Obamacare faces new life-threatening conditions

Opponents of the Affordable Care Act have been busy. In the midst of several headline-making events on other issues, the Trump administration has instigated two major efforts to effectively do what Congress could not do earlier this year -- repeal Obamacare.

The result is a laundry list of warnings for all health care consumers, not just those who buy insurance on the ACA exchanges. Here's a closer look at the latest changes to the health insurance marketplace:   

Expanding association health plans

The administration issued new rules on Tuesday that expand the use of what's known as association health plans. They allow small businesses and self-employed individuals to buy health insurance collectively through what's loosely defined as an industry association. By pooling together, members can buy insurance for less expensive group rates, the way employees of large corporations do.

Association plans have been around for a long time, but under the ACA they were restricted. The new rules loosen some of these restrictions and expand the reach of these plans. At the same time, these plans are exempt from many of the protections under the ACA, including coverage of the 10 essential health benefits such as maternity and mental health services, hospitalization and prescription drugs.  

In addition, the new rules allow association plans to sell insurance across state lines. States regulate health insurers, and for the most part insurers must adhere to each state's regulations for the consumers they serve in those states. But under the new rules, association plans can choose which state they want as their regulatory jurisdiction. That means they could conceivable choose a loosely regulated state as their home base. 

Association plans have seen their share of scandals in the past, largely due to this state regulatory confusion.

The new rules aren't a surprise. The Trump administration has been calling for the expansion of association health plans as a way of offering more options outside of Obamacare and a way for small businesses and individuals to have access to more affordable group insurance.

But advocates worry that the move is a return to the bad old days before insurers had to adhere to standard regulations that protected consumers from paying insurance premiums, only to find coverage wasn't there when they needed it. 

"The new rule will allow groups of businesses to band together to buy insurance across state lines, which will be bad for small firms and their employees because it will lead to higher premiums, unbalanced risk pools and lower-quality insurance," said John Arensmeyer, founder and CEO of Small Business Majority.

In addition, the provision may encourage a new batch of healthier people who can get by with skimpier coverage to sign up for association plans instead of the ACA exchange plans. That could leave more sick people in the exchanges without the benefit of younger, healthier people balancing the risk pool. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 6 million people are expected to enroll in expanded association health plans.

If you're considering one of these plans, many of which are expected to be available in September just before the 2019 ACA open-enrollment period, be sure to read everything you can get your hands about the plan as carefully as you can. You'll want to be sure you understand any limitations in coverage so you can determine if the plan is right for you.

A threat to preexisting condition coverage -- and more

Tuesday's announcement comes on the heels of another potentially devastating blow to the ACA. Earlier this month the Justice Department announced it would not defend the law against a lawsuit brought by the attorneys general of Texas and 19 other states.  

The suit claims that because the newly enacted tax law eliminates penalties associated with the individual mandate, the ACA requirement that most Americans carry health insurance is no longer constitutional. In addition, the suit contends that consumer insurance protections under the law also aren't valid.

Since then an outcry has been heard from health care advocates, insurers, congressional Republicans and most recently a group of bipartisan governors from nine states. The protest is focused on the provision in the ACA that requires insurers to provide equal coverage and the same premium rates to people with preexisting conditions as they provide to people without previous health problems.

The requirement applies to all insurers, not just those in the exchanges, and polls show most Americans -- including many who don't support Obamacare overall -- want to preserve it. Even Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell famously said, "Everybody I know in the Senate, everybody, is in favor of maintaining coverage for preexisting conditions."

Still, the Texas court case would potentially eliminate many more ACA provisions, including the premium subsidies so many exchange customers rely on, essential health benefits and Medicaid expansion, said Eliot Fishman, senior director of health policy at Families USA. That said, Fishman believes the court case will take time, so consumers who are planning on signing up for exchange coverage for 2019 at the end of this year should not be dissuaded from doing so.