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The big questions about the stability of the Affordable Care Act marketplaces have focused on how fast premiums will rise, and how many plans will participate. But an equally important question, and the heart of the matter politically, is: How many people will be affected by the sharp premium increases?

Expand chart

Data: Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of data from Mark Farrah Associates, Healthcare.gov, and KFF Survey of Nongroup Health Insurance Enrollees; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon / Axios

The bottom line: The answer is about 6.7 million Americans who buy coverage in the non-group market in and out of the exchanges, and do not receive premium subsidies. That is a significant number of people, and an urgent policy problem requiring congressional attention and action by the administration, but it's not a system-wide health insurance crisis. The non-group market has always been the most troubled part of the insurance system, and it was far worse before the ACA.

The breakdown:

  • 17.5 million in the non-group insurance market, including:
  • 10.3 million enrolled in the ACA exchanges
  • Approximately 7.2 million buying insurance off the exchanges Most of this group buys ACA-compliant plans About 1.2 million in "grandfathered" plans purchased before the ACA's market reforms took effect

Yes, 17.5 million is a sizeable number, and what happens to their health insurance coverage and costs is important. But, to put it in perspective:

  • 156 million get their primary coverage through an employer, where premiums rose a modest 3% last year for family coverage
  • More than 74 million are covered by Medicaid and CHIP.

According to our new analysis of proposed 2018 premium changes in the exchanges, double-digit increases for benchmark silver plans are quite common, though the range across major cities is large, from a 5% decrease in Providence, R.I. to a 49% increase in Wilmington, Del.

A big reason for these increases is the uncertainty in the market surrounding Trump administration policies, especially whether they will let the $7 billion in cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidies flow and whether the individual mandate will be enforced.

Who's getting hit: 84% of the enrollees in the marketplaces – about 8.7 million people – receive premium subsidies under the ACA and are insulated from these premium hikes.

However, roughly 6.7 million people — the ones who buy ACA-compliant plans inside or outside the marketplace and aren't subsidized — will feel the full brunt of premium increases. They'll be hit if the uncertainty is not resolved and the rates do not come down before they are finalized.

In many cases, there is as much as a 20 percentage point swing or more in rates depending on whether the CSRs are paid.

The big picture: Dealing with this uncertainty is an urgent situation, particularly since it may result in some counties having no insurers at all, as well as coverage that is unaffordable for millions of Americans. But it is far from a crisis affecting most Americans and their health insurance.

The media needs to take great care to put this problem in perspective — otherwise they could unduly alarm the public and drive people to support the wrong policy solutions. Already, most Americans wrongly believe that premium increases in the relatively small non-group market affect them. So the headline should be: "Premiums Spike for SOME Americans."

The danger in Congress is that discussion will spread too far beyond the immediate need to stabilize the non-group market, opening up all the old wounds surrounding the ACA and producing stalemate.

Go deeper

6 hours ago - Health

Fauci: Omicron variant will "inevitably" be found in U.S.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cautioned on Sunday that the COVID-19 Omicron variant will "inevitably" be found in the United States.

Driving the news: Fauci, Biden's chief medical adviser, told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "This Week" that U.S. officials will meet with colleagues from South Africa later on Sunday to try to determine the severity of the cases, as countries scramble to learn more about the variant.

Updated 7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Dems fear supply-chain blame

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As supply-chain kinks drive up prices and disrupt holiday shopping, Democrats are scrambling to show action and deflect blame.

Why it matters: With their party controlling both the White House and Capitol, vulnerable Democrats worry supply-chain snafus will hurt them in next year's midterms.

8 hours ago - World

Scoop: Germany urges Congress not to sanction Putin’s pipeline

Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

The German government has urged members of Congress not to sanction the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, arguing that doing so will "weaken" U.S. credibility and "ultimately damage transatlantic unity," according to documents obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: At a time when roughly 100,000 Russian troops are massing at its border, Ukraine views Nord Stream 2 as an existential threat to its security. The pipeline would circumvent Ukrainian transit infrastructure and deliver Russian gas directly to Germany, eliminating one of the last deterrents Ukraine has against an invasion.