CDC: Progress re­duc­ing unin­sured rate threat­ens to stall

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - BUSINESS - By Ri­cardo Alonso-Zal­divar

With deep di­vi­sions over Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s health care law reap­pear­ing in the elec­tion’s fi­nal days, a gov­ern­ment re­port shows that progress in re­duc­ing the num­ber of unin­sured Amer­i­cans has slowed to a crawl.

The study re­leased Thurs­day by the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion sug­gests the 2010 law may be reach­ing a limit to its ef­fec­tive­ness.

The CDC said the num­ber of unin­sured peo­ple dipped by only 200,000 be­tween 2015 and the first six months of this year, which it called “a non­signif­i­cant dif­fer­ence.” The find­ings come from the Na­tional Health In­ter­view Sur­vey, which has queried more than 48,000 peo­ple so far this year.

While the Af­ford­able Care Act has re­duced the num­ber of Amer­i­cans with­out health in­sur­ance to his­tor­i­cally low lev­els, con­tin­ued progress threat­ens to stall this year amid en­dur­ing po­lit­i­cal dis­agree­ment over the gov­ern­ment’s role in guar­an­tee­ing cov­er­age.

“It has got to be close to tapped out,” said Dan Wit­ters, di­rec­tor of a ma­jor pri­vate sur­vey that also fol­lows the health care law, the Gallup-Health­ways Well-Be­ing In­dex.

The CDC study found that dur­ing 2015, an es­ti­mated 28.6 mil­lion U.S. res­i­dents were unin­sured. The cor­re­spond­ing num­ber through the first six months of 2016 was 28.4 mil­lion.

The sober­ing num­bers come as the ad­min­is­tra­tion seeks to whip up en­thu­si­asm for the 2017 signup sea­son, which started this week and runs through Jan. 31. The White House would like to hit a high note on health care to close out Obama’s ten­ure.

But pre­mi­ums are go­ing up sig­nif­i­cantly in Health­’s sub­si­dized mar­kets, and con­sumer choice is down with fewer in­sur­ers par­tic­i­pat­ing. Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­re­tary Sylvia Bur­well has set

a goal of en­rolling about 1 mil­lion more cus­tomers for 2017, but out­side ex­perts say that’s go­ing to be a chal­lenge. The next pres­i­dent will in­herit a pro­gram still in search of sta­bil­ity.

Repub­li­can Don­ald Trump would pull the plug on “Oba­macare,” promis­ing to start over. Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton has a list of ideas for mak­ing in­sur­ance more af­ford­able and cov­er­ing more peo­ple, but as pres­i­dent she’d need will­ing Repub­li­can part­ners in Congress and the states.

The new sur­vey of­fers a hint that the na­tion’s his­toric cov­er­age ex­pan­sion may have ac­tu­ally gone into re­verse dur­ing part of this year. An ear­lier CDC re­port cov­er­ing just the first three months of this year found that the num­ber of unin­sured had been even lower, an es­ti­mated 27.3 mil­lion peo­ple — or a mil­lion fewer than the six-month fig­ure in the lat­est re­port.

Wit­ters said that means it’s likely that the pe­riod from April through June saw an in­crease in the num­ber of peo­ple with­out health

in­sur­ance. “It’s edged up,” he said. “These trends al­ways ebb and flow.”

The CDC’s Emily Zam­mitti, lead au­thor of the re­port, said the study was more of a snap­shot than a trend line of progress on the unin­sured. “Whether it’s plateau­ing or not ... we can’t de­ter­mine that,” she said.

The unin­sured rate is 8.9 per­cent in the lat­est CDC re­port, a few notches higher than 8.6 per­cent in the ear­lier study.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion said it’s bet­ting that the 2017 sign-up sea­son will see more progress. “We’re feel­ing re­ally good that it continues

to ap­pear that the unin­sured rate is be­low 9 per­cent this year,” HHS spokes­woman Mar­jorie Con­nolly said.

Another no­table find­ing from Thurs­day’s re­port is that the share of Amer­i­cans in high-de­ductible health in­sur­ance plans keeps in­creas­ing. That may help ex­plain wide­spread anx­i­ety about af­ford­abil­ity at a time when over­all health care spend­ing is grow­ing at a mod­er­ate pace.

The CDC sur­vey de­fines high-de­ductible cov­er­age as in­sur­ance that re­quires pa­tients to pay at least the first $1,300 of an­nual med­i­cal ex­penses for an in­di­vid­ual

plan, or $2,600 for a fam­ily. In the first six months of this year, 38.8 per­cent of per­sons under age 65 were in high-de­ductible plans, an in­crease from 36.7 per­cent in all of 2015, the sur­vey found.

Em­ploy­ers started shift­ing work­ers and their fam­i­lies to high-de­ductible plans be­fore Obama took of­fice, and now that’s be­com­ing the norm. Many

peo­ple are un­happy with the change, and some pub­lic-opin­ion ex­perts say that helps ex­plain the con­tin­ued low rat­ings for Obama’s health over­haul, even if it was not the cause.

Clin­ton has pro­posed a new tax credit for peo­ple with high out-of-pocket med­i­cal costs, while Trump wants to pro­mote in­ter­state com­pe­ti­tion among in­sur­ers.

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