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Late Move To Dump 'Essential' Benefits Could Strand Chronically Ill

By Kaiser Health News  
   March 24, 2017

Axing essential benefits could bring back the pre-ACA days when insurers avoided expensive patients by excluding services they needed.

This article first appeared March 24, 2017 on Kaiser Health News.

By Jay Hancock

Updated, 7:09 AM

A last-minute attempt by conservative Republicans to dump standards for health benefits in plans sold to individuals would probably lower the average consumer's upfront insurance costs, such as premiums and deductibles, said experts on both sides of the debate to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

But, they add, it will likely also induce insurers to offer much skimpier plans, potentially excluding the gravely ill, and putting consumers at greater financial risk if they need care.

For example, a woman who had elected not to have maternity coverage could face financial ruin from an unintended pregnancy. A healthy young man who didn't buy drug coverage could be bankrupted if diagnosed with cancer requiring expensive prescription medicine. Someone needing emergency treatment at a non-network hospital might not be covered.

What might be desirable for business would leave patients vulnerable.

"What you don't want if you're an insurer is only sick people buying whatever product you have," said Christopher Koller, president of the Milbank Memorial Fund and a former Rhode Island insurance commissioner. "So the way to get healthy people is to offer cheaper products designed for the healthy people."

Such a change could give carriers wide room to do that by eliminating or shrinking "essential health benefits" including hospitalization, prescription drugs, mental health treatment and lab services from plan requirements — especially if state regulators don't step in to fill the void, analysts said.

As part of the push by House GOP leaders to gain more support for their plan, they amended the bill Thursday  to allow states to decide, starting next year, what if any benefits  insurers must provide on the individual market, rather than requiring health plans to include the law's essential health benefits, according to House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas).

Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.


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