Millions of Americans facing 'uniquely horrific' spike in health insurance costs unless Congress acts

Millions of Americans facing 'uniquely horrific' spike in health insurance costs unless Congress acts
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the George R. Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, California, Gage Skidmore

Millions of people across the United States who purchase health coverage on the Affordable Care Act exchanges could soon see their premiums soar if Congress doesn't extend subsidy programs that Democratic lawmakers enacted as part of their response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The nonprofit group Families USA estimates in an issue brief published Monday that "health insurance premiums are slated to shoot up by more than 53% next year for 14 million people who buy their own insurance from health insurance marketplaces."

"The total cost increase for struggling families in America will likely exceed a staggering $12 billion a year," the analysis warns. "Congress must act decisively to prevent huge increases in health insurance costs for families who already face serious challenges coping with rapidly rising living expenses."

Despite the potentially devastating implications for millions of households, the looming premium hike has largely flown under the radar on Capitol Hill. Back in March, journalist Jon Walker warned in The American Prospect that Democrats are "sleepwalking into a healthcare disaster that's entirely of their own making."

"Democrats are on the verge of dooming millions of Americans to huge new healthcare bills," Walker added, "which will in turn serve to ruin any hope Democrats have of winning the midterms."

The American Rescue Plan, a sprawling coronavirus relief package that President Joe Biden signed into law last year, included provisions that boosted ACA subsidies for low-income people and ended the income cap on subsidies. The latter measure ensures that no one is forced to pay more than 8.5% of their total income to buy health coverage on the ACA exchanges.

The issue is that the provisions were designed to last just two years, and legislation that many Democrats and advocates hoped would make the benefits permanent—the Build Back Better Act—is dead in the Senate thanks in large part to the opposition of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

According to Families USA, the roughly 23,000 West Virginians who buy health insurance on the ACA exchanges will see their annual premiums rise by an average of $1,536—63%—if the American Rescue Plan provisions aren't extended beyond this year.

Arizonans will be hit with an average yearly premium hike of $828, Families USA noted.

Across the U.S., more than 3 million people will likely lose insurance coverage entirely if Congress doesn't re-up the subsidy enhancements.

Growing alarm over the possible ACA premium jump comes as healthcare advocates are also voicing concerns about rising Medicare premiums and a potentially massive purge of Medicaid enrollees if the Biden administration allows the Covid-19 Public Health Emergency declaration to expire in July.

Last week, as Common Dreams reported, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced the latest version of his Medicare for All legislation, decrying a state of affairs in which "there are millions of people who would like to go to a doctor but cannot afford to do so."

In his March column for the Prospect, Walker observed that "while current enhanced ACA subsidies don't expire until the end of December, open enrollment to sign up for insurance in 2023 starts on November 1st."

"This means customers will receive letters about their 2023 premiums, and the news will start covering stories about premium increases, in October, the same time that mail-in ballots will reach voters," Walker wrote. "Beyond broadly hurting 14 million people, the end of these subsidies will create thousands of uniquely horrific stories of financial devastation."

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