The Dodgy New HHS Report on Obamacare Premiums
How much will insurance plans cost on Obamacare's exchanges? This has been a big, and contentious, question since before the law was passed. Late last night, we got some new information: the Department of Health and Human Services released selected details on plan prices for insurance premiums in the federally run exchanges that will operate in the majority of states.
Administration officials are spinning the new numbers as good news for Obamacare. "The prices are affordable," Gary Cohen, a top HHS official, told The Wall Street Journal. The White House is happily declaring that the premiums are "lower than expected." And multiple news reports on the numbers are following suit, running headlines on the "lower than expected" premiums coming under Obamacare.
But "lower than expected" is, of course, not the same as lower than they are currently. That's not the comparison the administration wants to make. "Because of the Affordable Care Act, the health insurance that people will be buying will actually cover them in the case of them getting sick. It doesn't make sense to compare just the number the person was paying, you have to compare the value people are getting," HHS official Cohen told the Journal. Accordingly, there are no comparisons in the report to current premiums. All that lower than expected really means, then, is that premiums won't go up as much as the Congressional Budget Office initially estimated.
It's also worth noting that the HHS report isn't comprehensive. It focuses on two thin slices of the insurance market—lowest cost premiums for 27-year-olds who make $25,000 annually, and four-member families with $50,000 incomes. As Scott Gottlieb of the American Enterprise Institute writes at Forbes, it's a safe bet these two slices weren't picked accidentally; most likely they represent demographics best served by the law.
What about everyone else? As a Politico piece on the release notes, "the report doesn't actually reveal very much about what most people will pay." Instead, it "gives lots of examples of the kinds of people who will get good prices — but everyone else will remain in the dark until at least next Tuesday, when Obamacare is supposed to open its doors."
Nor did the administration want reporters digging too much into the data before writing stories today. "The report was issued to news organizations on Tuesday under a strict embargo, with specific instructions not to share the information with anyone else, like outside health insurance experts who might be able to provide more analysis of the numbers," Politico reports.
The report leaked out anyway, but the embargo guidelines suggest that HHS was wary of early scrutiny of the numbers. And along with the selective reporting, it does make one wonder whether HHS is anxious about premium levels when enrollment begins next week. If a comprehensive report on premiums could stand up to outside scrutiny, wouldn't HHS be putting out a fuller picture, and courting outside analysis?