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Massachusetts health care — wonky, with a healthy dose of reality

Unexpected but True: Massachusetts Connector Has Lowest Average Premiums in the Country

Unexpected but True: Massachusetts Connector Has Lowest Average Premiums in the Country

September 6, 2018

Massachusetts Health Connector

It’s hard to believe, but true. Massachusetts has among the highest costs for medical care in the country. Yet, paradoxically, for people who obtain their insurance through the Health Connector, we have the lowest average premium costs in the country. Our “benchmark plan” (explained below) is the second lowest nationally. And these findings apply to the unsubsidized cost of the plans, before the federal tax credits and state ConnectorCare subsidies.  As one expert analyst put it, “Which state has the least-expensive ACA policies? Take a guess. No, guess again.” (link)

A number of senior Connector staff members explore this in a blog post in Health Affairs. They point out that what makes this even more remarkable is that Massachusetts requires insurers to cover more benefits than national standards due to our extensive state benefit mandates. In addition, plans here must limit out-of-pocket costs as part of state health reform’s “minimum creditable coverage” requirements. Yet, our premiums are still the lowest. Robust consumer protections need not come at the expense of affordability.

Average state exchange premium levels are calculated based on premiums paid by all individuals purchasing coverage, at every metallic tier and for every carrier. For 2018, the Massachusetts average monthly premium was $385, compared to a national average of $600 a month, making us the lowest in the country. We were the lowest in 2017 as well.    

The benchmark premium is the premium for the second-lowest cost silver plan offered in a state’s exchange. The federal government uses that amount as the basis for setting federal tax credits offered to people eligible for subsidized coverage under the ACA. For this measure, we are the second lowest, at $316 per month for 2018. Rhode Island is a smidge less, with a $311 monthly premium (see this chart). Offering a low benchmark plan saves federal taxpayers money because it leads to lower tax credits APTC subsidies. Unsubsidized shoppers also save money, because they can choose from low-cost silver plans.

The blog authors emphasize that Massachusetts’ success in keeping premiums more affordable can provides lessons to other states. A number of factors contribute to our broad enrollment, which keeps premiums low. One of the Health Connector’s most unique features is the ConnectorCare program for individuals earning up to three times the poverty level. The program provides additional state subsidies to lower-cost silver tier plans by providing both premium and cost-sharing subsidies “on top” of Affordable Care Act subsidies. Enrollees have access to zero or low-dollar premium plans, zero or low-dollar co-pays, with no deductibles or co-insurance. Massachusetts’ extensive network of enrollment assisters reach out and help people enroll in coverage. ConnectorCare covers approximately 190,000 individuals, constituting about three-quarters of total individual enrollment in the Health Connector. This extensive membership rewards ConnectorCare plans that offer low premiums, encouraging them to keep administrative costs low and take advantage of their MassHealth managed care plan networks.

Massachusetts’ lower premiums are also a function of the competition in our marketplace, with multiple carriers offering plans and a structure that encourages comparison shopping. The Health Connector’s standardized plan requirement lets consumers make apples-to-apples comparisons among plans, rather than face a jumble of different deductibles, copays and benefit levels.  Affordability of health coverage is also helped by the large risk pool that includes plans offered by small employers as well as individual coverage. In addition, because Massachusetts has retained its state-level individual mandate, fewer healthy individuals are tempted to go without coverage.

The Massachusetts health care policy community should be proud of our collective work together, reflected in the success that the Health Connector has achieved in controlling premium growth over the past few years. Yet challenges will persist. In 2019, the continued withholding by the Trump administration of federal Cost Sharing Reduction payments to insurers will again force carriers to increase premiums, raising costs for unsubsidized individuals.

More broadly, there’s still much to do to make health care affordable for everyone in the state. Many people struggle with high deductibles and copays. Drug costs in particular continue to go up unabated and the state needs to take aggressive steps to rein in pharmacy costs. Lots of good ideas are being tossed around for states to consider.

States should look to Massachusetts as a laboratory for good policy ideas. Already, New Jersey, Vermont and DC have followed our lead and passed their own individual mandates. Other states are looking at this option as well. Ultimately, it will take a federal government supportive of increased insurance coverage and affordability to continue the progressive path interrupted by the 2016 election.

                                                                                                                                               -- Brian Rosman and Louis Pratt