On March 23, 2014, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) turned four. In its relatively short life, the ACA has already accomplished a great deal. To celebrate, here’s a list of the top four gifts that the ACA has given to the American people:
1. No More Pre-existing Condition Exclusions
Before the ACA was law, insurance companies routinely denied people health coverage due to “pre-existing conditions,” which could range from common chronic conditions such as asthma and arthritis to diseases such as cancer or mental illness. However, as of September 2010, children could no longer be denied coverage due to a pre-existing condition, and as of January 2014, adults are now enjoying that same right.
By way of example, on HelpHub, the Illinois site that provides technical assistance to enrollment specialists, we have heard many stories about people who are beginning to obtain insurance after being told for years that they are were “uninsurable.” Families USA estimates that 64.8 million non-elderly Americans—or 1 in 4 people—have been diagnosed with pre-existing conditions that could have led to denials of coverage in the past. That’s over 5.6 million people in Illinois alone who can no longer be turned down or charged more for health insurance.
Though over half of the public know about this “gift” from the ACA, according to a January 2014 Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll, 53% of the uninsured remain unaware of this provision. We need to continue to publicize this incredible benefit of the law.
2. Financial Help to Obtain Insurance
Aside from pre-existing condition exclusions, another major barrier to accessing health insurance has been cost. Since employers have not been required to offer coverage, many low-wage workers never received an offer of coverage and were priced out of the individual insurance market.
Through the new Health Insurance Marketplaces, the ACA created three new ways to make health insurance more affordable. The first is premium tax credits, which can be taken by Marketplace consumers in advance to lower the amount of premium the individual or family must pay for their coverage. Consumers with incomes under $45,960 for a single individual and $94,200 for a family of four are eligible for these credits. The Department of Health and Human Services reports, for example, that nearly 5 in 10 uninsured single young adults eligible for the Marketplace could pay $50 or less per month after tax credits for coverage in 2014.
The second form of financial help provided by the ACA is cost-sharing reductions. These reduce the out-of-pocket costs, such as deductibles, copays, and co-insurance, that health care consumers can expect. Cost sharing reductions are available to health insurance Marketplace consumers who make between 100% and 250% of the federal poverty level who purchase a Silver plan. Why does this matter? It means lower prices for doctors’ visits, prescription drugs, and other care that people need—which is particularly important for people who utilize a high amount of services.
Recent enrollment numbers indicate that people are signing up for these subsidies, too. As of February 2014, 85% of Healthcare.gov enrollees qualified for premium tax credits, while 67% consumers chose Silver plans, indicating that they may also qualify for cost sharing reductions.
3. Medicaid Expansion
The ACA mandated a Medicaid expansion to all qualified adults below 138% of the federal poverty level (about $15,800/year for a single individual); this mandate filled a huge coverage gap in Medicaid eligibility for low-income adults. In June 2012, however, the United States Supreme Court made this expansion optional, and currently just half the states and Washington, D.C., have expanded Medicaid. Illinois is one of those states; last July, Governor Quinn signed the Medicaid Expansion (SB 26) into law, and according to reports at the recent Illinois Health Reform Implementation Council meeting enrollment into Medicaid has already exceeded expectations.
The number of Illinois residents enrolled in ACA Adult Medicaid is now at 200,000. This includes all Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) auto-enrollment and enrollment in CountyCare, the early expansion of Medicaid in Cook County, the largest county in Illinois )which includes Chicago and some of its collar suburbs). Of pending applications, the state expects another 150,000 will be eligible for ACA Adult Medicaid. Overall for 2014, it is anticipated that Illinois will enroll over 400,000 adults into the new Medicaid program.
Together, the Premium Tax Credits, Cost Sharing Reductions and the ACA Medicaid Expansion provide low-income families with the gift of affordable health care.
4. Essential Health Benefits
The ACA gift that people probably know the least about is the 10 Essential Health Benefits (EHB) that must be included in Medicaid and health plans in the individual and small group markets. Under EHB, not only must plans now include a range of free preventive services and screenings, but also prescription drugs, lab tests, dental and vision care for children, and mental health and substance use disorder services, among other critical services. The Essential Health Benefits package ensures comprehensive services are included in your policy so you aren’t left paying premiums for shoddy coverage.
These gifts have already started to make a huge difference to the American people. The uninsured rate is decreasing; and stories from around the country are streaming in about people who are able to see a doctor when they hadn’t for years, families who are able to afford their premiums every month, and individuals who finally have peace of mind because they have a good health insurance policy when they need it.
We can’t wait to see what the next four years of the ACA brings.