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Did the Affordable Care Act make the grade?

From the June ACP Internist, copyright © 2014 by the American College of Physicians

By Robert B. Doherty

Although it is now more than 4 years since it first became law, it is only with the end of the Affordable Care Act (ACA’s) first annual open enrollment period on April 15 that we can begin to get a real sense of its impact. Of course, there is still a long way to go and many more years of tracking enrollment before one will be able to definitively declare that the ACA has been an overall success, failure, or something in between. Still, at the risk of going a bit out on a limb, I think there is enough information to begin to grade how well the ACA’s enrollment is going—so far, that is.

Total enrollment in qualified health plans: A

The number of people who signed up for a qualified health plan exceeded 8 million people when the first-year enrollment process closed on April 15, more than 1 million more than the Congressional Budget Office had estimated before the botched launch last October (more on the launch later). This number is expected to increase because several states running their own insurance marketplaces (also known as exchanges) gave people a few more weeks to complete enrollment. Also, people whose circumstances change during the year, like a woman having a baby, can still choose a qualified plan through a special enrollment process.

Total enrollment in Medicaid and CHIP (federal government): A

Because of the ACA, another 5.23 million to 7.29 million low-income people had enrolled in these programs by mid-April. But unlike the marketplace health plans, eligible persons can continue to sign up for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program any time during the year, so these numbers will increase.

Total enrollment in Medicaid and CHIP (the states): A for states that have expanded Medicaid; F for states that haven’t

When the Supreme Court declared the ACA’s original requirement that states expand Medicaid unconstitutional, while upholding the rest of the law, it left it up to the states to decide if they would expand the program. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia have said yes; the rest have not (although some are still thinking about it).

Under the ACA, the only way that people with incomes below the federal poverty level can get covered is through Medicaid, so if you are a poor person who lives in a state that has turned down the expansion, you are left out in the cold. According to an April 4 Washington Post article, enrollment in Medicaid since September “grew 8.3% in states that expanded their programs for low-income residents, 5 times higher than the 1.6% enrollment increase that non-expansion states saw over the same time.”

Reducing the number of uninsured (nationwide): B+

Although we don’t have exact numbers yet, the Rand Corporation estimated that more than 9 million previously uninsured people have gotten coverage so far this year. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this will grow to 12 million by the end of 2014. The Gallup Organization found that “The uninsured rate has been falling since the fourth quarter of 2013, after hitting an all-time high of 18.0% in the third quarter—a sign that the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as ‘Obamacare,’ appears to be accomplishing its goal of increasing the percentage of Americans with health insurance coverage.”

Reducing the number of uninsured (the states): A for states that are on board with the ACA, F for states that are not

Gallup also found that “The uninsured rate among adults aged 18 and older in the states that have chosen to expand Medicaid and set up their own exchanges in the health insurance marketplace has declined significantly more this year than in the remaining states that have not done so.”

Initial ACA rollout, October through November: F

I won’t sugar coat it. The initial botched rollout and nonworking www.healthcare.gov portal were a disaster for the ACA, for the administration, and for anyone who wanted the ACA to succeed.

ACA rollout, December through April: A

I had my doubts that they could pull it off, but the administration did manage to get the website working and, with a lot of help from others, persuaded millions of Americans to sign up.

Handling of canceled insurance policies: D

The administration knew all along that a small percentage of people, about 3% of the population, would have to replace their individual insurance plans with one that meets the ACA’s coverage requirements. But the 12 million or so people who were affected did not see it coming, and when the cancellations became front-page news, the administration was ill-prepared to respond and then kept changing the rules. The president’s promise that “you can keep your plan if you like it” was proven to be untrue for them.

But now it turns out that more than 70% of this group qualified for the ACA’s premium subsidies, and the Rand Corporation estimates that fewer than 1 million of them were still without coverage by mid-April.

Protection for people with preexisting conditions: A+

This one is simple. Because of the ACA, no one can be turned down or charged more because they have a preexisting health condition.

Network adequacy and benefits: C

Because of the ACA, Americans can’t be sold an insurance plan that fails to cover 10 categories of essential benefits, and prevention is covered at no cost. But many of the plans sold have high deductibles and/or very narrow “provider” networks and restrictive formularies, which can undermine the ACA’s goal of making affordable care available to everyone. ACP has argued that the administration and state regulators need to do a better job of regulating network adequacy and formularies.

Cumulative ACA enrollment grade: ?

It depends on where you live. If you live in a state that’s on board with the ACA (Medicaid and exchanges), your state’s effort, combined with the federal government’s implementation, earns a B, a very good grade for an immensely complicated law. But if you live in a state opposed to Medicaid expansion and the marketplace plans, the grade is D, because your state is standing in the way of people getting covered and there is little that the federal government can do about it.

Overall, though, the ACA deserves high marks for expanding coverage to millions. Let’s hope that by next year, more states will have made the grade by expanding Medicaid to their poorest residents.

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