NPR Health News Briefs


Now more on one federal program that is operating. Millions of people are shopping for health insurance at online marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act.

Among them, part-time workers: some are uninsured, others are being pushed into the new exchanges by their employers. Companies like Trader Joe's and Home Depot decided to drop coverage for part-time employees.

Here's NPR's John Ydstie.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Jaime is a nursing student who lives in Redlands, California.

JAIME: And I work at Home Depot part-time, about 20 to 25 hours per week.

YDSTIE: Jaime, who doesn't want us to use his last name, spends almost $4,000 a year for a health insurance policy that Home Depot offers to part-timers. It covers both him and his wife. But the company will stop offering that benefit at the end of the year, because, it says, the coverage doesn't meet the standards of the Affordable Care Act. So, Jaime has been shopping for a policy on the California exchange, and he says he's pleasantly surprised.

JAIME: The program would be an improvement.

YDSTIE: That's because the new policy would cost about the same as his old plan, but there are no lifetime caps on his coverage like there were on the Home Depot policy. Larry Levitt is senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation and an expert on the new health care marketplaces. He says most corporate-sponsored health care plans for part-time workers don't provide very good coverage, though Trader Joe's did offer a solid plan.

LARRY LEVITT: It's very likely that these part-time workers will get a better deal in the new marketplaces. In the case of Trader Joe's, they'll be getting some extra cash from the company to help pay for their insurance, and many of them will be eligible for tax credits to help them pay their premiums. So they're likely to be much better off.

YDSTIE: Trader Joe's says it believes 70 percent of its part-time workers will pay less for comparable coverage in the health care exchanges. But that leaves 30 percent who could pay more, including this student and mother of two who we'll call Jane.

JANE: It's really disheartening. I'm absolutely disappointed by it.

YDSTIE: Jane works less than 30 hours a week at Trader Joe's in Austin, Texas. She didn't want her real named used because the company discourages its employees from talking to the press.

JANE: I would say that the insurance that I get through Trader Joe's right now is some of the best insurance that I've received as an adult.

YDSTIE: Trying to match that coverage and price hasn't been easy. Jane hasn't been able to get a firm quote from, and so far, her best estimate is disappointing.

JANE: At the absolute least, $350 a month versus the $200 a month that I'm paying right now. And that's not even taking into account the difference in benefits.

YDSTIE: That's about $4,200 a year for her family of four. And Jane says she's troubled by the results from another calculator on the Kaiser Family Foundation website. It estimates that the family's annual premiums will be more than $9,500. That's partly because the site judges that her family isn't eligible for any state subsidies.

JANE: As a resident of Texas, either way I look at it, I'm getting a reduction in benefits and an increase in price by moving to the government exchange.

YDSTIE: One reason may be that Texas, like a number of other states, has not expanded its Medicaid program. Kaiser's Larry Levitt says that's led to a sort of catch-22.

LEVITT: In states that don't expand Medicaid, you end up with this gap group, people who are not poor enough or don't have the right family circumstances to qualify for Medicaid, but ironically don't make enough to qualify for tax credits.

YDSTIE: So, says Levitt, whether you're going to be better off in the government marketplaces can have a lot to do with what state you live in. Still, he says, in general, the exchanges will benefit part-time workers.

LEVITT: These are folks who employers are not required to provide coverage to. And, you know, they are likely better off getting subsidized coverage in the marketplaces.

YDSTIE: And, Levitt says, it's likely the exchanges will benefit from an influx of part-time workers, since they tend to be younger and healthier than average. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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