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Congress boosted ACA subsidies. An enrollment surge followed.

ARP's enhanced subsidies sparked new enrollments and plan upgrades during this year's SEP. Expect more of the same during open enrollment.

Of new marketplace enrollees, 44% obtained coverage during the special enrollment period for less than $10 per month. Image: Gorodenkoff / stock.adobe.com

Reviewed by our health policy panel.

The American Rescue Plan, signed into law by President Biden on March 11 of this year, included major boosts to the affordability of health plans sold in the ACA marketplace for people of all incomes.

Effective through 2022 and likely to be made permanent by pending legislation, the ARP improvements to affordability were as follows:

  • A benchmark Silver plan (the second least expensive Silver plan) with strong cost sharing reduction (CSR) subsidies became free to enrollees with household income up to 150% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) and costs no more than 2% of income for enrollees with income up to 200% FPL. That’s a maximum of $43 per month for a single person with an income of $25,520.
  • The previous income cap on subsidy eligibility was removed, so that no one who lacks access to affordable coverage elsewhere (i.e., from an employer) has to pay more than 8.5% of income for a benchmark Silver plan (less at lower incomes). The eliminated cap was 400% FPL ($51,040 for an individual, $104,880 for a family of four), and some households with income well above that level now qualify for subsidies.
  • The percentage of income required to buy a benchmark Silver plan was reduced at all income levels.
  • Anyone who received any unemployment insurance income during 2021 was eligible for free high-CSR Silver coverage. (Note that the pending legislation calls for this subsidy enhancement to be extended by several years, but not necessarily made permanent.)
open enrollment 2021

Our 2022 Open Enrollment Guide: Everything you need to know to enroll in an affordable individual-market health plan.

Preceding and then coinciding with these major subsidy boosts, the Biden administration had opened an emergency Special Enrollment Period (SEP) running from February 15 through August 15 in the 36 states that use the federal ACA exchange, HealthCare.gov.

The SEP, implemented to help Americans get covered during the pandemic, functioned like a second open enrollment period: anyone who lacked access to affordable coverage from other sources (e.g., employers) could enroll in a marketplace plan. The 15 state-based exchanges also opened emergency SEPs, with somewhat different durations and conditions, summarized here.

ARP prompted an enrollment surge during the 2021 SEP

The enhanced subsidies were posted on HealthCare.gov on April 1, and in the state-run exchanges within a few weeks of that date. Existing enrollees were encouraged to update their information and get the new subsidies credited, and were allowed to switch plans if they chose.

Americans responded with a major surge in new enrollment and enrollment upgrades. From February 15 through August 15:

  • More than 2.8 million people enrolled in new health coverage. Of new enrollees, 91% qualified for premium subsidies.
  • Of new enrollees, 44% obtained coverage for less than $10 per month. Most of these enrollees (41% in HealthCare.gov states) received free coverage with the highest level of CSR. As a result, the median deductible fell from $750 in 2020 to $50 this year – meaning that half of enrollees obtained a plan with a deductible at or below that level (most of them in high-CSR Silver plans).
  • The average premium paid by new consumers during the SEP (Feb. 15 – Aug. 15) fell 30%, from $117 in 2020 to $81 in 2021.
  • Marketplace enrollment in August 2021, at 12.2 million, was 15% higher than in August 2020, the previous August high, and 22% above the pre-pandemic August high (see p. 14 here) recorded in 2016.
  • More than 200,000 new and existing enrollees qualified for free high-CSR Silver plans because they had received unemployment insurance income in 2021.

Savings were also dramatic for existing marketplace enrollees:

  • 8 million existing enrollees reduced the premiums on their existing plans or obtained new plans after ARP implementation.
  • Existing enrollees reduced their premiums by 50%, or by $67 per month, on average.

My premium went down how much?

