Editor's note: This story is part of a series of articles looking at the health policy challenges the Biden administration will face. Subscribers to our free newsletter can also access our trendline on the other major issues that will shape the healthcare industry in 2021. For a look at the business trends affecting other industries, see the Dive Outlook on 2021.
Even with Democrats' surprise flipping of the Senate, enacting big healthcare policies in Congress will be a heavy lift given the razor-thin margin in that body and division within the party on strategy.
A clearer path for incoming president Joe Biden is to focus on reversing policies enacted by President Donald Trump at the executive level. Trump's tenure has been defined in large part by a chipping away at key tenets of the Affordable Care Act, curtailing the Medicaid program and sweeping deregulations critics allege harm consumer protections.
The nearest-term actions the incoming administration is likely to take will center on bolstering the landmark health law and Medicaid, both of which has drawn more bipartisan backing in recent years. Below are what the Biden health administration is likely to roll back quickly after inauguration Wednesday.
Boosting Affordable Care Act marketplace
One of Biden's first moves may be to open a special enrollment period to sign up for coverage during COVID-19, combined with more outreach and enrollment assistance, Cynthia Cox, director of the ACA program at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said.
Beyond COVID-19, it's likely the Biden administration will restore federal spending on navigation, marketing and outreach for exchange plans. For example, the Trump administration reduced the minimum number of navigator programs in each state using the federal marketplace to one. Biden could return it to two, and might also bring back the requirement that navigators have a physical presence in their service area.
Biden is also likely to unilaterally shore up standards for brokers, and take steps to bolster the exchange website healthcare.gov.
The Trump administration in December proposed a rule encouraging states to privatize their health insurance marketplaces instead of using healthcare.gov, which will make it more difficult for consumers to shop between plans and could divert people to subpar coverage, Tara Straw, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, wrote in a December blog post.
The rule doubles down on the administration's approval of a Georgia waiver to privatize its marketplace in November, but would allow states to follow suit and rely entirely on third-party brokers without a waiver.
That rule is not yet final, so Biden's HHS will likely remove it from the Federal Register to avoid fragmenting marketplace functions.
Biden could also beef up consumer protections and standards for web brokers, which also sell skimpy short-term health insurance and other non-ACA-compliant coverage.
Biden is also likely to re-expand the annual enrollment period. In 2017, the Trump administration shortened the annual enrollment period to 45 days. Biden's HHS could use rulemaking to return that period to three full months.
The incoming administration could also reverse previous CMS guidance on Section 1332 waivers that let states subvert or sidestep ACA protections on coverage and cost. The Trump administration proposed a rule in November to codify the waiver standards in regulation but — despite a recent wave of proposed and final regulations as the Trump administration hustles to preserve its health agenda — the rule has not yet been finalized, so HHS could remove it from the Federal Register as well.
By nixing the rule, Biden could also help reverse Trump administration cuts from 2018 that slashed user fees on healthcare.gov plans. The November proposed rule would further decimate the fees, which finance a large swath of marketplace operating expenses, to 2.25% in 2022, versus 3% in 2021 and 3.5% last year.
One key tenet of Biden's health agenda is to expand ACA subsidies to more low-income Americans, something he can't do without Congress. However, Biden could use administrative processes to reverse a Trump-era method for indexing marketplace subsidies that kicked in for the 2020 plan year, which led to a small reduction in the financial aid.
Dialing back short-term and association health plans
Biden's HHS could also roll back the controversial expansion of short-term health plans, bare-bones coverage that isn't required to cover the 10 essential health benefits under the ACA.
Short-term plans were created as inexpensive stop-gap insurance that could last for up to three months, giving consumers peace of mind while they shopped more comprehensive coverage. However, in 2018, the Trump administration expanded the duration of the plans to 12 months, with a three-year renewal period, and also allowed all consumers — not just those who couldn't afford other options — to purchase them.
HHS touted the expansion as giving consumers more options, while noting they weren't meant for everyone. A yearlong investigation by House Democrats found the plans widely discriminate against women and people with pre-existing conditions, and had major coverage limitations leaving unwitting consumers susceptible to surprise medical bills.
The Biden administration could enact stricter limits against the sale of the plans. Through additional rulemaking, HHS could limit future enrollment or make it harder to renew short-term coverage, enact stronger consumer protections or beef up standards to limit their sale.
Though actions around limiting new people coming into the plans are likely, Biden may wait to see if Congress takes up the issue, experts say.
A growing number of Americans in the individual healthcare market have subscribed the inexpensive coverage amid skyrocketing medical costs. Roughly 3 million consumers bought the plans in 2019, a 27% growth from 2018, the investigation found. The explosive growth in use makes it a bit less likely Biden's HHS would pursue immediate, unilateral movement in the space, for fear of kicking Americans off their coverage.
Biden could also reverse Trump's regulatory changes that have been friendly to association health plans, which allow small businesses or groups to band together to offer coverage. Though the ACA enhanced oversight of the coverage, the Trump administration in June 2018 issued a rule exempting them from rules regulating individual and small-group employer coverage.
As a result, association health plans were allowed to exclude or charge more on the basis of gender, age or other factors.
A federal court invalidated the rule later that year, and some states took legislative or regulatory actions to discourage the use of association health plans. However, the plans — which cover an estimated 3 million Americans — are still not required to cover all essential health benefits, making them a likely target for the Biden administration.
"It is something that we're going to see some action on pretty soon, but it's challenging. You don't want to take those plans away from people, especially during a pandemic," Cox said.
Expanding Medicaid coverage, eligibility
The Trump administration has given red states new avenues to constrict their Medicaid programs, which provide safety-net health insurance to some 75 million Americans.
Biden will likely first revise state demonstration waiver policies to expand coverage. Among other measures, Biden could get rid of past CMS guidance allowing states to play with Medicaid eligibility through work requirements, controversial programs tying coverage eligibility to work or volunteering hours, and to cap program funding.
Tennessee this month became the first state to receive a federal green light to convert its Medicaid funding to a block grant, following controversial CMS guidance issued early last year. Republicans tout block grants as a way to lower costs, while Democrats oppose the models as capped funding could lead to restricted benefits down the line, especially during times of emergency like a pandemic or natural disaster.
It's more difficult to roll back a waiver if it's already been approved, but Biden could put restrictions on it or reverse the decision before it goes into effect, experts say, though Tennessee would have an opportunity to object.
There are also actions Biden could take to reinstate certain beneficiary protections, which would require regulatory changes, KFF researchers say. Those include revising or stopping pending proposals that would change how Medicaid eligibility is determined in a way that would probably result in previously eligible people losing coverage by enacting more documentation requirements; change the government's methodology for recouping improper payments; and reduce enhanced federal funding for eligibility workers.
Biden's administration could also tweak regulations that have already been finalized, including the final Medicaid managed care rule for 2020 that relaxed network adequacy, beneficiary protections and quality oversight.