New Data Settles the Debate: Obamacare Is Making Health Insurance More Affordable, Not Less

Change in Obamacare Premiums, 2014-2015

It’s that time of year again.

No, not the holiday season. I’m talking about Obamacare season.

In the second year of our new annual tradition, the exchanges are open for enrollment, which begs the question: What have we learned since last time? Were the naysayers proven right, or did Obamacare really make health insurance more affordable, as was intended?

With a new year of data to answer these questions, once more into the breach we go…

At this time last year, the inaugural enrollment period was not going well. The website was malfunctioning, people were losing plans they wanted to keep, and the media was running scare stories about “sticker shock.” I argued, on the contrary, that the website would get fixed in a hurry, most people were getting better plans, and the exchanges were actually reducing the cost of health insurance.

The first prediction was clearly vindicated. The website got fixed, and 8 million Americans enrolled.

The second prediction was also a victory for Obamacare. Before the exchanges opened, 16.4 percent of Americans were uninsured. A year later, only 11.3 percent were uninsured.

And this isn’t only due to the Medicaid expansion. In states that did not expand Medicaid, the uninsured rate fell from 18.2 percent to 13.8 percent. Clearly, the exchanges didn’t just replace old plans. They created new ones for people who didn’t have any.

They didn’t reduce coverage. They expanded it.

And according to the latest Gallup poll, the people who got that coverage are just as happy with it as the people with non-exchange insurance — and the people on the exchange are actually happier with their costs than everyone else.

Which brings us to the third prediction. This one was more controversial.

Earlier this year, I analyzed the many studies of pre- and post-Obamacare costs and came to the conclusion: “On average, Obamacare clearly lowered the cost of health insurance.”

Two of the experts who wrote one of those studies, Paul Howard and Yevgeniy Feyman, disagreed with me. They argued that I misinterpreted their estimates by comparing Kaiser’s estimate for all ages to their estimate for 27-year-olds. But they’re the ones who made the mistake. Apparently, they misread the Kaiser estimate I cited, which referred to 18-to-34-year-olds, not all age groups. I chose this estimate specifically because it was comparable to theirs.

Then, they cited other studies that used the same faulty methodology that they used, and they claimed that I “ignored” those studies — when in fact I explained exactly why those kinds of studies were inaccurate.

Finally, they suggested that I was conflating premiums before subsidies with the cost after subsidies, overlooking the price paid by taxpayers. At this point, I was wondering whether they even read my original article, where I made a clear distinction between the two. The evidence suggested, I wrote, that the average premium increase before subsidies was small — maybe zero. And even if it did increase, that increase was due to people buying more generous plans because now they could afford them. And the point of the subsidies was to make health insurance costs go down for the people who needed it the most — which is exactly what happened.

Whew. You can see what I meant when I said it was controversial.

The good news is, now we have a second year of data to settle the debate, and this data is better because we can compare the same level of plans with the same amount of coverage on the same exchanges, apples-to-apples, as opposed to the pre-Obamacare plans, which were all over the map. Literally.

The nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation has examined the “benchmark” silver plans in major cities in all 50 states, and they’ve found that the monthly premiums have increased 2 percent, on average, since last year. That is slower than health insurance premiums have grown in any year since we’ve started recording the data. Only a couple years ago, health insurance costs were growing 5 percent per year. During the Bush administration, they were growing more than 10 percent per year. Two percent is unheard of.

And that’s only the average. In nearly half of those cities, premiums are falling on the exchanges. That’s unprecedented. Health insurance premiums almost never fall. And when you compare premiums after subsidies, 90 percent of cities are paying less than they did last year!

Now, maybe you still don’t like Obamacare. Maybe you’d prefer a simpler, cheaper system. (Who wouldn’t?) But there is one thing you simply cannot deny: Over the past year, health insurance has become more affordable for the non-group market, and the result will be better health care for millions of Americans who need it and wouldn’t have it if Obamacare didn’t exist.

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This op-ed was originally published in today’s Huffington Post.

Finally! Someone Explains What All Those Obamacare Numbers Mean!

You’re going to hear a lot about Obamacare this fall, especially from Republicans. They’ll try to convince you that it was a bad deal. They’ll throw numbers at you to make you think that the cost of health insurance is spiraling out of control. In all likelihood, those numbers will be wrong, but how will you know? There are so many numbers flying around out there that even the experts are having trouble keeping track.

