South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House. Yet, she remains adamantly opposed to accepting the federal dollars set aside to extend Medicaid coverage to low-income South Carolinians. In last week’s New Yorker, former South Carolina state representative and Community Catalyst Board member Anton Gunn points out: “If you take the flag down tomorrow, what is going to substantively change in the lives of black people and people affected by inequality in South Carolina?” 

Last week’s Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act benefits South Carolinians by allowing more than 200,000 of them keep federal tax credits to support their health coverage. However, nearly the same number of South Carolinians fall into the “coverage gap” because of Governor Haley and the legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid. 

Closing the gap would substantially change the lives of black people in South Carolina. It would provide health coverage to 178,000 uninsured South Carolinians – disproportionately made up of people of color. Nationally, over a quarter of the potential beneficiaries are black. Our Close the Gap campaign is working on closing the coverage gap in the 21 states that have not done so. The racial dynamics of the campaigns cannot be overlooked - most of those states were slave states. Of the states that were part of the Confederacy, only Kentucky and Arkansas have expanded Medicaid. 

We characterized the Close the Gap campaign largely as a struggle of the “Old South” versus the “New South.” Governor Haley’s change of heart regarding the flying the Confederate flag over the Capitol is a victory for the “New South” and could provide a roadmap for how to close the coverage gap in former slave states. Combining moral outrage and grassroots activism with an appreciation of the economics of the situation has changed the political dynamics around the Confederate flag. Five hundred people demonstrated in front of the South Carolina Capitol protesting the flag. Companies like Walmart and E-bay saw the potential impact on their bottom lines and decided to stop selling Confederate flags. Tourists threatened to boycott Charleston.

Closing the coverage gap will require the same combination of moral outrage, grassroots organizing and hard thinking about the economics. But moral outrage over refusing to close the coverage gap is growing, and business groups are increasingly demanding that states accept the federal funds set aside for this coverage. Since the federal government is paying 100 percent of the costs of coverage that will help millions of people and address a long history of inequality, this should be an offer that states such as South Carolina cannot refuse.

... (At least until 2017)

This week the Supreme Court issued a strong decision upholding the availability of federal tax credits in all states regardless of whether health insurance is purchased on a state or federally-operated insurance marketplace. The six-justice majority opined in part:  “We cannot interpret federal statutes to negate their own stated purposes…Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not destroy them. If at all possible we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former and avoids the latter.”

The ruling not only commanded a strong majority, but also clarified that the decision to make tax credits available in all states was not subject to possible reinterpretation by a future administration, leaving the ACA on stronger legal footing than it was before the case was heard.

In truth, the burden on plaintiffs was always very high - requiring them to argue persuasively that their interpretation of the statute was the only one possible. We should perhaps be less surprised that they failed than that the case made it to the Supreme Court at all.

In the wake of the decision, political opponents of the ACA ramped up their rhetorical attacks. You would never guess that at least some of them must be secretly pleased. The decision spared them from having to unite disparate factions around an alternative that would shield them from blame for the human tragedies, unraveling insurance markets and economic losses that would have flowed in the wake of an adverse decision while not seeming to be “soft on ACA repeal”. The task was made even more difficult by a recent CBO report reconfirming that repealing the ACA would add to the federal budget deficit. In other words, opponents would have had to undo the ACA without undoing its benefits—either to people or the federal budget. The ruling in favor of Burwell allows opponents to continue to call for “repeal” (something on which they are united) without having to really figure out “replace” (something which divides them) at least until the outcome of the 2016 election is clear.

About that CBO report

ACA supporters cheered the CBO report that showed repealing the law would add to the budget deficit, but there was a nugget for opponents, too. The agency asserted that while repeal would add to the deficit, it would spur economic growth. This is a somewhat curious assumption, although to be fair to CBO, they are just being consistent. The argument is the flip side of the agency’s past finding that the ACA would shrink the total number of work hours, a finding ACA opponents widely mischaracterized by saying that the law would cause layoffs.

The basis of the CBO analysis, in both cases, has to do with the effect of the ACA on the labor market. CBO estimated that a certain number of people who were working only so they could receive health benefits, would leave the workforce once the ACA was implemented, causing a small contraction in the labor force and hence in economic output. The recent report assumes the reverse—that the loss of ACA supported insurance would cause people to reenter the workforce.

OK, I’m not an economist so maybe I am missing something, but this seems like a pretty weak argument to me on two grounds. First, it seems to suggest that the number of job-seekers determines the number of workers. Certainly at full employment, a reduction in labor force participation would be expected to reduce output and an increase would raise it. But we are not at full employment. Counting discouraged workers, we still have more than 10 percent of the workforce unemployed. It’s not clear that more job-seekers would translate into more workers at least until we’ve recouped the job losses created by the financial collapse. We are still more than 2 million jobs short of that mark. Secondly, there would be some significant economic adverse effects to repeal, including reduced purchasing power and more bankruptcies for the newly (re-)uninsured, job losses in the health sector and rising uncompensated care costs. It’s not so clear all that nets out to an economic positive regardless of what the CBO report might say.

