Health Care Reform in Massachusetts: State Model for the Affordable Care Act Is Working And Broadly Popular
The Affordable Care Act was signed into law one year ago. It is modeled in large part on the landmark Massachusetts health reform law enacted four years earlier in 2006. Opponents of the Affordable Care Act often attack it by distorting the facts about the Massachusetts experience. They selectively alternate between snapshots of and trends in Massachusetts and comparisons between Massachusetts and the United States.
The most appropriate way to assess the impact of the Massachusetts law is to compare changes over time in things like health coverage and premium costs in Massachusetts to changes over time in the United States as a whole. We use that approach below to debunk many of the myths opponents propagate regarding Massachusetts’s experience with health care reform.
Massachusetts increased health coverage while coverage declined in the rest of the country.
The Massachusetts law failed to significantly reduce the ranks of the uninsured in the state.
The Massachusetts health reform law dramatically increased the insurance rate in the state over a period when the national health coverage rate declined. As of the end of 2010, 98.1 percent of the state’s residents were insured compared to 87.5 percent in 2006 when the law was enacted. Almost all children in the state were insured in 2010 (99.8 percent). In comparison, at the national level the health insurance rate dropped from 85.2 percent in 2006 to 84.6 percent in 2010.
Employers continued the same level of health coverage in Massachusetts while dropping people in the rest of the country.
The Massachusetts health reform law is eroding employer-sponsored health insurance.
The number of people in Massachusetts with employer-sponsored health insurance has not dipped below 2006 levels since passage of the health reform law. Approximately 4.3 million people in Massachusetts obtained health insurance through their employer in 2006. This figure increased to 4.5 million in 2008 before returning to 2006 levels in 2010. In comparison, the number of nonelderly people in the United States with employer-sponsored health coverage declined from 161.7 million in 2006 to 156.1 million in 2009.
Since passage of Massachusetts’s health reform law, a larger share of the state’s employers have offered health insurance to their workers when compared to the United States as a whole. At the national level only 60 percent of employers offered health coverage to their employees in 2005. This is significantly lower than Massachusetts’s rate of 70 percent at that time. The Massachusetts rate increased to 76 percent in 2009, which is 7 percentage points higher than the national figure for 2010.
People buying insurance on their own in Massachusetts are paying lower premiums. Premiums in the nongroup market have increased in the rest of the country.
Massachusetts residents are paying higher premiums in the nongroup market as a result of the health reform law.
Nongroup health insurance premiums in Massachusetts have fallen by as much as 40 percent since 2006 because health reform brought healthy people into the insurance market. In contrast, at the national level nongroup premiums have risen 14 percent over that period of time.
More than 98 percent of Bay Staters met the law’s individual insurance requirement.
A significant portion of Massachusetts residents are ignoring the mandate and only purchasing health insurance when they need care.
The size of Massachusetts’s individual market more than doubled after passage of the health reform law. This boost and the accompanying drop in the average cost of individual premiums were due in part to more healthy—and previously uninsured—individuals entering the market. Only 1.3 percent of the state’s 4 million tax filers who were required to and did report their coverage status were assessed a penalty for lacking coverage in 2008, the last year for which complete data are available. About 26,000 of these 56,000 people were actually in compliance for part of the year.
The cost of health care in Massachusetts is in line with expectations.
The Massachusetts law is bankrupting the state.
The fiscally conservative Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, or MTF, finds that under reform, “State spending is in line with what [the organization] expected.” An MTF report released in 2009 found that state spending on health reform increased from $1.041 billion in fiscal year 2006 to a projected $1.748 billion in fiscal year 2010—an increase of $707 million over the four-year period, half of which is covered by the federal government.
Higher-than-expected enrollment in Commonwealth Care, the state-subsidized health insurance program, initially raised fears that policymakers had dramatically underestimated the number of low-income uninsured in Massachusetts. These concerns, however, were unfounded. Commonwealth Care enrollment peaked in mid-2008 with 176,000 members. The MTF attributes the initial rapid growth in Commonwealth Care enrollment to the state’s early success in getting residents signed up for the program.
The majority of people in Massachusetts like the health reform law, and it has gotten more popular over time.
