By Julian Pecquet
The Obama administration has not ruled out turning sick people away from an insurance program created by the new healthcare law to provide coverage for the uninsured.
Critics of the $5 billion high-risk pool program insist it will run out of money before Jan. 1, 2014. That’s when the program sunsets and health plans can no longer discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions.
Administration officials insist they can make changes to the program to ensure it lasts until 2014, and that it may not have to turn away sick people. Officials said the administration could also consider reducing benefits under the program, or redistributing funds between state pools. But they acknowledged turning some people away was also a possibility.
“There’s a certain amount of money authorized in the statute, and we will do our best to make sure that that amount of money insures as many people as possible and does as much good as possible,” said Jay Angoff, director of the Office of Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). “I think it’s premature to say [what happens] when it’s gone.”
The administration has not discussed asking Congress for more money down the line if the $5 billion runs out before Jan. 1, 2014. Uninsured sick people could start applying for participation in the high-risk insurance pools on Thursday.
Healthcare experts of all stripes warned during the healthcare debate that $5 billion would likely not last until 2014. Millions of Americans cannot find affordable healthcare because of their pre-existing conditions, and that amount would only cover a couple hundred thousand people, according to a recent study by the chief Medicare actuary.
Republicans continued to hammer that point on Thursday, asking HHS officials to brief them about the program.
We are “deeply concerned that these pools may not provide quality coverage or will limit enrollment,” Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas), John Shimkus (R-Ill.) and Michael Burgess (R-Texas), the ranking members on the Energy and Commerce panel and its health and oversight subcommittees, wrote in a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
The letter requests a briefing on high-risk pools by July 15, particularly on three topics: protections and services in place “to make sure that access is efficient and unimpeded; whether HHS believes the program is financially sustainable through 2013; and details about how each state’s pool will be administered and what options they’ll have available.”
Leading health reform advocate Ron Pollack, founding executive director of Families USA, said the pools were a “very imperfect tool that could be implemented quickly” but were the best option available for the interim period before 2014.
“The pools are going to be helpful for a significant number of people,” he told The Hill, “but nobody thought they’re the ultimate answer for helping people with pre-existing conditions.”
Still, he didn’t rule out that Families USA could press lawmakers to allocate more money in a few years if it looks like the program needs it.
Each state has a certain budget allocation for its pool, and the first step to stay under budget would be to shift money around between states that don’t see a lot of applicants and those that do, said Richard Popper, deputy director of the Office of Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight at HHS.
“If we have that situation where we have strong demand in one state and not as strong demand in another state, the secretary of HHS after a year or two has the authority to reallocate the funding,” said Popper, who used to run Maryland’s high-risk pool.
“Along with that, we can work with the states to adjust their benefit structure, the deductibles, the co-pays, the overall plan structure to address some of those cost drivers, again to help the plan make it to 2014, when it will no longer be needed.”
In addition, Popper said, many people won’t be able to afford to participate in the program since premiums will range between about $140 and $900 a month, depending on applicants’ age and where they live. HHS estimates that at least 200,000 people will be in the program at any one time. To be eligible, applicants have to be citizens or nationals of the United States or be lawfully present; have a pre-existing medical condition; and have been uninsured for at least six months before applying for the high-risk pool plan.
“There are going to be meaningful premiums that are going to be required to stay in this plan — premiums in the hundreds of dollars every month,” Popper said. “There are a significant number of people out there with pre-existing conditions who are uninsured, but a significant number of those people … also have limited income. And some of them, while they may need this plan, the premiums may not be something they can afford.
“We have that to think about as well,” he added. “But for those who can afford it, this is going to be a great, great plan.”
If it looks like too many people are signing up — states will get monthly updates on how many people they can cover with the money they have left — there’s always the option of turning people down.
The bill “does give the secretary authority to limit enrollment in the plan … nationally or on a state-by-state basis,” Popper said. “So that is present, but at this point, we’re starting with no one in the plan as of today … so we don’t see that happening anytime soon