Just Kidding

In other ACA related legal news, Governor Rick Scott of FL has dropped his suit against the federal government claiming that they were trying to coerce him into expanding Medicaid by withholding funds for the state’s Hospital Low-Income Pool (LIP). The suit was a meritless political maneuver. Scott consistently misrepresented the federal government’s statement that they would not continue LIP in its current form or at its current funding level, as being in some way contingent on the state’s decision on Medicaid. The bigger question is why coercion would even be needed to persuade the governor of a state with one of the highest uninsurance rates in the country to accept available federal funds to reduce the number of uninsured by as many as 800,000 people. One would think that common sense, not to mention basic decency, would be enough to do the trick given the proven benefits that have flowed to states that have closed the coverage gap.

Signs of summer are everywhere, and while you’re enjoying your iced coffee and reading the news on your front porch it’s hard to miss the overstated headlines predicting where the 2016 proposed health insurance rates will ultimately land. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: keep calm and start making lemonade!

What are the right ingredients for effective advocacy when it comes to rate review? Well, we understand that not every state offers a robust rate review process with opportunity for meaningful public input, but that doesn’t mean your hands are tied. Here are a few suggestions to get you started on your journey to making the most of those lemons:

Contribute to the public conversation

  1. Use these talking points to respond to media inquiries about proposed rates in your state.
  2. Have a conversation with your Department of Insurance (DOI) about proposed rates in your state and ask them to use their authority to push back against unjustified increases.

Weigh in on proposed rates with your DOI

  1. Are there several insurers in your state that stick out as outliers in the spectrum of 2016 proposed rates? If you’re lucky enough to live in a state with a public process for rate review, now is the time to take a look at the outliers and push back against their justifications.
  2. If you live in a state that hasn’t reached Oregon's level of transparency, check out the healthcare.gov rate review website for proposed rates over 10 percent (and in some cases the rates under 10 percent). Think through which plan might be strategic to push back against (i.e. is this a plan that had a larger number of enrollees in 2015?) and write a letter to your DOI.  

Remind your state about federal rate review requirements

Were you unable to find 2016 rates on healthcare.gov or on a state website? It’s worth reminding your state DOI that federal law requires insurers to submit to CMS and the state rate filing justifications for all rate increases. States with an effective rate review program are required to post all of the rate increases over 10 percent, along with certain parts of the rate filing justification, to either a state website or link to CMS’s rate review website. Last, but certainly not least, a state with an effective rate review program must also have a mechanism for receiving public comments on those proposed rate increases posted to their website or CMS’s.

For a more in-depth analysis of how 2016 proposed rates will affect low-cost silver plan options, see the newly released Avalere study.  

This month, a small town mayor, Adam O’Neal, and civil rights activist, Bob Zellner, are leading a 283 mile walk from Belhaven, NC to Washington, DC to call on lawmakers to close the coverage gap which will help ensure that rural hospitals can remain open. Laura Guerra-Cardus, one of our Southern Health Partners, joined the walk and sent us a dispatch from the road.

I joined The Walk NC to DC because I was frustrated. Despite being in the midst of a health care crisis with more than one million uninsured Texans in the coverage gap and hospital systems under enormous strain, the Texas legislature did not even discuss Medicaid expansion during its last legislative session. 

The Walk is a 283 mile public outcry for the 283 rural hospitals at risk of closing across the country. We walk in the memory of those that have needlessly died. We are putting one (sore) foot in front of another to tell policymakers that denying people health care is a moral issue and we are in the midst of a moral crisis.

This walk is not something I have done before and might, frankly, sound like a crazy thing to do to a lot of people. But, after watching the movie Selma, I felt inspired to be part of a movement that demonstrated - through physical representation - the will of the people, the injustice of the societal norm, and the demand and hope for a better future. So here I am, along with 15 other dedicated walkers, including five wonderful Texans from Shelby, Cameron and Travis counties.

Texas has the highest number of uninsured individuals in the U.S. and one of the highest rates of rural hospital closures over the last two years. Stories surface daily of low-income workers who have been left uninsured because Texas law-makers chose to reject federal funds that would have provided them coverage. I personally know of three Texans afflicted with cancer who did not have sufficient access to care. One missed two years of preventive check-ups that would have detected a generally curable cancer—she is now dealing with the aftermath of a metastatic cancer. Another is desperately seeking treatment right now. And the last is now deceased, unable to secure the down payment for a doctor to perform needed surgery.

I’m walking because we can’t forget that, if not for health insurance, none of us would be able to afford the cost of treatment during a medical crisis. Denying individuals health care coverage, just because they are part of the working poor, is equivalent to telling them that their life does not matter.

Medicaid funding is critical not only to the uninsured but also to hospitals. In states like Texas that have refused to close the coverage gap, the impact has been significant. Rural hospitals are closing at an alarming rate and stories are now beginning to surface of rural Americans receiving the same message - their health and life do not matter.  “We are Americans too,” and “Rural hospitals are just as important as urban ones,” are common phrases as we make the walk from Belhaven, NC – the site of one of the first rural hospital closures – to D.C.

I have learned so much from my fellow walkers.

