Beginning in 2014, each state is required to create an exchange (a governmental agency or nonprofit organization, established by the state) to facilitate the sale of qualified health plans (QHPs), including federally administered multistate plans and nonprofit cooperative plans. The law requires HHS to create an exchange in states that do not set up their own exchanges. However, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) does not provide the federal government with adequate funding to set up or operate federal health insurance exchanges.
States can create either one exchange to serve both small group and individual markets or separate exchanges for these pools. One goal is to facilitate a comparison of available health insurance options by purchasers. Standards for qualified coverage must include:
- Mandated essential coverage
- Cost-sharing requirements (deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance)
- Catastrophic coverage for purchasers aged thirty and younger in the individual market.
- States must also create Small Business Health Option Programs, or “SHOP Exchanges,” for small employers to purchase coverage. The states can expand the programs to include large employers beginning in 2017.
As the nation and the industry prepares for the exchanges to open, here are the answers to ten critical questions.
1. How do employers use exchanges?
There is rolling enrollment for employers, but, upon enrollment, the employer is locked into the plan for one-year periods. The plan premiums are also locked in for the same amount of time. Once the employer enrolls in a state exchange:
- The employer must offer Exchange coverage to all employees.
- The Exchange must provide an aggregate bill to the employer for all employees.
- Employers must notify the Exchange about any employee change of status, for example, adding dependents or terminating employment.
- Employers with multiple worksites can offer access to a single Exchange or to state Exchanges where employees are located.
2. Are there any operating state exchanges?
Massachusetts and Utah have operating exchanges, but neither one has produced lower costs. Massachusetts has some of highest insurance rates in the United States, and Utah’s exchange rates are higher than purchasing outside the exchange.
One study, conducted for the Ohio Department of Insurance, has predicted that the likely cost increases for health insurance in Ohio will be a total of 55 percent to 85 percent for several reasons, including:
- The law’s requirements for commercial, employer-sponsored, small group, and individual health insurance markets, both inside and outside the exchanges, including guaranteed issue of insurance coverage regardless of preexisting medical conditions or health status,
- Adjusted community rating with premium rate variations only for benefit plan design, geographic location, age rating (limited to ratio of 3:1), family status, and tobacco usage (limited to ratio of 1.5:1),
- Premium rate consistency inside and outside the exchanges, and
- Requirements for essential health benefits.
In addition, the study noted that:
- Although the percentage of Ohio residents with coverage could rise by about 7.9 percent, the price of individual health insurance coverage might rise by about 55 percent to 85 percent, excluding the impact of medical inflation, Milliman predicts. These increases will be 8 percent to 12 percent higher than adjusted small group rates. This is primarily driven by the estimated health status of the new individual health insurance market and the expansion of covered benefits.
- The small group market (from 2 to 100 individuals) is expected to see increases of 5 percent to 15 percent.
- Due to community ratings, some groups could see an increase of 150 percent while others could receive a decrease of up to 38 percent.
- Employers with age fifty-five and older dominant demographics are likely to see the decreases.
- The highest rate increases are expected in companies with two to nine employees.
- Large groups are expected to see an increase of 0 percent to 5 percent.
- None of these increases take into account the increase in medical inflation, which for 2012 is estimated to be 7 percent to 8 percent.
- One important factor for cost increases in group plans is the pass-through fees resulting from increased taxes on insurance companies and medical manufacturers.
3. What are the functions of the state health insurance exchanges?
The exchange functions and responsibilitiesinclude the following:
- Certification, recertification, and decertification of health insurance options as qualified,
- Operation of a toll-free hotline,
- Maintenance of a website for providing information on plans to current and prospective enrollees,
- Assignment of a price and quality rating to plans,
- Presentation of plan benefit options in a standardized format,
- Provision of information on Medicaid and CHIP eligibility and determination of eligibility for individuals in these programs, as well as eligibility for the refundable income tax credit,
- Provision of an electronic calculator to determine the actual cost of coverage, taking into account eligibility for premium tax credits and cost sharing reductions,
- Certification of individuals exempt from the individual responsibility requirement,
- Provision of information to certain individuals and to employers, and
- Establishment of a “navigator” program that provides grants to entities assisting consumers.
4. What are the areas over which HHS has responsibility for the state health insurance exchanges?
HHS is responsible for regulatory standards in five areas that insurers must meet in order to be certified as qualified health plans (QHPs) by an exchange:
- network adequacy,
- accreditation for performance measures,
- quality improvement and reporting, and
- uniform enrollment procedures.