The Massachusetts health reform law is highly unpopular among members of the public, the business community, and policymakers.
Support for the law is strong among members of the public. Sixty-one percent of the Massachusetts nonelderly population approved of the law when it passed in 2006. Two years later, 69 percent of nonelderly adults viewed the law favorably. In a survey of employers conducted in 2007—shortly after passage of the health reform law—a majority of Massachusetts firms surveyed agreed that “all employers bear some responsibility for providing health benefits to their workers.”20 A survey of employers conducted a year later—after the individual and employer mandates were implemented— found that a majority of firms believed the law was “good for Massachusetts.”
The Massachusetts health reform law was also a bipartisan achievement, drawing support from both sides of the aisle throughout the process. The law was passed by a Democratic legislature with support from its Republican members and then signed by GOP Gov. Mitt Romney.
Massachusetts is building on its 2006 reforms to promote better quality care at lower costs.
Current Gov. Deval Patrick is proposing to ration health care in Massachusetts.
Gov. Patrick’s proposal would make Massachusetts a leader in nationwide efforts to reform health care delivery and bring down costs. The governor has proposed new tools for achieving integrated care—by holding providers accountable for working with each other and their patients to coordinate and delivery higher-quality care at a lower cost.
These innovative tools encourage providers to deliver better care—replacing the current payment system’s set of incentives that provide more care regardless of value. Indeed, more care can sometimes be harmful to patients. Hospital-acquired infections and medical errors are among the most common causes of preventable deaths and injuries in U.S. hospitals. Medical errors accounted for 238,000 preventable deaths in Medicare and cost the program $8.8 billion from 2004 to 2006. A recent study found that sepsis and pneumonia caused by hospital-acquired infections resulted in 48,000 deaths in 2006 and cost the program $8.1 billion.
The Massachusetts health reform law is a success story from every perspective. The state has expanded health coverage to almost all of its residents, maintained a strong market for employer-sponsored health insurance, gained the support of the business community and the public, and is moving forward in containing costs. We can look forward to a similar positive experience across the nation as we implement the Affordable Care Act modeled in large part on the Massachusetts law.
By: Nichole Cafarella and Tony Clark, Center for American Progress, April 13, 2011
The most contentious aspect of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the individual mandate requiring that most documented U.S. residents obtain health insurance or pay a tax penalty. Many experts have long advocated a mandate as a central pillar of private-sector–based health care reform. Others, however, have argued that a mandate is not necessary for successful reform.
Proponents of the mandate argue that it is necessary to reduce adverse selection in a reformed nongroup insurance market. Adverse selection occurs when a larger fraction of relatively unhealthy people than healthy people purchase health insurance. It is analogous to the purchase of car insurance only by high-risk drivers (or worse, only by drivers who have just had an accident). However, one of the most popular aspects of the ACA may encourage such adverse selection, since the law prohibits health insurers from discriminating against applicants on the basis of health, either by charging higher premiums for sick people or by excluding preexisting conditions from coverage. Absent other reforms, such regulations would theoretically increase premiums for healthy people and lead them to exit the nongroup insurance market, which would cause premiums to rise even more. Informal support for this hypothesis comes from the fact that the five U.S. states with such regulations (known as “community rating”) are among the states with the highest nongroup insurance premiums.1
Opponents of the mandate counter that community rating may work as long as there are large subsidies that attract healthier enrollees to the insurance pool. Such subsidies include the tax credits that the ACA authorizes for people with incomes between 133 and 400% of the federal poverty level. (The federal poverty level for a family of four is about $22,000 per year.) States with community rating do not generally offer such large subsidies, so we can’t use their experience to predict the effects of national reform minus the mandate. But understanding whether the mandate matters, even with large subsidies in place, is critical for assessing its role in reform.
The early experience with health care reform efforts in Massachusetts may offer some lessons. Massachusetts made heavily subsidized insurance available to residents with incomes below 300% of the federal poverty level for nearly a year before mandating insurance coverage. By examining the characteristics of the subsidized insurance pool before and after the mandate went into effect, we assessed how much of an additive effect the mandate had over that of simply offering subsidized, community-rated insurance.
