Welcome to the Illinois Health Matters Blog

Welcome to the Illinois Health Matters Blog. Our blog discusses various topics around how health care reform is affecting the people of Illinois. We present a variety of different perspectives from health care experts, both from our state, and nationally. For more information please visit IllinoisHealthMatters.org.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Employer-Sponsored Health Insurance Staying Steady

Rates of employer-sponsored healthcare have not declined since the implementation of the ACA, according to Fredric Blavin, a Senior Research Associate at the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center. These findings, published in the January 2015 issue of Health Affairs, are based on his analysis of the Health Reform Monitoring Survey. Researchers at the Urban Institute administered this survey to workers between June 2013 and September 2014, asking if they are/were employed and if they are/were offered employer-sponsored health coverage. Analysis of these national data, displayed in figure 1, suggests that rates have remained statistically constant. The pre-existing and new ACA economic incentives for workers to obtain coverage from employers remains strong; the feared erosion has not yet materialized.

Massachusetts An Early Example

Earlier studies on Massachusetts’ employer-sponsored insurance market support Blavin’s findings. Between fall 2006 and fall 2009, a period of time which included adoption of the state’s health reforms, the rate of employer-sponsored insurance increased by 3%.

ACA Provisions Prevented Downward Direction

Incentives in the healthcare law have restrained the predicted drop-off in employer coverage. Provisions, such as ongoing preferential tax treatment of premiums through payroll deductions and the mandate to provide coverage for businesses with 50 or more workers, have persuaded employers to continue offering plans.

But Small Firms Are Left Out

One notable result from this survey is the nagging imbalance between large firms and small firms offering coverage.  Although mechanisms like the small employer tax credit and the SHOP Marketplace are meant to close this gap, small businesses have not taken advantage. Outreach and education with small businesses represents a large opportunity for insurance coverage expansion.   Small employers need information to understand provisions of the ACA in order to provide health insurance options to this growing workforce.

Michele Thornton, MBA
Insurance and Benefits Consultant

Blogger Tricks

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Illinois Small Businesses Should SHOP for 2015 Health Coverage

Small business owners: are you considering all available options to find a health insurance plan that works best for your business and employees?

One resource for Illinois small business owners is the Small Business Health Insurance Options Program, or SHOP, where employers can compare group health insurance options. The SHOP is open year-round for small employers to browse, compare plans, and fill out applications online.

The Benefits of SHOPping Around

Buying health insurance through the SHOP can help small businesses save money. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, total spending on healthcare by small businesses will decrease by 8.7% because of provisions in the healthcare law. Small employers that offer coverage through the marketplace may be eligible for a tax credit that can cover up to 50% of their employees’ premiums. The Small Business Majority’s tax credit calculator shows if small businesses are eligible for the credit and how much money they could receive.

There are even more benefits to buying a SHOP plan, because small businesses will no longer be charged more for female workers, who had been paying up to 50% more for their premiums before the healthcare reform law. In addition, employers will no longer pay more for workers with pre-existing conditions and will benefit from new limits regulating health insurance costs for older workers.

Health & Disability Advocates, a non-profit with 16 full-time employees, is an example of a small organization that used the SHOP and found a better deal. Both HDA and its employees gained – the non-profit is now spending approximately $20,000 less on healthcare, while its workers have lower premiums and have access to a wider network.

The Downside of Sticking With Your Current Plan

As many as 80% of companies with up to 50 employees opted to renew their non-compliant plans for 2014, and a similar percentage will likely try to do so this year. Small business owners who decide to renew their old plan may not save money and may instead see a price increase for 2015. This is why investigating all health insurance options, including those offered through the SHOP, could benefit small businesses. Many could save money by purchasing a plan through the health insurance marketplace, or through selecting a plan with better coverage for about the same cost.

How to Start

In order to begin the enrollment process and explore options, Illinois small businesses can visit the SHOP online, or contact a certified health insurance broker to assist with the enrollment process. The more small business owners know, the easier it will be for them to get their employees more-affordable insurance coverage. Once owners have found a reasonable option for their small business, they can stop worrying about health insurance and do what they do best – run the companies that make up the backbone of our state and our nation.

Jesse Greenberg
Director, West and Midwest
Small Business Majority

Friday, January 9, 2015

Don't Chip Away CHIP

Leaders, from Illinois and across the country, are calling on Congress to continue funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program by highlighting its success in reducing the number of uninsured children and warning that these children may lose coverage or receive less age-appropriate care.  The Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP for short, offers developmentally appropriate healthcare for low-and-moderate-income children from families earning wages above the Medicaid threshold.  In Illinois, the program covers 219,000 children and pregnant women as of June 30, 2014.

