Millions of people could qualify for federal subsidies that will pay the entire monthly cost of some health care plans being offered in the online marketplaces set up under President Obama’s health care law, a surprising figure that has not garnered much attention, in part because the zero-premium plans come with serious trade-offs.
Three independent estimates by Wall Street analysts and a consulting firm say up to seven million people could qualify for the plans, but federal officials and insurers are reluctant to push them too hard because they are concerned about encouraging people to sign up for something that might ultimately not fit their needs.
The bulk of these plans are so-called bronze policies, the least expensive available. They require people to pay the most in out-of-pocket costs, for doctor visits and other benefits like hospital stays.
Supporters of the Affordable Care Act say that the availability of free-premium plans — as well as inexpensive policies that cover more — shows that it is achieving its goal of making health insurance widely available. A large number of those who qualify have incomes that fall just above the threshold for Medicaid, the government program for the poor, according to an analysis by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company.
The latest analysis was conducted by McKinsey’s Center for U.S. Health System Reform, whose independent research has been cited by the federal government and others.
“The whole point of the law was not only to cover the uninsured, but so people didn’t have to make choices between food or drugs, or going to the doctor or dentist,” said Karen Davis, a health policy expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s what it is designed to do.”
Many insurers tried to price their least expensive plans so they would become free or nearly free with the addition of subsidies that are set based on a person’s income and the cost of a midlevel, or silver, plan.
Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia has four plans that are free to some customers. But the company, along with other insurers, has been careful not to publicize its free coverage for fear of alienating customers who will need to pay more.
“We’re not advertising zero dollar,” said Brian Lobley, a senior vice president at Independence Blue Cross. But the company is promoting monthly premiums in the $20 to $30 range, he said.
The Obama administration has also stressed affordability over coverage with no monthly charge, frequently saying that the cost of coverage will be less than a monthly cellphone bill for many consumers. Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services would not comment on the McKinsey analysis, saying in a statement that the goal of the health law was to provide a range of options for people with differing needs and budgets.
The analysis found that five million to six million people who are uninsured will qualify for subsidies that will be greater than the cost of the cheapest bronze or silver plan. A million more people with individual insurance could also be eligible, according to McKinsey, although estimates of the size of the market for private individual insurance vary widely. None of the people in the analysis qualify for Medicaid.
The availability of zero-premium plans may make the deal especially enticing to the healthy young people the marketplace needs to succeed, said Mark V. Pauly, a professor of health care management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “This is such a good deal that you’d have to believe you were immortal not to really pick it up,” he said.
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