As part of the Massachusetts reform, the Commonwealth Care program provided free insurance to people with incomes below the federal poverty level from October 2006 onward and for those with incomes below 150% of the federal poverty level from July 2007 onward. In both cases, the state automatically enrolled people who were eligible for free coverage; people in higher income groups could enroll but had to pay premiums. We therefore examined the behavior of Massachusetts residents with incomes between 150 and 300% of the poverty level, who were eligible for subsidies and had to pay insurance premiums that were meaningful but much smaller than those mandated by the ACA.
Using claims data from the Massachusetts Commonwealth Connector, we measured the health mix of the population enrolling in Commonwealth Care according to average age, average monthly health care expenditures, and the proportion of enrollees with a chronic illness. We identified enrollees as having a chronic illness if within the first 12 months after enrollment they had an office visit at which a diagnosis of hypertension, high cholesterol level, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, an affective disorder, or gastritis was recorded.2 Relying on only the first 12 months of claims ensured that our estimates of rates of chronic illness for earlier enrollees, whose claims data covered a longer period, were similar to estimates for later enrollees.
We examined these data for the period from March 2007 (the date of the first available reliable information on people with incomes in the relevant range) through June 2008 (the last month for which we could calculate our 12-month measure of chronic illness). In each month, we measured the health of the enrollees who joined the program.
We assessed the characteristics of these enrollees before, during, and after the phasing in of the mandate. Technically, the mandate went into effect on July 1, 2007. The Connector began a massive public outreach campaign in May 2007, and the number of hits on its Web site peaked around July 1. The penalty, however, was assessed on the basis of insurance coverage as of December 31, 2007. That is, people who purchased insurance in November that began in December did not have to pay the penalty, even if they had been uninsured beyond July 1. The penalty for 2007 was the loss of the individual state income tax exemption, a relatively modest $219. It increased to about $900 in 2008 and was prorated on the basis of the number of months of coverage during the year.
It seems possible that even without the mandate, people with the highest health care costs would enroll first and healthier people would enroll over time. But data on the health status of new enrollees suggest that that was not the case (see graph). At the beginning of the mandate’s phase-in in mid-2007, there was a greater increase in the number of healthy enrollees than in the number of enrollees with chronic illness. When the mandate became fully effective at the end of 2007, there was an enormous increase in the number of healthy enrollees and a far smaller bump in the enrollment of people with chronic illness. The gap then shrank to premandate levels as the remaining uninsured residents complied with the mandate, but clearly the mandate brought many more healthy people than nonhealthy ones into the risk pool. The large jump in healthy enrollees that occurred when the program became fully effective suggests that enrollment by the healthy was not simply slower than enrollment by the unhealthy, but rather that the mandate had a causal role in improving risk selection.
Whether the Massachusetts experience can be generalized to the rest of the country depends in part on the relative sizes of the subsidies provided: the higher the subsidies, the smaller the role for an individual mandate. Under Commonwealth Care, adults with incomes between 150 and 200% of the poverty level were asked to contribute $35 per month. Under the ACA, their monthly contribution would be $51 to $107. At 200 to 250% of the poverty level, the monthly contributions are $70 in Massachusetts and $107 to $171 under the ACA; at 250 to 300% of the poverty level, the contributions are $105 in Massachusetts and $171 to $242 under the ACA. The larger subsidies in Massachusetts would be expected to have a greater effect in inducing healthy people to obtain insurance than the ACA’s smaller subsidies — which suggests that mandating coverage might well play an even larger role in encouraging the healthy to participate in health insurance markets nationally than it has in Massachusetts.
By: Amitabh Chandra, Ph.D., Jonathan Gruber, Ph.D., and Robin McKnight, Ph.D.-New England Journal of Medicine | This article (10.1056/NEJMp1013067) was published on January 12, 2011, at NEJM.org.
From the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University (A.C.), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (J.G.) — both in Cambridge, MA; and Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA (R.M.).
- Rosenbaum S, Gruber J. Buying health care, the individual mandate, and the Constitution. N Engl J Med 2010;363:401-403Full Text | Web of Science | Medline
- Goldman DP, Joyce GF, Escarce JJ, et al. Pharmacy benefits and the use of drugs by the chronically ill. JAMA 2004;291:2344-2350CrossRef | Web of Science | Medline