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The Affordable Care Act's Fate Is In Flux But 2021 Health Plan Prices Are Stable

Open enrollment is about to start for those buying private insurance off state or federal exchanges.
PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou Getty Images/PhotoAlto
Open enrollment is about to start for those buying private insurance off state or federal exchanges.

Facing a pandemic, record unemployment and unknown future costs for COVID-19 treatments, health insurers selling Affordable Care Act plans to individuals reacted by lowering rates in some areas and, overall, issuing only modest premium increases for 2021.

"What's been fascinating is that carriers in general are not projecting much impact from the pandemic for their 2021 premium rates," said Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Although final rates have yet to be analyzed in all states, those who study the market say the premium increases they have seen to date will be in the low single digits — and decreases are not uncommon.


That's good news for the more than 10 million Americans who purchase their own ACA health insurance through federal and state marketplaces. The federal market, which serves 36 states, opens for 2021 enrollment Nov. 1, with sign-up season ending Dec. 15. Some of the 14 states and the District of Columbia that operate their own markets have longer enrollment periods.

The flip side of flat or declining premiums is that some consumers who qualify for subsidies to help them purchase coverage may also see a reduction in that aid. Subsidies are determined by a mix of a consumer's income and the cost of a benchmark plan.

Here are a few things to know about 2021 coverage:

It might cost about the same this year — or even less.

Despite the ongoing debate about the ACA — compounded by a Supreme Court challenge brought by 20 Republican states and supported by the Trump administration — enrollment and premium prices are not forecast to shift much.


"It's the third year in a row with premiums staying pretty stable," said Louise Norris, an insurance broker in Colorado who follows rates nationwide and writes about insurance trends. "We've seen modest rate changes and influx of new insurers."

That relative stability followed ups and downs, with the last big increases coming in 2018, partly in response to the Trump administration cutting some payments to insurers.

Those increases priced out some enrollees, particularly people who don't qualify for subsidies, which are tied both to income and the cost of premiums. ACA enrollment has fallen since its peak in 2016.

Charles Gaba, a web developer who has since late 2013 tracked enrollment data in the ACA on his website, follows premium changes based on filings with state regulators. Each summer, insurers must file their proposed rates for the following year with states, which have varying oversight powers.

Gaba said the average requested increase next year nationwide is 2.1%. When he looked at 18 states for which regulators have approved insurers' requested rates, the percentage is lower at 0.4%.

Another study, by KFF, of preliminary premiums filed this summer had similar findings: Premium changes in 2021 would be modest, only a few percentage points up or down. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

It's still worth it to shop around.

Actuaries and other experts say premiums vary by state or region — even by insurer — for a number of reasons, including the number and relative market power of insurers or hospitals in an area, which affects the ability of insurers to negotiate rates with providers.

For consumers who rely on subsidies to help cover premium costs, be aware: subsidies are tied to each region's benchmark plan – that's the second-lowest-priced silver plan in a region – and since those premium costs may have gone down, subsidies also could decrease.

Switching to the benchmark plan can help consumers maintain how much they spend in premiums.

Enrollees should update their financial information, particularly this year when many are affected by work reduction or job losses. "They might be eligible for a bigger subsidy," said Myra Simon, executive director of commercial policies for America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry lobbying group.

Enrollees can update their information online, or call their federal or state marketplace for assistance. Insurance brokers, too, can aid people in signing up for ACA plans. When shopping, consumers should check whether the doctors and hospitals they want to use are included in the plan's network.

Premiums are just one part of the equation. Consumers should also look closely at annual deductibles, because the trade-off of going with a lower-cost premium may well be higher annual deductibles that must be met before much of the coverage kicks in.

"We encourage people to consider all their options," said Simon.

Your choice of insurers may have widened. More insurers, including UnitedHealth Group, either stepped back into that individual market or expanded into new counties.

"Insurers are seeing a profit or potential for it," said John Dodd, an insurance broker in Columbus and past president of the Ohio Association of Health Underwriters.

Rates are down in general across his state for ACA plans, he said, and he expects agents to be busier than ever, simply because there are more plan offerings and choices to make and people want help.

Insurers, he said, like the way the ACA is working.

"People on TV who say it's not working, they don't know what they're talking about," said Dodd. "It's working well [for insurers] and every year it gets better."

What's behind the premium changes?

Enrollees in some states next year will see premium decreases, according to Gaba's website: Maine, for example, shows a 13% drop in weighted average premium prices, while Maryland's is down almost 12%. At the same time, Indiana's average is up 10%. And Kentucky is up 5%.

Both Maine and Maryland attribute the decrease to state programs that provide reinsurance payments to health insurers to help offset high-cost medical claims.

In Florida, regulators say insurance premiums will rise about 3%, while the state exchange in California is reporting just over a half-percent increase, its lowest average increase since opening in 2014. Officials in California cite factors that include an influx of healthier enrollees and a reduction in fees that insurers pay.

Other factors affecting rates include how much state regulators step in to alter initial rate filings, along with a provision of the ACA that requires insurers to spend at least 80% of revenue on direct medical care. If insurers don't meet that standard, they must issue rebates to policyholders. Many insurers were already on the hook to return money in 2020 for previous years.

Most insurers did not cite additional COVID treatment or testing costs as factors in their requested rate increase, Gaba said. Even those that did, however, mainly found them unnecessary because of reduced expenditures resulting from patients delaying elective care during the spring and summer.

Indeed, many insurers in the second quarter posted record profits.

"Some of them thought, 'We're going to make more than we thought this year in profits, so let's not be aggressive with pricing next year,'" said Donna Novak, a member of the American Academy of Actuaries' Individual and Small Group Markets Committee.

A smaller factor may be the repeal of a fee paid by insurers on premiums. Part of the ACA, the fee was permanently eliminated by the Trump administration effective for 2021.

New marketplaces in some states, and a public option.

Residents of New Jersey and Pennsylvania will buy coverage from new state-based marketplaces for 2021, after those states pulled out of the federal, which now covers 36 states.

Lawmakers in those states said running their own marketplaces gives them more control and may save them money over time.

In 19 Washington state counties, insurers are offering "public option plans," which have all the standard benefits, including lower deductibles, and must meet additional quality standards.

As envisioned, the public option plans aimed to be less expensive, with the legislation tying payment rates to Medicare. Insurers offering a public option must stick to an aggregate cap of paying doctors, hospitals and other medical providers an average of 160% of what Medicare would pay for the same services.

When the premium rates came in, however, the five insurers offering the plans had varying prices. Not all parts of the state have the option, but where they do, two of the public option insurers have premiums that are either lower than other plans in the area or are the lowest-cost plan the insurer offers.

But three are more expensive.

The state's marketplace staff said the higher prices may reflect a number of things, from difficulty getting the program started during COVID-19, to a lack of incentives to get providers to participate.

It could also just be normal first-year jitters.

"It's Year One. As with any market entry strategy, people are pretty conservative," said Michael Marchand, chief marketing officer of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Copyright 2020 Kaiser Health News. To see more, visit Kaiser Health News.