To get a sense of the extent to which the ARP reduced enrollee costs (or encouraged people who might previously have considered coverage too expensive to enroll), consider these examples:

  • In November 2020, a 40-year-old in Miami with an income of $24,000 per year would have paid $115 per month for the least expensive available Silver plan, with a $1,500 deductible, and $119 per month for the second-cheapest Silver plan, with a $0 deductible. Thanks to the ARP, those plans would now cost this person $26 and $30 per month, respectively.
  • In November 2020, a pair of 60-year-olds in Dallas, Texas with an income of $70,000 – slightly over the income cap for premium subsidies, which the ARP eliminated – would have had to pay $1,669 per month for the lowest cost Gold plan, with a $2,300 deductible (Gold plans are cheaper than Silver Plans in Dallas), or $1,228 for the lowest cost Bronze plan, with an $8,550 deductible.
    Now, this couple can choose to pay $393 per month for the Gold plan (which includes free doctor visits and generic drug prescriptions, neither subject to the deductible), or consider two free Bronze plans with deductibles over $8,000, a $2/month Bronze plan with a $6,100 deductible, and other options. A BlueCross Silver plan available for $420 per month might also be in the mix, if, say, the provider network is preferable.

Which states saw the biggest gains in new enrollees?

The new enrollment surge – and the savings – was particularly strong in twelve states that had not enacted the ACA Medicaid expansion as of June 2021. Due to their failure to expand Medicaid, these states have a “coverage gap” for people who earn too little to qualify for marketplace coverage (less than 100% FPL, or $12,760 for an individual in 2021) but mostly also don’t qualify for Medicaid because of their states’ restrictive Medicaid eligibility. (That excludes Wisconsin, which has not enacted the ACA expansion but grants Medicaid eligibility to adults with income up to 100% FPL. Oklahoma, which expanded Medicaid beginning in July 2021, and Missouri, which will begin covering new Medicaid expansion enrollees in October, are included.)

These twelve states – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming – accounted for 1.55 million new enrollees during the SEP, or 55% of all new enrollees nationally.

In the non-expansion states, eligibility for marketplace subsidies begins at 100% FPL, as opposed to 138% FPL in Medicaid expansion states, where adults below that threshold qualify for Medicaid. Accordingly, in these states, about half of enrollees qualified for free high-CSR coverage, reporting incomes between 100% and 150% FPL. In these states, enrollment as of August 2021 (6.0 million) was 44% above enrollment in August 2019, the last pre-pandemic year (4.2 million).

More than 2 million people in non-expansion states are estimated to be stuck in the coverage gap – ineligible both for Medicaid and for ACA premium subsidies. For people in these states, reporting an income just below or just above 100% FPL ($12,760 for an individual, $26,200 for a family of four) is the difference between receiving no help at all and having access to free Silver coverage with high CSR and low out-of-pocket costs.

It’s important to keep in mind that the application for marketplace coverage requires an income estimate – and many people, unaware of the minimum income requirement, underestimate their potential income. For tips on how to make sure you leave no stone unturned in seeking help paying for coverage, see this post.

What do these numbers mean for 2022 open enrollment?

As open enrollment for 2022 approaches (it begins on November 1), the subsidies enhanced by the ARP remain in place for 2022. As Congress hashes out new investments for coming years in a pending budget bill, the pressure is intense to keep this good thing going in future years.

As of now, with the sad exception of those stuck in the coverage gap in states that still refuse to enact the ACA Medicaid expansion, any citizen or legally present noncitizen who lacks access to other forms of affordable coverage should be able to find it in the marketplace. If you need coverage, make sure to check out your options on HealthCare.gov or your state exchange.

The word that ACA marketplace plans are more affordable than ever has not yet reached many of the people who need coverage and qualify for premium subsidies. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated in May that nearly 11 million uninsured people were subsidy-eligible. ACA enrollment assisters consistently report that many people who are eligible for coverage have no idea what’s on offer.

The Biden administration is trying to change that: after years of radical cuts in federal funds for enrollment assistance, the administration this year has allocated a record $80 million to fund nonprofit enrollment “navigator” groups charged with outreach as well as enrollment assistance. The Urban Institute forecast that if the ARP subsidies are made permanent – solidifying the perception that truly affordable coverage is here to stay — enrollment would increase by more than 5 million in 2022.

The emergency SEP provided a jump start, boosting coverage as of August more than 1.5 million above the August 2020 level. In a fraught and complex legislative session, Congress will most likely – though not certainly – do its part and extend the subsidies beyond 2022. There is certainly room for enrollment to run higher in the open enrollment season that begins on November 1.


Andrew Sprung is a freelance writer who blogs about politics and healthcare policy at xpostfactoid. His articles about the Affordable Care Act have appeared in publications including The American Prospect, Health Affairs, The Atlantic, and The New Republic. He is the winner of the National Institute of Health Care Management’s 2016 Digital Media Award. He holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Rochester.

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