People read pamphlets as they wait in line at a health insurance enrollment event in Cudahy, California on March 27, 2014.
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Study questions impact of Obamacare on insurance cancellations


A significant portion of the millions of health insurance plans canceled because they failed to meet the standards required by the Affordable Care Act likely would have been canceled by the policyholders anyway, according to a new health study.  

President Obama’s repeated assertion, “if you like your plan, you can keep it,” became the target of intense criticism in the last few months as reports of millions of plan cancellations came through. But the new study from Health Affairs concludes from prior years’ data the latest crop of cancellations may not have been significantly different from the normal turnover in the market. 

The study analyzed the number of Americans who purchased non-group individual plans between 2008 and 2011, and found instability was the norm. Fewer than half of those kept their coverage for more than a year and 80% of those who changed policies had enrolled in new coverage within a year, typically through an employer. 

Reports have estimated the recent crop of coverage cancellations may have affected 4.7 million adults, but the study estimates roughly 6.2 million Americans usually leave non-group coverage annually, whether voluntarily or through an inability to afford or qualify for the coverage.

The author concludes from the data that recent coverage cancellations likely reflect much of the typical market turnover, while noting that regulations from the ACA “are presumably leading some people to lose non-group coverage that they would prefer to keep.” 

Author Benjamin Sommers also found certain groups of people, those who are white, self-employed, or over 35, typically keep their plans longer than one year. For that group, new plans could become costly, according to the author, as older individuals often shoulder higher medical costs and premiums. 

“For some people who were covered by non-grandfathered plans, cancellations related to the ACA represent an unwanted change in coverage options that may be quite disruptive,” he writes

Sommers also notes nearly two-thirds of those with individual plans likely qualify for subsidies to help them afford new plans under the ACA. 

The author suggests the study will be able to benchmark pre-ACA turnover rates to help “evaluate the law’s long-term impact on the stability of non-group coverage.”

In addition to working Harvard University, the study’s author also serves as a part-time adviser in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services, and the report specifically states, “This article does not represent the views of HHS.”