(This article previously appeared on Healthaffairs.org on Jan. 11, 2017. Copyright (c) 2017 Health Affairs by Project HOPE – The People-to-People Health Foundation, Inc.)
Much of the recent attention on the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has focused on the fate of the 22.5 million people likely to lose insurance through a repeal of Medicaid expansion and the loss of protections and subsidies in the individual insurance market. Overlooked in the declarations of who stands to lose under plans to “repeal and replace” the ACA are those enrolled in employer-sponsored health plans — the primary source of coverage for people under 65.
Job-based plans offered to employees and their families cover 150 million people in the United States. If the ACA is repealed, they stand to lose critical consumer protections that many have come to expect of their employer plan.
It’s easy to understand the focus on the individuals who gained access to coverage thanks to the health reform law. ACA drafters targeted most of the law’s insurance reforms at the individual and small-group markets, where consumers and employers had the greatest difficulty finding affordable, adequate coverage prior to health reform. The ACA’s market reforms made coverage available to those individuals with pre-existing conditions who couldn’t obtain coverage in the pre-ACA world, and more affordable for those low- and moderate-income families who couldn’t afford coverage on their own.
Dependent coverage for children under 26 is one provision President Trump and many anti-ACA legislators have pledged to retain.
Less noticed, but no less important, the ACA also brought critical new protections to people in large employer plans. Although most large employer plans were relatively comprehensive and affordable before the ACA, some plans offered only skimpy coverage or had other barriers to accessing care, leaving individuals — particularly those with costly, chronic health conditions — with big bills and uncovered medical care. For that reason, the ACA extended several meaningful protections to employees of large businesses.
Preventive Services Without Cost-Sharing
The ACA requires all new health plans, including those sponsored by employers, to cover recommended preventive services without cost-sharing, bringing new benefits to 71 million Americans. That means individuals can get the screenings, immunizations and annual check-ups that can catch illness early or prevent it altogether without worrying about meeting a costly deductible or co-payment. With that peace of mind, it’s no wonder it’s one of the most popular provisions of the ACA. Women employees can also access affordable contraception, making available a wider variety of contraceptive choices and increasing use of long-term contraceptive methods.
Pre-Existing Condition Exclusions
Under the ACA, employers cannot impose a waiting period for coverage of a pre-existing condition. Prior to the ACA, individuals who became eligible for an employer plan — for example, once hired for a new job —might have to wait up to 12 months for the plan to cover pre-existing health conditions. You could “buy down” that waiting period with months of coverage under another plan, so long as it was the right kind of plan and you didn’t go without coverage for 63 days or more. But if you lost your job, couldn’t afford COBRA, went a few months without coverage and then were lucky enough to get another job with benefits, you might find the care you needed wasn’t covered under your plan for an entire year.
Dependent Coverage to Age 26
The ACA requires all health plans, including those sponsored by large employers, to cover dependents up to age 26. Prior to the ACA, one of the fastest growing groups of uninsured was young adults — not because they turned down coverage offered to them, but because they were less likely to have access to employer-based plans or other coverage. The result has been a dramatic increase in the number of insured young adults, particularly among those with employer-sponsored coverage. This ACA requirement is one provision President Trump and many anti-ACA legislators have pledged to retain.
Annual Out-of-Pocket Limit
The ACA requires all new health plans, including those sponsored by employers, to cap the amount individuals can be expected to pay out-of-pocket each year. Prior to the ACA, even those with the security of coverage on the job couldn’t count on protection from crippling out-of-pocket costs.
Prohibition on Annual and Lifetime Limits
The ACA prohibits employer plans from having an annual or lifetime dollar limit on benefits. Prior to the ACA, employer plans often included a cap on benefits; when employees hit the cap, the coverage cut off. For individuals who needed costly care, like a baby born prematurely or those with hemophilia or multiple sclerosis, that often meant a desperate scramble to find new coverage options as one after another benefit limit was reached.
The ACA guarantees individuals the right to an independent review of a health plan’s decision to deny benefits or payment for services, regardless of whether the employer plan is insured or self-funded. Prior to the ACA, only workers in insured plans had the right to an independent review of a denied claim. But more than 60 percent of workers are in self-funded plans, and the only option for those workers to hold their plan accountable was to sue, an expensive and lengthy process.
If you’re one of the 150 million people who get their coverage through an employer plan, you may want to pay attention to the prognostications of what’s to become of the ACA. Your access to high-quality, affordable health care will depend on the outcome.