Focus groups confirm that ACA is not affordable for many

Is ACA Coverage Affordable for Low-Income People? Perspectives from Individuals in Six Cities

By Jennifer Tolbert, Robin Rudowitz, and Melissa Majerol
Kaiser Family Foundation, April 21, 2016

Millions of people have gained access to health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) through Medicaid and the Marketplaces. While research shows that coverage improves access to care and promotes financial stability, issues around access and affordability remain, and are more acute for the low-income population. To learn more about how low-income individuals have fared with their new coverage, we conducted nine focus groups (three groups with Medicaid enrollees and six groups with low-income Marketplace enrollees) in six states (California, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, and Virginia).  Many participants were struggling financially and reported substantial debt (including medical debt). Many had ongoing physical and mental health needs and were accessing health services to treat those conditions. Following are key themes from the groups:

1.  New coverage did not change underlying financial struggles and hardship due to medical debt incurred prior to gaining coverage. Many participants were stretched financially, had limited capacity to absorb unexpected costs, and struggled with finding secure employment in their area.

2.  Medicaid stands up well for the lowest income participants in terms of ease of enrollment, out-of-pocket costs and affordability, and ability to find providers and access care. A small number of participants reported trouble affording care that wasn’t covered (particularly for vision or dental) and difficulty finding some providers, including mental health providers.

3.  Largely due to premium tax credits in the Marketplace, premiums were generally affordable, but out-of-pocket costs weighed heavily on Marketplace participants, especially those with high deductible plans. Many reported being overwhelmed by plan choices. Some were able to make trade-offs to purchase higher cost plans with lower deductibles to meet anticipated care needs, but not everyone was able to afford higher premiums.

4.  The fear of unknown costs was a constant worry for many Marketplace participants. Many got bills for services they thought were covered, such as screenings, colonoscopies and mammograms when issues were discovered and treated. These bills caused many to avoid getting needed care. Marketplace participants also reported trouble affording care that wasn’t covered by their plan, notably vision and some dental services.

5.  Most participants had accessed care and were positive overall about new ACA coverage through Medicaid and the Marketplace. They were grateful that coverage was available to them, particularly those who had been previously ineligible for Medicaid or barred from private coverage due to pre-existing conditions. However, many Marketplace participants wanted coverage to be more affordable.

While people were grateful for coverage, unexpected bills, dealing with insurance companies, and facing known deductibles were sources of stress which made those with Marketplace coverage fearful to use the coverage they had. They were particularly frustrated by the out-of-pocket costs, which were unaffordable to many and wanted insurance that didn’t come with so many hidden costs.

Issue Brief:



By Don McCanne, M.D.

This report of nine focus groups confirms that real people have found that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) often fails to provide access to affordable care.

Although the leading candidate for president has said that she wants to build on ACA, reducing premiums and deductibles pours yet more tax money into what is the most expensive and least efficient model of health care financing. The model cannot really be fixed if we want true value in health care. It needs to be replaced with a model that does work - a single payer national health program - Improved Medicare for All.