That’s why it’s time for a math lesson. After reading this article, you’ll know what the numbers mean — and which ones you should trust. No candidate will be able to fool you.

Millian Medical Index

And you won’t even need a calculator.

First of all, you have to understand that we’re only talking about the individual market, where people buy insurance if they’re not covered by their employer or a government program. That means the “individual mandate” and the “government-run exchanges” only affect 7 percent of the population. For the majority of the population covered by their employer, the cost of health insurance rose less in 2014 than it had in any year since the Milliman Medical Index started keeping track. We can probably thank Obamacare’s cost control provisions for some of that achievement, but that’s a conversation for another day.

For now, let’s focus on the individual market. Before Obamacare, insurers charged low rates to healthy people and high rates to sick people, making insurance unaffordable for the people who needed it the most. Obamacare banned discrimination against sick people and mandated that all people must purchase insurance. Without that mandate, insurers would have raised rates to cover the new sick customers, and healthy people would have refused to pay the new high rates, driving rates up even higher as the population became sicker on average.

When the law was passed, the Congressional Budget Office predicted that premiums would increase 10 to 13 percent, but only because people would be receiving more generous coverage. Obamacare required every health insurance plan to meet basic minimum standards. Additionally, by making it more affordable, more people would want to buy more generous coverage. If you compared plans with the same level of coverage, the CBO predicted that premiums would actually go down.

When states started announcing the premiums for their new “exchanges,” you probably started hearing about “sticker shock.” By comparing the new premiums to old quotes from health insurance websites, Obamacare critics claimed that the law had drastically raised prices. The problem with their argument was that the quotes on the old websites were very unreliable. They rarely reflected what insurers would actually charge you, once they factored in your medical history, age, gender, etc. In fact, many Americans would be denied coverage altogether. Anyone who knew anything about health insurance knew that the website quotes were lowballing the cost.

State governments like California countered by making a more reasonable comparison. They argued that the new exchange premiums were actually lower than premiums for small group coverage, for which they had better data. Obamacare critics weren’t satisfied. Small group plans may have been more expensive than the plans on the new exchange, but that’s because they offered more generous coverage.

The Manhattan Institute, led by conservative health expert Avik Roy, tried to find a middle ground by adjusting the quotes on the health insurance websites, raising the estimates for people who were “surcharged” or denied, and finding that Obamacare increased prices by 41 percent.

The problem with Roy’s analysis was that his adjusted numbers didn’t match reality. Before Obamacare, Roy suggested that 27-year-olds — the ones who were being hit the hardest, he argued — paid between $1,596 (men) and $1,980 (women) in average annual premiums. But the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a survey in 2010 and found that they were actually paying closer to $2,630. Across the board, Roy had underestimated the pre-Obamacare cost of health insurance, and he wasn’t including costs that consumers paid out of their own pockets.

Last month, three Wharton economists used the Current Population Survey to calculate a more accurate estimate of the average pre-Obamacare premium. They found that it was basically identical to the lowest-cost plan available on the Obamacare exchanges. Compared to more expensive plans, of course, it was cheaper, but when they factored in out-of-pocket costs, they found that the new plans were 14 to 28 percent more expensive than the old ones, only slightly higher than the CBO’s original predictions.

Monthly Subsidized Premiums on Federal Exchange

But wait. The Wharton study only counted people who purchased insurance, not people who were denied or who refused because the insurer’s quote was too expensive. We’ll never know what that quote was, but we can assume it would significantly raise our estimate of the average premium. To ignore those people — and there were millions of them — is to say that they don’t matter, even though Obamacare was designed specifically with them in mind.

The Wharton study also doesn’t include the tax credits that the federal government uses to subsidize low-to-middle income buyers on the exchanges. Last month, the government announced that 87 percent of shoppers received a subsidy on the federal exchange, bringing their average monthly premium down from $346 to only $82!

That’s a 76 percent reduction, and it more than makes up for the 14 to 28 percent premium increase, which may not be much of an increase after all if you include people who didn’t buy insurance in the past.

Bottom line: On average, Obamacare clearly lowered the cost of health insurance.

Sure, some people will pay higher rates, but you have to remember that those people only paid low rates in the past because insurers were discriminating against sick people. The new market is much fairer and more affordable for more people — a fact that you might want to point out to Republicans on the campaign trail this fall.

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Similar versions of this op-ed were published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Huffington Post.