5. What are the primary federal requirements for state exchanges?
Only lawful U.S. residents may obtain coverage in an exchange. Exchanges must comply with federal regulatory standards in the following areas:
- Information on the availability of in-network and out-of-network providers, including provider directories and availability of essential community providers;
- Consideration of plan patterns and practices with respect to past premium increases and a submission of the plan justifications for current premium increases;
- Public disclosure of specific plan data, including claims-handling policies, financial disclosures, enrollment and disenrollment data, claims denials, rating practices, cost sharing for out-of-network coverage, and other information identified by HHS;
- Timely information for consumers requesting their amount of cost sharing for specific services from specified providers;
- Establishment of “navigators” to assist consumers in selecting their health insurance;
- Information for participants in group health plans;
- Information on plan quality-improvement activities;
- Presentation of enrollee satisfaction-survey results; and
- Publication of data on the Exchange’s administrative costs.
Additionally, exchanges must meet detailed requirements for call centers and an Internet web site.
6. What is a Qualified Health Plan (QHP)?
A qualified health plan (QHP) is health insurance certified by a state Exchange that offers “essential health benefits.” A QHP must be offered by an insurer that:
(1) Is licensed and in good standing to offer health insurance coverage in each state in which it offers health coverage;
(2) Agrees to offer at least one QHP in the silver level and at least one QHP in the gold level in each Exchange;
(3) Agrees to charge the same premium rate for each QHP, whether offered through an Exchange or offered directly from the insurer or through an agent; and
(4) Complies with regulations to be issued by HHS and any requirements established by an applicable Exchange.
However, a QHP may vary premiums by rating area.
For QHP purposes, the term health plan includes “health insurance coverage” and a “group health plan.” Health insurance coverage means benefits consisting of medical care (provided directly, through insurance or reimbursement, or otherwise, and including items and services paid for as medical care) under any hospital or medical service policy or certificate, hospital or medical service plan contract, or health maintenance organization contract offered by a health insurer.
A “group health plan” is an ERISA welfare benefit plan that provides medical care. Health plans must be subject to state regulation; therefore, the term “health plan” does not include a group health plan or multiple employer welfare arrangement (MEWA) not subject to state insurance regulation under ERISA Section 514. Thus, self-insured group health plans cannot qualify as QHPs.
Health insurance plans must:
- Meet certain marketing requirements;
- Ensure a sufficient provider choice and include, where available, providers that serve low-income and medically underserved individuals;
- Be accredited for clinical quality, patient experience, consumer access, and quality assurances, and implement a quality improvement strategy;
- Use a uniform enrollment form and a standard format for presenting plan options; and
- Provide information on quality standards used to measure plan performance.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) must enter into contracts with health insurers to offer at least two multistate QHPs through each Exchange in each state.
7. How are state health insurance exchanges regulated?
PPACA includes two federal requirements for state health insurance exchanges:
- Minimum functions that Exchanges must perform directly or by contract, and
- Oversight responsibilities Exchanges must exercise in certifying and monitoring the performance of Health Plans.
Plans participating in the exchanges also must comply with state insurance laws and federal requirements in the Public Health Service Act.
The final regulations set “standards for establishing exchanges, setting up a Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP), performing the basic functions of an exchange, certifying health plans for participation in the exchange,” and establishing “a streamlined, web-based system for consumers to apply for and enroll in qualified health plans and insurance affordability programs.” HHS has also issued questions and answers on federally facilitated Exchanges, including for instance, how the Exchanges will interact with state departments of insurance.
State exchanges are to be operational in 2014. A change in the final rule gives more flexibility to states that are not able to show “complete readiness” to operate an exchange on January 1, 2013. HHS may conditionally approve a state-based exchange upon demonstration that it is likely to be fully operationally ready by October 1, 2013. Applications of a state’s Exchange Blueprint were required to be submitted 30 business days before January 1, 2013, or by November 16, 2012.
Individuals and small businesses will be able to purchase private health insurance via these exchanges. Starting in 2014, exchanges are intended to:
- Facilitate the comparison by individuals and small businesses of health plans,
- Provide answers to questions,
- Determine eligibility for tax credits for private insurance or health programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and
- Allow enrollment by individuals and small employers in a Qualified Health Plan (QHP).
8. How should states set up health insurance exchanges?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued final regulations that provide a framework to assist states in building health insurance exchanges, state-based competitive marketplaces authorized by the 2010 federal health care reform law. These rules set minimum standards for exchanges and give states some flexibility to design the exchanges to fit their insurance markets, subject to HHS approval. The regulations propose rules and guidance on how to structure the exchanges in two areas:
- Setting standards for establishing exchanges, setting up a Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) , performing the basic functions of an exchange, and certifying health plans for participation in an exchange; and
- Ensuring premium stability for the exchanges, especially in the first three years.
According to HHS, forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have been awarded grants to help plan and operate exchanges. However, by August 2012, only approximately 30 percent of the states had taken action beyond receiving a planning grant, such as passing legislation or taking administrative action, to begin creating exchanges.
The rules allow states to decide:
- Whether their exchanges should be local, regional, or operated by a nonprofit organization,
- How to select plans to participate, and
- Whether to collaborate with HHS for the work.
However, HHS must approve each exchange and the criteria for its insurance policies.
In 2014, exchanges will initially be available only to individuals and small employers, but states may expand them in 2017 to be available to large employers as well.