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The Effects of Premiums and Cost Sharing on Low-Income Populations: Updated Review of Research Findings

Key Findings
Recently, there has been increased interest at the federal and state level to expand the use of premiums and cost sharing in Medicaid as a way to promote personal responsibility, prepare beneficiaries to transition to commercial and private insurance, and support consumers in making value-conscious health decisions. This brief reviews research from 65 papers published between 2000 and March 2017 on the effects of premiums and cost sharing on low-income populations in Medicaid and CHIP. This research has primarily focused on how premiums and cost sharing affect coverage and access to and use of care; some studies also have examined effects on safety net providers and state savings. The effects on individuals, providers, and state costs reflect varied implementation of premiums and cost sharing across states as well as differing premium and cost sharing amounts. Together, the research finds:

  • Premiums serve as a barrier to obtaining and maintaining Medicaid and CHIP coverage among low-income individuals. These effects are largest among those with the lowest incomes, particularly among individuals with incomes below poverty. Some individuals losing Medicaid or CHIP coverage move to other coverage, but others become uninsured, especially those with lower incomes. Individuals who become uninsured face increased barriers to accessing care, greater unmet health needs, and increased financial burdens.
  • Even relatively small levels of cost sharing in the range of $1 to $5 are associated with reduced use of care, including necessary services. Research also finds that cost sharing can result in unintended consequences, such as increased use of the emergency room, and that cost sharing negatively affects access to care and health outcomes. For example, studies find that increases in cost sharing are associated with increased rates of uncontrolled hypertension and hypercholesterolemia and reduced treatment for children with asthma. Additionally, research finds that cost sharing increases financial burdens for families, causing some to cut back on necessities or borrow money to pay for care.
  • State savings from premiums and cost sharing in Medicaid and CHIP are limited. Research shows that potential revenue gains from premiums and cost sharing are offset by increased disenrollment; increased use of more expensive services, such as emergency room care; increased costs in other areas, such as resources for uninsured individuals; and administrative expenses. Studies also show that raising premiums and cost sharing in Medicaid and CHIP increases pressures on safety net providers, such as community health centers and hospitals.

Introduction

Recently, there has been increased interest at the federal and state level to expand the use of premiums and cost sharing in Medicaid. Current rules limit premiums and cost sharing in Medicaid to facilitate access to coverage and care for the low-income population served by the program, who have limited resources to spend on out-of-pocket costs. Proponents of increasing premiums and cost sharing in Medicaid indicate that doing so will promote personal responsibility, prepare beneficiaries to transition to commercial and private insurance, and support consumers in making value-conscious health decisions.1

This brief, which updates an earlier brief “Premiums and Cost-Sharing in Medicaid: A Review of Research Findings,” reviews research on the effects of premiums and cost sharing on low-income populations in Medicaid and CHIP. It draws on findings from 65 papers published between 2000 and March 2017, including peer-reviewed studies and freestanding reports, government reports, and white papers by research and policy organizations. This research has primarily focused on how premiums and cost sharing affect coverage and access to care; some studies also have examined effects on state savings. The effects on individuals, providers, and state costs reflect varied implementation of premiums and cost sharing across states as well as differing premium and cost sharing amounts.

Premiums and Cost Sharing in Medicaid and CHIP Today

Currently, states have options to charge premiums and cost sharing in Medicaid and CHIP that vary by income and eligibility group (Box 1). Reflecting these options, premiums and cost sharing in Medicaid and CHIP vary across states and groups. As of January 2017, 30 states charge premiums or enrollment fees and 25 states charge cost sharing for children in Medicaid or CHIP.2 Most of these charges are limited to children in CHIP since the program covers children with higher family incomes than Medicaid and has different premium and cost sharing rules. States generally do not charge premiums for parents in Medicaid, but 39 states charge cost sharing for parents and 23 of the 32 states that implemented the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Medicaid expansion to low-income adults charge cost sharing for expansion adults.3 Six states have waivers to charge premiums or monthly contributions for adults that are not otherwise allowed.4

Box 1: Medicaid and CHIP Premium and Cost Sharing Rules
Medicaid

  • States may charge premiums for enrollees with incomes above 150% of the federal poverty level (FPL), including children and adults. Enrollees with incomes below 150% FPL may not be charged premiums.
  • States may charge cost sharing up to maximums that vary by income (Table 1). States cannot charge cost sharing for emergency, family planning, pregnancy-related services, preventive services for children, or preventive services defined as essential health benefits in Alternative Benefit Plans in Medicaid. In addition, states generally cannot charge cost sharing to children enrolled through mandatory eligibility categories. The minimum eligibility standard for children is 133% FPL, although some states have higher minimums.
  • Overall, premium and cost sharing amounts for family members enrolled in Medicaid may not exceed 5% of household income. This 5% cap is applied on a monthly or quarterly basis.

