Fewer people lost 2015 health plans due to Obamacare

Ariel Fernandez, left, sits with Noel Nogues, an insurance advisor with UniVista Insurance, as he signs up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act in Miami.
CNBC explains: Obamacare in 2015   

If you like your health insurance plan, you actually might have been able to keep it this year.

Fewer than 1 million Americans had their health insurance plans canceled for 2015 for noncompliance with Obamacare rules, according to a report by the Urban Institute and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The report, which called that number "quite small," suggests that in the latest enrollment season there was relatively little disruption of either the individual or job-based insurance market due to plans not meeting Affordable Care Act-related regulations.

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Those rules set certain minimum standards for coverage, including prescriptions, maternity care and mental health treatment, which were not required in plans prior to the ACA's enactment.

A customer sits with an insurance advisor with UniVista Insurance company, as he signs up for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, before the February 15th deadline on February 5, 2015 in Miami, Florida.
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A customer sits with an insurance advisor with UniVista Insurance company, as he signs up for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, before the February 15th deadline on February 5, 2015 in Miami, Florida.

In the individual insurance plan market, just 400,000 people, or 2.2 percent of the overall market, had plans canceled after they received a letter citing lack of Obamacare compliance for the action. Another 3.4 percent, or nearly 600,000 people, were canceled for unknown reasons, the report found.

The individual market before Obamacare was extremely volatile, with less than 50 percent of customers staying in their plan for a year or more, the report noted.

The report said that another 500,000 people who had insurance through their job, so-called group coverage, had their health plans canceled for 2015 explicitly due to lack of compliance. That represents just 0.3 percent of the total employer-based insurance market.

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An equivalent number of people in the employer-based market had plans canceled for an unknown reason, according to the study.

The report doesn't estimate how many people who had existing plans canceled for this year went on to obtain health coverage through other individual and job-based insurance.

The study's lead author, Urban Institute's senior health economist Lisa Clemans-Cope, said certain numbers of people would have likely bought federally subsidized coverage through government-run Obamacare exchanges or gone on Medicaid.

Even with the cancellations, the rate of people without health insurance in the United State continues to hit record lows.

In another report Thursday, the Urban Institute found that the rate of non-elderly adults without insurance as of last December was just 12.8 percent, compared with 17.7 percent in September 2013, on the eve of the launch of Obamacare insurance marketplaces. The drop in the uninsured rate is due largely to an increase in the number of people covered by the government-run Medicaid program and by sales of individual policies on the Obamacare exchanges.

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Clemans-Cope said that the plan cancellations, which made headlines in the late fall of 2013, "wasn't such a big story in the fall [of 2014] because the numbers are so low."

"There are lot of processes in place to help consumers transition," she said. "The [Obamacare] marketplaces are running more smoothly than last year, and insurers are required to inform consumers about their options." In 2013, insurers had not been required to tell customers whose plans were being canceled that they might be able to buy subsidized coverage through the government marketplaces.

The Urban Institute/RWJF study comes more than a year after the Obama administration underwent harsh criticism from Republicans and other Obamacare opponents when it became clear that some people were having plans canceled by insurance companies because they didn't meet ACA standards.

Those cancellations contradicted President Barack Obama's repeated vows that under the ACA, "If you like your current plan, you will be able to keep it."

An earlier Urban Institute/RWJF survey found that in late 2013, after the launch of the Obamacare marketplaces, about 2.6 million people with individual health plans had been told the plans were being canceled for 2014 because they didn't comply with the new rules.

In response to public backlash over the canceled plans, and to the inability at the time of HealthCare.gov and some other Obamacare exchanges to effectively operate, the administration said it would allow states to give insurers permission to issue noncompliant plans in 2014. That waiver was extended in March 2014 through 2017.

While some states granted extensions as allowed by the administration, not all of them did. And even in states that granted extensions, insurers were not compelled to offer them to their customers. As a result, "there is not any good estimate of how many of these noncompliant plans are out there," Clemans-Cope said.

She noted that insurers historically have made business decisions to cancel plans when the number of people enrolled on them became too low, or when the costs of providing health benefits to the customers covered by a plan started outweighing the premiums they paid to have the coverage.

Despite the fact that there will be some noncompliant plans continuing through 2017, the report said "disruptions should be limited because consumers are now likely to have access to information about coverage options and coverage through their state or federal marketplace."