But Bayram said eliminating those wouldn’t have much of an impact. Hospital care, doctor visits and prescription drugs “are the three big ones,” she said. “Unless they were talking about ditching those, the other ones only have a marginal impact.”
John Bertko, an actuary who worked in the Obama administration and served on the board of Massachusetts’ health exchange, agreed: “You would either have very crappy benefits without drugs or physicians or hospitalization, or you would have roughly the same costs.”
Maternity care and mental health and substance abuse, he said, “are probably less than 5 percent” of premium costs.
Of course, requiring specific coverage does push up premiums to some extent. James Bailey, who teaches at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., has studied the issue at the state level. He estimates that the average state health insurance mandate “raises premiums by about one-half of 1 percent.”
Those who want to get rid of the required benefits point to the fact that premiums in the individual market jumped dramatically from 2013 to 2014, the first year the benefits were required.
“The ACA requires more benefits that every consumer is required to purchase regardless of whether they want them, need them or can afford them,” Ohio Insurance Commissioner Mary Taylor said in 2013, when the state’s rates were announced.
But Bayram noted most of that jump was not due to the broader benefits, but to the fact that, for the first time, sicker patients were allowed to buy coverage. “The premiums would go down a lot if only very healthy people were covered and people who were higher risk were pulled out of the risk pool,” she said. (Some conservatives want to change that requirement, too, and let insurers charge sick people higher premiums.)
Meanwhile, most of the research that has been done on required benefits has looked at plans offered to workers by their employers, not policies available to individuals who buy their own coverage because they don’t get it through work or the government. That individual market is the focus of the current debate.
Analysts warn that individual-market dynamics differ greatly from those of the employer insurance market.
Bailey said he “saw this debate coming and wanted to write a paper” about the ACA’s essential health benefits. But “I very quickly realized there are all these complicated details that are going to make it very hard to figure out,” he said, particularly the way the required benefits work in tandem with other requirements in the law.
For example, said Bertko, prescription drugs can represent 20 percent of costs in the individual market. That’s far more than in the employer market.
Bayram said another big complication is that the required benefits do double duty. They not only ensure that consumers have a comprehensive package of benefits but enable other parts of the health law to work by ensuring that everyone’s benefits are comparable.
For example, the law adjusts payments to insurers to help compensate plans that enroll sicker-than-average patients. But in order to do that “risk adjustment,” she said, “all of the plans have to agree on some kind of package. So if you think of essential health benefits as an agreed-upon benchmark, I don’t know how they can get rid of that and still have risk adjustment.”
Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit health newsroom whose stories appear in news outlets nationwide, is an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.