In our opinion: Needed health care reform is unlikely to materialize soon

Progress in addressing the nation’s health care system appears to have hit a wall in Washington, leaving little hope that a distressing trend toward higher insurance costs will soon be reversed. Politicians will argue who is to blame for the impasse in forwarding new policy, but that isn’t helpful to those who are seeing their premiums rise at rates that make them consider living with no insurance at all.

In Utah, the cost of employer-sponsored health care plans increased 33 percent between 2010 and 2016, while the average deductible more than doubled during the same period. As a result, more people are being forced to make good with plans that offer fewer benefits with higher deductibles.

The problem is particularly acute for small businesses and their employees. More than 60 percent of Utahns who have health insurance receive coverage from employer plans. Small businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to cover the rising costs, having to pass them on to employees who are then finding it hard to fit insurance prices into the household budget. As an executive of one small business told the Deseret News, “It’s really scary, as a small business … that it’s just out of control.”

Unfortunately, Congress and the White House are not poised to take action that could bring the situation under any kind of long-term control. The best consumers can hope for are adjustments in current policy that may allow for more flexibility in the creation of short-term, limited duration insurance plans. Such plans were limited under the Affordable Care Act in order to direct more customers to the large insurance exchange policies that were at the core of so-called “Obamacare.”

Those exchange plans have risen in costs and, as a result, have seen lower rates of individual subscriptions. Currently, the typical exchange-based family coverage policies carry four-digit monthly premiums, high deductibles and numerous care restrictions.

As an alternative, the Trump administration is considering rules that would allow customers to subscribe to short-term plans with longer duration periods than were allowed under the Affordable Care Act. Such plans are likely to be attractive to individuals who are not eligible for employer-based coverage.

Still, making alternative plans available to consumers is not a long-term solution and may be of limited value in the short-term. In the last year, the uninsured rate among Americans in the labor force, between the ages of 19 and 64, rose to 15.5 percent from 12.7 percent in 2016, according to the Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that promotes access to health care. The rising dropout rate threatens to raise costs even higher for those who stay in the exchanges. In short, consumers are basically facing the same situation they did back when the Obama administration began tackling health care reform a decade ago.

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Consumers will continue to face the specter of higher costs for less coverage, an untenable situation that would be easier to accept if there were reasons to be confident that political leaders were diligently about the business of finding a solution. We would hope that in the coming months a bipartisan effort to address the problem on a comprehensive scale would emerge in Washington. The nature of current discourse on the topic, however, as we enter a mid-term election season, renders that hope faint and fleeting.

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