While states and insurers rapidly responded to the Administration’s decision to end the CSR program in 2017, an absence of clear policies and continuous last-minute changes will spur unrest in markets. Without sustainable policies to stabilize the individual market, consumers will face higher costs, confusion, and anxiety about whether insurance coverage will be available when they need it.

While CSR funding remains a concern to some states, states are also seeking solutions that could bring immediate stability to markets, such as federal reinsurance funding. Whatever policies are implemented this spring, time is of the essence as state regulators are already in active negotiations with their insurers for 2019 offerings, with rate filings expected in some states as early as May. Ideally, future federal policies will grant states sufficient time and flexibility to respond to policy changes in a manner most appropriate for their markets.

Click here to view a chart comparing marketplace enrollment by metal level in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington State.