Advocates urge Congress to address health insurance subsidies as rising costs loom

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Thousands of West Virginians who purchase health insurance coverage through the enrollment marketplace could face higher costs if Congress does not renew subsidies before the next coverage period.

Health care advocates are pushing for West Virginia’s federal lawmakers to act. According to estimates from the federal government, if action is not taken on the current subsidies, 18,000 West Virginians will have to pay more for insurance coverage with others becoming uninsured.

“Congress actually can act to mitigate these increasing costs that we expect to come down in 2023,” Jessica Ice, the executive director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, told reporters on Tuesday.

Congress approved the subsidies in March 2021 as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, the sweeping $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief measure. The bill included language extending premium tax credits to households with incomes more than 400% above the federal poverty level.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, enrollment in the federal health insurance marketplace reached a record 14.5 million people in the most recent open enrollment period.

The subsidies will expire before the next year’s insurance plans take effect if lawmakers do not act.

“If the ARP premium tax credit provisions are allowed to sunset, these consumer benefits will be eliminated, likely leading to increases in the number of uninsured and higher out-of-pocket costs for individuals and families purchasing insurance through the Marketplace,” analysts wrote in a Department of Health and Human Services report.

Around 23,000 West Virginians purchased health insurance through the marketplace during last year’s enrollment period. According to the federal agency, if Congress does not extend the subsidies, an estimated 5,000 people will become uninsured. An additional 18,000 residents will pay more for insurance coverage because of reduced or eliminated subsidies.

“Everybody that we’ve talked to has benefited from these enhanced subsidies,” said Jeremy Smith, program director for First Choice Services, which offers insurance enrollment assistance.

Smith previously told MetroNews that the most significant increases in enrollment in the last period involved small business owners and older residents unable to enroll in Medicare. He cited lower insurance rates as a factor in last year’s overall enrollment numbers.

“We’re really hopeful that they can continue into next year because it really does make a difference,” he said Tuesday.

The change in insurance costs would come amid concerns about inflation. The U.S. Department of Labor earlier this month reported a consumer price index of 8.6%, a new 40-year high.

“With high inflation, we must protect West Virginians from higher health care premiums,” Ice said. “Families are already struggling with record-high inflation.”

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., voted for the American Rescue Plan as West Virginia’s other congressional delegates opposed the bill. The current push comes as Democrats have control of Congress, although with a split Senate and a slim majority in the House of Representatives.

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