CHIP

  • States have somewhat greater flexibility to charge premiums and cost sharing for children in CHIP, although there are limits on the amounts that states can charge, including an overall cap of 5% of household income.
Table 1: Maximum Allowable Cost Sharing Amounts in Medicaid by Income
<100% FPL 100% – 150% FPL >150% FPL
Outpatient Services $4 10% of state cost 20% of state cost
Non-Emergency use of ER $8 $8 No limit (subject to overall 5% of household income limit)
Prescription Drugs

Preferred

Non-Preferred

$4

$8

$4

$8

$4

20% of state cost

Inpatient Services $75 per stay 10% of state cost 20% of state cost
Notes: Some groups and services are exempt from cost sharing, including children enrolled in Medicaid through mandatory eligibility pathways, emergency services, family planning services, pregnancy related services, and preventive services for children. Maximum allowable amounts are as of FY2014. Beginning October 1, 2015, maximum allowable amounts increase annually by the percentage increase in the medical care component of the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U).

Effects of Premiums (Table 1)

A large body of research shows that premiums can serve as a barrier to obtaining and maintaining Medicaid and CHIP coverage among low-income individuals. Studies show that premiums in Medicaid and CHIP lead to a reduction in coverage among both children and adults.5,6,7,8,9,10  Numerous studies find that premiums increase disenrollment from Medicaid and CHIP among adults and children, shorten lengths of Medicaid and CHIP enrollment, and deter eligible adults and children from enrolling in Medicaid and CHIP.11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25,26,27,28,29,30,31,32,33,34,35,36,37,38,39

Although some individuals who disenroll from Medicaid or CHIP following premium increases move to other sources of coverage, others become uninsured and face negative effects on their access to care and financial security. Those with lower incomes and those without a worker in the family are more likely to become uninsured compared to those with relatively higher incomes or with a worker in the family, reflecting less availability of employer coverage.40,41,42,43,44,45,46,47,48,49 Studies also show that those who become uninsured following premium increases face increased barriers to accessing care, have greater unmet health needs, and face increased financial burdens.50,51,52 ,53,54 Several studies suggest that these negative effects on health care are largest among individuals with greater health care needs.55,56

Premium effects are largest for those with the lowest incomes, particularly among those with incomes below poverty. Given that most states limit premium charges to children in CHIP, most studies of premium effects have focused on children in CHIP, who generally have incomes above 100% or 150% of the federal poverty level. A range of these studies show that premium effects are larger among children at the lower end of this income range, who have greater disenrollment and increased likelihood of becoming uninsured.57,58,59,60,61,62,63,64,65 Reflecting the more limited use of premiums among Medicaid enrollees with incomes below poverty, fewer studies have focused on this population. However, studies that have focused on poor Medicaid enrollees found substantial negative effects on enrollment from premiums.66,67,68,69 For example, in Oregon, nearly half of adults disenrolled from Medicaid after a premium increase with a maximum premium amount of $20, with many becoming uninsured and facing barriers to accessing care, unmet health needs, and increased financial burdens.70,71,72 Similarly, a more recent study of the Healthy Indiana Plan waiver program for Medicaid expansion adults with incomes below 138% FPL, which requires premiums that range from $1-$100 to enroll in a more comprehensive plan, found that 55% of eligible individuals either did not make their initial payment or missed a payment.73 Research also finds that premium effects may vary by other factors beyond income. For example, one study finds larger effects of premiums among families without an offer of employer-sponsored coverage.74 Some research also suggests that increases in Medicaid and CHIP premiums may have larger effects on coverage for children of color and among children whose families have lower levels of educational attainment.75,76,77

Research finds varying implications of premiums for individuals with significant health needs. Overall, individuals with greater health needs are less likely to disenroll from Medicaid or CHIP coverage and are more likely to have longer periods of Medicaid or CHIP coverage compared to those with fewer health needs.78,79,80,81 However, findings vary regarding how individuals with health needs respond to premium increases. Some studies show that individuals with greater health needs are less sensitive to premium increases compared to those with fewer health needs, reflecting their increased need for services.82,83 These findings suggest that individuals with greater health needs are more likely than those with less significant health needs to remain enrolled following premium increases, but then face increased financial burdens to maintain their coverage. Other studies find that children with increased health needs are as likely or more likely than those with fewer health needs to disenroll from coverage following premium increases, suggesting premiums may lead to children going without coverage despite ongoing health needs.84,85