Lauren Jackson from Shelby County, Texas taught me about the real difficulty in making rural health care systems function. One of the main issues is the large number of uninsured individuals in rural communities. It is very difficult for hospitals and ambulance companies that serve high numbers of uninsured to make enough money to stay open. 

Conversations with Larry Cox from the Kairos Center and former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA made me wonder if we have gotten too comfortable in the day-to-day workings of non-profits and are missing the mark on the need to organize real human movements for justice that cut across issues. The cornerstone of the Kairos Center is the Poverty Initiative whose mission is to raise up generations of religious and community leaders dedicated to building a social movement to end poverty, led by the poor themselves.

Local farmers like 78 year old Lloyd Jones Junior and his wife Mary who hold many conservative political viewpoints taught me that it is possible to come together to address human issues of injustice regardless of political affiliation.

The undertones of the civil rights movement are present as we walk with Bob Zellner, legendary civil rights activist, Reverend Barber of the Moral Mondays movement, and the inspirational Bishop Dr. George Jackson of North Carolina. All my fellow walkers are smart, passionate individuals that give me hope that the kind of stand for justice that was done in the 1950’s and 60’s is still possible today.

I joined The Walk because I was frustrated by political inaction. But now, I walk in hope that a new moral movement is possible and beginning to take hold.  

Laura Guerra-Cardus, M.D., Associate Director
Children´s Defense Fund - Texas

During this last open enrollment period, more than 11 million people enrolled in affordable health care. But once open enrollment ends a person can only join a Marketplace health plan, or change to a different one, if they qualify for a Special Enrollment Period (SEP). In general, a consumer is eligible for a SEP when they have a big change in their life or circumstances, such as losing the health plan they had through work or gaining new dependents through birth or marriage. But in some cases consumers can get a SEP because they have a change in their circumstances, like an increase in income, a change in immigration status, or moving to another state.

Why are the SEP rules so important? Because millions of people need SEPs each year. A recent study found that an estimated 4 million people were likely to need a SEP due to losing their existing coverage, and "another 2.7 million adults would likely be eligible for a SEP by moving, getting married, having a child or gaining a new immigration status." That’s a lot of people making changes to their coverage. Additionally, young adults are the most likely to need a SEP because they are the most likely to change jobs, get married and have kids.

SEPs give consumers 60 days to shop and enroll for a plan, but the timing of when they enroll is important. The initial Marketplace rules regulating SEPs had some unfair results in practice. One unanticipated result was gaps in their coverage. Under the former rules, if a consumer enrolled before the 15th of a month, their coverage started the first of the following month, leaving them with a two-to-four week coverage gap. If a person enrolled after the 15th of a month, their new coverage started on the first of the second following month, creating a six-to-eight week coverage gap.

Luckily, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) saw this problem early on, and responded with several rule changes to fix these issues. As a result, the Marketplace has new ways of providing consumers more flexibility, allowing them the chance to plan ahead, and avoid these gaps in coverage.

Earlier access to coverage

First, most consumers who know they will be losing their existing coverage can go online to review plans and enroll 60 days before that happens. Having this advanced access to the Marketplace helps consumers tackle the difficult task of comparing plans to find the coverage that is best for them either on their own or with the help of an enrollment assister.

In addition a new rule, which I call the “early bird” rule, helps prevent coverage gaps. It allows coverage under a Marketplace plan to kick in faster – so long as a consumer plans ahead and signs up before they lose their existing coverage.

HHS also allows consumers more flexibility to have their new coverage under the Marketplace start later, to prevent consumers from being forced to pay for duplicative coverage. An employed consumer might get pregnant, have a child, and go on maternity leave for a month or two, all while covered by their employer-sponsored insurance (ESI). If they decided to quit their job and be a full-time parent, they get a SEP, but the old rules required their coverage to start retroactively to the date of the birth, regardless of whether they already had coverage or not. If they had ESI this was wasteful, causing them to pay for double coverage. But under the new rules consumers have the option to have their new coverage start later to avoid duplicative coverage.

Increased options to enroll when a consumer’s family life or income changes

The most recent HHS rules also recognized several additional circumstances that now allow consumers to sign up for or change their existing coverage.

If a consumer has an employer-sponsored health plan that begins and ends on dates other than the first and last of the year, these consumers can now access the Marketplace to shop for and enroll in a plan up to 60 days before their non-calendar year plan ends.

HHS has also adopted a new rule to help low-income consumers in the non-Medicaid expansion states transition to the Marketplace. Residents in all the states that did not expand Medicaid eligibility can get a SEP when their household income increases enough to let them qualify for tax credits. This is a big improvement over the former rules which required these consumers to apply for Medicaid and jump through several administrative hoops before gaining access to coverage. The new rule simplifies the process and lets consumers in these states get a SEP simply if their income increases.

HHS also created a new SEP for consumers who gain a dependent as the result of a child-support order. In 2012, approximately 1.2 million child support orders were issued, and now all such orders must address how health care is to be provided for the child.

The federal and state Marketplaces also now have the option to start granting SEPs for consumers who lose a dependent, or stop being a dependent of another person, as the result of a divorce, legal separation or death. This SEP will be available no later than January 1, 2017.

For more information about SEPs, see this new Fact Sheet