Background: A central objective of recent U.S. healthcare policy reform, most notably the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) Health Insurance Marketplace, has been to increase access to stable, affordable health insurance. However, changing market dynamics (rising premiums, changes in issuer participation and plan availability) raise significant concerns about the marketplaces' ability to provide a stable source of healthcare for Americans that rely on them. By looking at the effect of instability on changes in the consumer choice set, we can analyze potential incentives to switch plans among price-sensitive enrollees, which can then be used to inform policy going forward.

Methods: Data on health plan features for non-tobacco users in 2512 counties in 34 states participating in federally-facilitated exchanges from 2014 to 2016 was obtained from the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services. We examined how changes in individual plan features, including premiums, deductibles, issuers, and plan types, impact consumers who had purchased the lowest-cost silver or bronze plan in their county the previous year. We calculated the cost of staying in the same plan versus switching to another plan the following year, and analyzed how costs vary across geographic regions.

Results: In most counties in 2015 and 2016 (53.7 and 68.2%, respectively), the lowest-cost silver plan from the previous year was still available, but was no longer the cheapest plan. In these counties, consumers who switched to the new lowest-cost plan would pay less in monthly premiums on average, by $51.48 and $55.01, respectively, compared to staying in the same plan. Despite potential premium savings from switching, however, the majority would still pay higher average premiums compared to the previous year, and most would face higher deductibles and an increased probability of having to change provider networks.

Conclusion: While the ACA has shown promise in expanding healthcare access, continued changes in the availability and affordability of health plans are likely to result in churning and switching among enrollees, which may have negative ramifications for their health going forward. Future healthcare policy reform should aim to stabilize marketplace dynamics in order to encourage greater care continuity and limit churning.

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Published in BMC Health Services Research, v. 18, 450, p. 1-14.

© The Author(s). 2018

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