The healthcare reform law funded CHIP until October 2015, but states need quick federal action as they plan their budgets for the coming year. Unfortunately, Congress may forgo CHIP funding, because children could potentially obtain health insurance through the health insurance marketplace. However, the health benefits in a marketplace plan may not equal those offered through CHIP, and families may not be able to afford the premiums and co-payments.

CHIP’s Benefits are Better

The essential health benefits in the marketplace’s qualified health plans can differ from CHIP’s; marketplace plans can either enact more stringent benefit limits or not cover important pediatric services. For example, a Government Accountability Office study of CHIP programs in five states including Illinois found that marketplace plans were more likely to limit pediatric services and that CHIP offered more generous ceilings for certain services.

Of special significance for children, marketplace plans are not required to cover pediatric dental services if a stand-alone dental plan is available. This means families might be forced to purchase a dental plan in addition to a general health plan for their children—increasing monthly premiums. Since the individual mandate would not apply to dental coverage, families may forgo pediatric dental coverage altogether.

Children in the Illinois CHIP program, All Kids, benefit from Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment services. EPSDT can identify medical conditions at an earlier and more treatable point in time and link children with necessary care. The benchmark plan for the state does not offer a comparable set of services. 

Higher Costs and Family Glitches

CHIP health plans, including Illinois’ All Kids, have better cost sharing arrangements than marketplace plans. Monthly premiums in All Kids range from $0-40, while the marketplace’s lowest cost bronze plan in Chicago had a heftier premium of $76 per month.

A report by the nonpartisan Medicaid and CHIP Access Payment Commission found similar patterns across the nation. According to the report, the actuarial value, or the costs covered by a health insurance plan, is generally lower in marketplace plans.

Parents and children forced out of CHIP plans would also encounter higher healthcare prices due to the ACA’s family glitch. The healthcare law bases affordable workplace insurance—and a family’s eligibility for marketplace financial assistance—on the cost of insuring individuals, not families. Parents are placed in the bind of being unable to afford their employer’s family plan, because that option involves much higher costs, but cannot qualify for tax credits or subsidies.

Stick with CHIP

Advocacy groups and leaders from both political parties have called CHIP a success. Since its creation in 1997, the program has increased the number of children with health insurance: 8 million children were enrolled in 2012 alone. The program has contributed to the marked decrease in the percentage of uninsured children, which has fallen from 13.9% to 7.1% over the past 17 years. Because of CHIP’s proven track record and uncertainty surrounding healthcare options in a post-CHIP era, Congress needs to continue funding this important program.

Bryce Marable, MSW
Policy Analyst
Health & Disability Advocates

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Employers: Dropping Group Health Insurance Could Cost You

Looking ahead to 2015, many employers are deciding how to respond to the rising cost of employee group health insurance premiums. A study of employers by the large consulting group Mercer suggests that “the per-employee health benefit cost will rise by an average of 3.9% in 2015.” Although this is moderate compared to past premium-increase trends, “two-thirds of respondents say they will make changes to their health plans next year to rein in cost growth.”

Using Cash Pay-Outs Instead

To control costs, some small employers are considering dropping group coverage altogether. In a recent article by the Wall Street Journal, WellPoint, Inc. reported that “its small-business-plan membership is shrinking faster than expected and it has lost about 300,000 people.”

Many small employers are instead planning to offer a cash payout – a lump-sum of cash – for employees to purchase coverage on their own or through the new ACA marketplaces. While this may appear an attractive way to rein in health insurance costs, employers must consider the tax implications for employees and their organization. Taken together, cash pay-outs will actually increase costs overall for both employers and employees.

Employees Will Pay More...

Group insurance is a better deal for employees. With group health insurance, the amount that an employer pays towards an employee’s health insurance is not counted as taxable income. In addition, employee premium contributions can be withdrawn pre-tax directly from their paycheck. This substantially reduces the employee’s overall taxable income and the income tax they will pay. The example below shows the monthly take-home pay for a person making $6,250 per month who participates in an employer-sponsored group health plan.

As the example indicates, the employee’s net pay is $3,955. In comparison, if the same employee instead received a cash pay-out to purchase health insurance individually, they would make $3,595 per month. Example 2 shows how employees will end up paying more in taxes and more for their insurance when a cash pay-out is used.

