Why and How to Avoid High-Risk Pools for Americans with Preexisting Conditions

Why and How to Avoid High-Risk Pools for Americans with Preexisting Conditions

Jean P. Hall

The American Health Care Act (AHCA)—the U.S. House of Representatives’ bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—would allow states to apply for waivers to reduce existing consumer protections and provide funding for states to set up high-risk pools or other mechanisms for people with preexisting conditions who have lapses in their coverage. In previous posts, I have talked about the high costs and meager coverage associated with high-risk pools that operated before the ACA and the fact that their use did not significantly reduce costs for other people who buy their own health plans in the individual market. Moreover, the Congressional Budget Office analysis of the AHCA finds that the funding it makes available to states for the high-risk pools is inadequate.

In a recent commentary for Annals of Internal Medicine on high-risk pools, I note that people with preexisting conditions constitute roughly 51 percent of Americans. Here, let’s explore who might end up in a high-risk pool, what their experiences might be, and policymakers’ alternative options for stabilizing the marketplaces.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimated that 23 percent of Americans with preexisting conditions had a period of uninsurance in 2014, often because of job changes or periods of financial instability. Young people reaching age 26 who transition off their parents’ coverage also sometimes experienced gaps in coverage—and some of them have preexisting conditions. Should the AHCA become law, individuals with preexisting conditions and lapses in coverage who live in states that obtain waivers to allow insurers to charge people based on their health would likely end up in high-risk pools.

Research has shown that the greater out-of-pocket costs and limited coverage associated with high-risk pools led to enrollees forgoing needed care and experiencing worse outcomes. In fact, before the ACA, high-risk pool enrollees in Kansas were eight times more likely to transition to federal disability programs than members of the general population with these conditions.

Current Medicaid beneficiaries also would be affected. The Congressional Budget Office analysis of the AHCA estimated that 14 million fewer people would have Medicaid coverage as a result of the federal funding cuts. Many of them would be forced to look to the individual insurance market to gain coverage, yet half of these former Medicaid beneficiaries would have serious preexisting conditions. Given the historically very high costs for consumers associated with high-risk pools, the majority of these individuals would likely go uninsured instead. Many would end up using the emergency room to access care once their needs become urgent, and their uncompensated health care costs would be borne by others with insurance. Some would likely suffer serious health consequences, even preventable deaths.

Supporters of the AHCA suggest that the legislation gives states more options to design coverage for their citizens, thereby better meeting their needs. Section 1332 of the ACA, however, already gives states a great deal of flexibility in designing their marketplaces while still providing comprehensive and affordable coverage. Indeed, both Alaska and Minnesota are pursuing 1332 waiver programs to specifically address concerns about high-risk individuals by implementing reinsurance programs, rather than segregating people with preexisting conditions into high-risk pools. These programs would maintain the overall larger pool of insured people in the state while protecting insurers against catastrophic costs. Reinsurance programs, such as the one temporarily instituted under the ACA for its first three years, have historically been proven to bring down premium costs for everyone. Given that reinsurance programs are a more effective and evidence-based mechanism for stabilizing the individual insurance market, state policymakers should strongly consider pursuing these programs under the existing ACA rules instead of establishing high-risk pools. And, federal policymakers should acknowledge and support this mechanism to strengthen the marketplace, bring down costs, and encourage participation by insurers.