by Peter Johnson

The COVID-19 pandemic is shaping up to be a stress-test for the post-Affordable Care Act insurance market. The crisis has already caused mass layoffs, and experts say the individual health insurance exchanges and Medicaid could see record enrollment in the coming months as a result.

“This would be the first recession since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, so we are in somewhat uncharted territory in terms of what might happen in a recession under both the ACA marketplace and the Medicaid expansion,” Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said during a March 18 conference call with reporters.

Levitt said the ACA marketplace is likely to see rapid growth in enrollment as workers lose jobs or hours, making them eligible for special enrollment periods in some cases.

“Household income is going to tend to fall, and that will put more people into that lowest income category with the broadest enrollment in the ACA marketplace,” Levitt said. That influx of enrollees, he added, “has the potential to improve the risk pool in the ACA marketplace and shouldn’t, by itself, have a big effect on premiums.”

Meanwhile, “as people lose their jobs and their incomes fall below 138% of poverty in those states that have expanded Medicaid, we’re likely to see growth in Medicaid enrollment — as we typically do during recessions,” Levitt said.

“Medicaid traditionally has been countercyclical….It’s an economic balancer,” says David Anderson, a health policy researcher at Duke University’s Margolis Center for Health Policy. “In 2009 [during the last economic recession], the federal government raised the federal payment rate — the federal share of Medicaid — by 6.2 points. What that did is it gave states breathing room in their budget…That extra federal share takes a little bit of pressure off the rest of the state budget.”

To that end, President Donald Trump on March 18 signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which, among a host of other provisions, temporarily increased the Medicaid federal medical assistance percentage by 6.2 points.