As you can see, cash pay-outs will reduce overall employee compensation. When employees give workers cash to pay for their own health insurance, the money increases their gross income and in effect the monthly taxes they must pay. Additionally, the money directed toward employee premiums cannot be withdrawn pre-tax from their paycheck.

The real numbers will change depending on premium costs, tax brackets, and income level, but the message is consistent: employees will lose money. Employee Benefits Corporation has a great calculator tool that helps individuals understand the personal impact of pre-tax benefits.

... And So Will Employers

Because cash pay-outs increase employee gross income, the amount that the employer must pay in state and federal taxes will also increase. In our example above, when the employer offered group health insurance, the employee earned a base monthly salary of $5,650. In the second scenario, the employee’s monthly salary increased to $6,850. Employers pay on average 7.65% of their monthly payroll for Social Security and Medicare. For the employer providing group health insurance, the cost for Social Security and Medicare is $432; the employer offering cash instead of benefits would pay $524. This results in a difference to the employer of $92 per month – just for this one employee.

Higher salaries created by cash pay-outs also mean higher workers compensation costs, and short-term and long-term disability insurance. Since workers’ compensation replaces a portion of the employee’s salary, the higher the salary, the higher the costs. The same is true for short- and long-term disability insurance, which replaces all or part of employee salaries.

Stick With Group Health Insurance

Before quickly migrating to cash payouts employers should quantify cost implications for themselves and their employees. This calculation can complicate and lengthen the decision making process – but it is time well spent in the long run. If the goal is to reduce financial burden, using cash pay-outs ultimately creates the opposite effect and the promised reduction in costs is an illusion.

Michele Thornton, MBA
Insurance and Benefits Consultant

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Why Narrow Networks are a Big Deal: A Discussion of Network Adequacy

A network is defined as the healthcare facilities, professionals, and suppliers that an insurance carrier has contracted with to include in a given health plan. Network adequacy is the extent to which a health plan has a satisfactory number of primary and specialty healthcare professionals that consumers can access in a timely manner.

The terms network and network adequacy are pretty technical words, so the average consumer may not know their definition, but a percentage of the population is even unaware of how to apply these terms to the process of purchasing a health insurance plan. According to a Commonwealth Fund survey of marketplace shoppers, 25% said they did not know the quality of the network for their health insurance plan. The survey results indicate that consumers may lack an awareness of how network adequacy impacts them on a personal level.

Monday, November 24, 2014

People with Disabilities and the ACA

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is making health insurance coverage more affordable and accessible for millions of Americans. With the passage of this law, individuals and families have more control over their care – especially individuals with disabilities. The ACA provides people with disabilities a basic protection – they can no longer be denied access to health insurance simply because of their health history.

Under the ACA, individuals like myself can no longer be denied health care because of a pre-existing condition. This is significant for the up to 129 million non-elderly Americans living with some type of pre-existing health condition such as asthma or diabetes, including 17.6 million children.

We have come a long way over the past year. All combined, in just one year, we’ve reduced the number of uninsured adults by 26%. Additionally, 76 million Americans with private health insurance are getting preventive services such as vaccines, cancer screenings, and yearly wellness visits for free. Finally, more than 7 million Americans are enrolled in the Marketplace and more than 8 million additional individuals are enrolled in Medicaid and CHIP, compared to last fall.

We have much to celebrate but there is work to be done. November 15 marks the beginning of the second enrollment period, which will run until February 15. The Administration is committed to ensuring that all Americans have access to coverage. The open enrollment period is a time for Americans already enrolled to re-enroll. It is also a chance for those without coverage to enroll for the first time.

Take a few minutes to watch Joey talk about what the ACA has meant for him and millions of others:

To learn more about getting covered, please visit HealthCare.gov.
By Taryn Williams
Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

Posted with permission from The White House Blog 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Small Businesses in Illinois Lack Knowledge of What the ACA Has to Offer Them

With Illinois granted early access to the Small Business Health Options Program exchange, or SHOP, small businesses in the state already have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with a new online resource for purchasing health insurance for their employees.

For those that qualify, purchasing health insurance through the SHOP exchange can represent a smart business decision. They can receive tax credits covering up to 50% of their contribution to employee premiums, plus the SHOP allows small businesses to combine their purchasing with other small businesses to keep costs low.

The healthcare law does not require small businesses with fewer than 50 full-time equivalent employees to provide health insurance. Because 94% of businesses in Illinois employ fewer than 50 people, a large majority are exempt from offering health insurance.