Last month, we posted a blog highlighting the special implications of Obamacare replacement or reform on rural healthcare. With Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives revealing their first concrete proposal for overhauling the landmark Affordable Care Act last night, how have these possibilities evolved? 

The American Health Care Act, comprised so far of a pair of bills, advances a wide range of post-Obamacare policies, but does not repeal the entire law. Some components that are already receiving ample attention are the shift from income-based tax credits to age-based tax credits, repeal of the individual mandate, penalties for lapses in coverage, defunding of reproductive health services, and the realities confronting President Donald Trump’s statement that the new plan will mean insurance for everybody. 

Here, we focus on a select few provisions of the AHCA keenly impacting rural health providers and their patients:

- Medicaid Reform. Perhaps most important for rural health providers, the AHCA significantly reshapes the Medicaid landscape, albeit more gradually than some had anticipated. The bill calls for substantial reductions in federal matching funds to state Medicaid programs beginning on January 1, 2020, with the caveat that states would continue to receive enhanced Medicaid payments for people enrolled in Medicaid before that date. 

For new enrollees in 2020 and beyond, the federal government would only pay its pre-Obamacare share of Medicaid costs — a move that is sure to lead to cuts in expansion states’ Medicaid programs. States would have until Dec. 31, 2019, to decide whether to expand Medicaid (or implement a waiver program) and get their members enrolled. 

Studies have shown rural hospitals are more impacted by the Medicaid expansion or lack thereof than are city-based hospitals. 

Another major change to Medicaid proposed by the AHCA is a shift to per capita aggregate spending limits beginning in 2020. Notably, the initial per capita lump sum to states would be based on their respective Medicaid spending in FY 2016. Therefore, states that were to expand Medicaid or implement a waiver program between 2017 and 2019 would not receive a corresponding benefit in their per capita allotments.

- Safety Net Funding to Non-Expansion States. In states to have not and will not expand Medicaid, the AHCA would extend $10 billion in safety net funding for Medicaid providers over five years ($2 billion/year). As a rough comparison of budgetary scope, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the next 10 years of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion nationwide would have involved $993 billion in federal funding.

- DSH Cuts. Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital payments, protecting safety net hospitals that treat a high number of indigent patients, were scheduled to be cut beginning in FY 2018 under Obamacare. The AHCA would repeal Medicaid DSH cuts for non-expansion states in 2018 before they even take effect, and would repeal such cuts in expansion states beginning in 2020. 

- Community Health Center Funding. In recent years the federal government has increasingly supported Community Health Centers, also known as Federally Qualified Health Centers, which are not exclusive to rural areas but do exclusively serve medically underserved areas. The AHCA would offer a one-time increase in funding to Community Health Centers of $422 million. 

- 340b Program. One of the effects of a less-than-wholesale repeal of Obamacare is that some provisions may be simply left alone without much public attention. At least in the first iteration of the AHCA, this appears to be the case for the 340b Drug Pricing Program, which was expanded to include 1,100 rural hospitals under Obamacare. The rural hospital community would surely welcome a continuation of this change. 

- Individual Marketplace. As mentioned above, the AHCA proposes substantial changes to the individual insurance marketplace, including the shift from income-based tax credits to age-based tax credits with older consumers receiving more assistance. These changes would have many direct and indirect impacts on rural healthcare, largely by increasing patient co-insurance and reducing the number of privately insured patients. For example, because the AHCA premium tax credits are not tied to local premiums as under Obamacare, people in areas where premiums are higher (often rural areas) would receive a flat tax credit based on age but would be stuck with the remainder of the higher local premium.

Generally, rural areas have lower-income populations than do urban areas, so premium tax credits that are not adjusted for income level may lead to more uninsured patients in rural areas. This handy interactive map from the Kaiser Family Foundation (adjustable by age and income!) shows that 40-year-olds with an income of $30,000 will often face reduced tax credits under the AHCA in rural America, but will not be as affected in urban pockets. 

The AHCA aims to address some of these private marketplace deficits through lower premiums via health plan competition and increased use of health savings accounts. 


Overall, the AHCA proposes a handful of measures acknowledging the difficulties of rural health providers, offering safety net funding to non-expansion states, halting impending DSH cuts, increasing funding to FQHCs and leaving the 340b program untouched.

However, the likely reduction in insured patients -- whether by decreased Medicaid funding or changes to the individual marketplace -- threatens to outweigh these potential benefits. The National Rural Health Association has already released a statement expressing concern about the bill. 

Disclaimer: The foregoing materials are provided for informational purposes only, and are not to be construed as legal advice. Please consult an attorney before applying this guidance to any particular facts or circumstances.