Effects of Cost Sharing (Table 2)

A wide range of studies find that even relatively small levels of cost sharing, in the range of $1 to $5, are associated with reduced use of care, including necessary services. The RAND health insurance experiment (HIE), conducted in the 1970s and still considered the seminal study on the effects of cost sharing on individual behavior, shows a reduction in use of services after cost sharing increased, regardless of income.86 Since then, a growing body of research has found that cost sharing is associated with reduced utilization of services,87 including vaccinations,88 prescription drugs,89,90,91,92 mental health visits,93 preventive and primary care,94,95,96,97,98 and inpatient and outpatient care,99,100 and decreased adherence to medications.101,102,103 In many of these studies, copayment increases as small as $1-$5 can effect use of care. Some studies find that lower-income individuals are more likely to reduce their use of services, including essential services, than higher-income individuals.104,105 Research also suggests that copayments can result in unintended consequences, such as increased use of other costlier services like the emergency room.106 Two studies have found that copayments do not negatively affect utilization.107,108 In one case, the authors suggest that increases in provider reimbursement may have negated effects of the copayment increases, particularly if not all copayments were being collected by providers at the point of care.109

Research points to varying effects of cost sharing for people with significant health needs. Some studies find that utilization among individuals with chronic conditions or significant health needs is less sensitive to copayments compared to those with fewer health needs. As such, these individuals face increased cost burdens associated with accessing care because of copayment increases.110,111 Other research finds that even relatively small copayments can reduce utilization among individuals with significant health needs.112,113,114

Numerous studies find that cost sharing has negative effects on individuals’ ability to access needed care and health outcomes and increases financial burdens for families.115,116,117,118,119,120,121,122 For example, studies have found that increases in cost sharing are associated with increased rates of uncontrolled hypertension and hypercholesterolemia123 and reduced treatment for children with asthma.124 Increases in cost sharing also increase financial burdens for families, causing some to cut back on necessities or borrow money to pay for care. In particular, small copayments can add up quickly when an individual needs ongoing care or multiple medications.125,126

Findings on how cost sharing affects non-emergent use of the emergency room are limited. One study found that these copayments reduce non-urgent visits.127 Other studies find that these copayments do not affect use of the emergency room.128,129

Effects on State Budgets and Providers (Table 3)

Research suggests that state savings from premiums and cost sharing in Medicaid and CHIP are limited. Studies find that potential increases in revenue from premium and cost sharing are offset by increased disenrollment; increased use of more expensive services, such as emergency room care; increased costs in other areas, such as resources for uninsured individuals; and administrative expenses.130,131,132,133,134,135,136 One state study found increased revenues from premiums without significant effects on enrollment, but authors note a range of program-specific factors that may have contributed to this finding, including it being limited to a Medicaid-buy in program for individuals with disabilities with incomes above 150% FPL who may be less price-sensitive to the increase and the state implementing administrative processes designed to minimize disenrollment.137

Studies also show that increases in premiums and cost sharing in Medicaid and CHIP can increase pressures on safety net providers, such as community health centers and hospitals. Several studies show that coverage losses following premium increases lead to increases in the share of uninsured patients seen by providers138,139,140 and increased emergency department use by uninsured individuals.141,142 One study also found that increases in copayments led to community health centers having to divert resources for medications for uninsured individuals to help people who could not afford copayments and that copayments increased the rate of “no shows” for appointments at community health centers.143

Conclusion

Recently, there has been increased interest at the federal and state levels to expand the use of premiums and cost sharing in Medicaid as a way to promote personal responsibility, prepare beneficiaries to transition to commercial and private insurance, and support consumers in making value-conscious health decisions. Current rules limit premiums and cost sharing in Medicaid to facilitate access to coverage and care for the low-income population served by the program, who have limited resources to spend on out-of-pocket costs. This review of a wide body of research provides insight into the potential effects of increasing premiums and cost sharing for Medicaid enrollees. It shows that premiums serve as a barrier to obtaining and maintaining coverage for low-income individuals, particularly those with the most limited incomes, and that even relatively small levels of cost sharing reduce utilization of services. As such, increases in premiums and cost sharing result in increased barriers to coverage and care, greater unmet health needs, and increased financial burdens for families. Further, the research suggests that state savings from premiums and cost sharing in Medicaid and CHIP are limited and that increases in premiums and cost sharing in Medicaid and CHIP can increase pressures on safety-net providers.

Study Tables

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