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Expiring subsidies raise concerns

CHARLESTON — Healthcare advocates in West Virginia are calling on Congress to find a way to extend health insurance subsidies put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic before they expire later this year.

The federal American Rescue Plan Act extended eligibility for health insurance subsidies provided by the Affordable Care Act. The subsidies extended to people purchasing their own health insurance on state-run marketplaces or through HealthCare.gov. The subsidies took the form of tax credits to reduce premium costs.

The subsidies are limited to people with incomes more than 400-percent of the poverty level. ARPA also increased the dollar amount for financial assistance for low-income individuals who were already eligible to receive health insurance through ACA. But these subsidies expire Jan 1, 2023, unless Congress reauthorizes them.

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the subsidies saved an individual an average of $50 per month or $85 per policy per month, with four out of five enrollees finding insurance plans for $10 per month or less after the tax credits kicked in.

West Virginia has two health insurance carriers that participate in the state-operated marketplace: West Virginia Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield and CareSource. First Choice Services, the company the manages the state’s gambling addiction, substance abuse, mental health, tobacco and suicide prevention hotlines, runs the ACA Navigator program in West Virginia.

Jeremy Smith, the program director for First Choice Services, said the ARPA health insurance subsidies have been very helpful for people who otherwise might not have been able to afford health insurance.

“I’ve been able to travel the state into every nook and cranny and talk to a lot of different families about health coverage and assist them in the signup process. So, what I’ve seen over the years is that these subsidies are the backbone of this program,” Smith said. “What I saw in 2021 with the American Rescue Plan enhanced subsidies is that it was a game changer. It made all the difference in the world for people to get affordable health coverage again.”

Chris Walters, the owner of the Integrity Insurance Group in Charleston and a former Republican state senator, said employers have seen a 47 percent increase in health insurance costs over the last 10 years. He said the ARPA subsidies have given employees another option for affordable insurance.

“Where the subsidies have really come in is allowing those employees to be able to look at other opportunities to get insurance through the exchange, and employers to offer benefits in other areas as well,” Walters said. “This right here gives the ability for employers to point their employees in the right direction to find very affordable coverage, and yet to keep them in their workforce in West Virginia.”

Jessie Ice, executive director for West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, said that there are 23,000 West Virginians who receive AC coverage in the state-run marketplace, with 18,000 people losing their coverage if the subsidies expire.

“This is $37.5 million worth of subsidies that we were giving to our people that will be taken away if we do not expand this tax credit and make it permanent,” Ice said. “Without continuing these enhanced ACA subsidies, West Virginians would likely see a price increase on the marketplace of a staggering 63 percent.”

Supporters of the subsidies called on U.S. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to use their influence to extend the subsidies. Manchin has toyed with doing a smaller version of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Plan, which subsidy supporters see as a vehicle to extend the ACA tax credits. Ice was recently part of a Save our Care call with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-M.D., calling on Congress to act.

“We need our senators to use their power to tell Congress that this is what West Virginia needs,” Ice said. “West Virginia needs these advanced premium tax credits permanent in our marketplace.”

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