Congress should extend health insurance subsidies

Some argue that the federal government paid out far too much money to too many people under the headline of “pandemic relief aid.”

The list includes up to $3,200 per person in cash, expanded and extended unemployment and food stamp benefits, child tax credits, mortgage assistance payments, rent relief payments, help with utilities, larger subsidies for health insurance on the Affordable Care Act marketplace, business grants and low-interest loans, federal aid to cities and states with few strings attached.

But those programs, which started more than two years ago, are gone or winding down, with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps, the next program that will reset back to pre-public health emergency levels. Which means about 125 Wrangell households will see their benefits substantially cut beginning in September. Since April 2020, monthly SNAP payments have averaged $430, but in the months leading up to the pandemic the average Wrangell household SNAP benefit fluctuated between $208 and $260 — which is where they will return.

The numbers will be similar for the more than 50,000 Alaska households statewide participating in SNAP, with the reductions taking millions of dollars a month off the breakfast, lunch and dinner tables of families in need.

The political and economic debates over whether the federal government paid out too much money to people, businesses and communities the past two years means nothing to the families, children, young and old adults who now find the so-called “safety net” has some holes.

There is still time, however, to avoid the next tear in that net, though the deadline is September and the fix is up to Congress — more known of late for caring about elections than people.

The cost of health insurance will rise substantially next year for about 13 million Americans — and more could lose their coverage — unless Congress can summon the political will and the votes before leaving town for summer break and election campaigns.

Under the American Rescue Plan Act, the 2021 pandemic relief bill, lawmakers boosted the subsidies for low-income people to purchase insurance through national or state Affordable Care Act exchanges — and granted those benefits to middle-income Americans for the first time.

Those subsidies work on a sliding scale, depending on income, with the American Rescue Plan capping the premium for people at the higher end at 8.5% of their income.

Those expanded subsidies, however, are set to expire at the end of this year unless Congress extends the help. The cost would be about $22 billion a year, or less than 0.004% of the federal budget.

For participating Alaskans, the loss of enhanced federal subsidies would boost the average cost of health insurance by $1,164 a year — the fifth-highest increase in the nation — according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, as compiled by Families USA, a nonprofit health advocacy organization.

The increase would add more than $26 million a year in insurance costs to the household budgets for almost 23,000 Alaskans who get insurance through, according to the Families USA analysis.

That assumes those Alaskans could afford the larger bills and keep their coverage. If not, they would go without coverage, as they are over-income for Medicaid and too young for Medicare.

Losing insurance is not a good answer for keeping people healthy and holding down medical costs.

Much of the problem in Congress is the refusal of Republicans in the Senate to approve anything that has a Democratic tinge or taint to it, and Democrats’ inability to stick together and accomplish much of anything. However, there is still time to avoid a terminal prognosis for the subsidies. Senators need to put health ahead of politics and extend the program.


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