The GOP is getting closer to passing its tax bill. Here's what it could mean for health insurers

man counting money
Nearly all insurance companies stand to gain from the GOP tax bill overall, according to one analyst. (Julia_Sudnitskaya/Getty)

The House and Senate have agreed upon a unified tax overhaul bill, putting Republicans on the fast track to pass legislation that has significant implications for the health insurance industry.

For one, the compromise tax bill will repeal the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate penalty, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement on Wednesday. To McConnell, axing the mandate will offer “relief to low- and middle-income Americans who have struggled under an unpopular and unworkable law.”

Health insurers and the healthcare industry at large have opposed removing the key ACA provision without a viable alternative to encourage healthy consumers to buy coverage, arguing that doing so will destabilize the individual markets. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that repealing the mandate would increase the number of uninsured people by 13 million over the next 10 years and hike individual market premiums by 10% during most years of that decade.

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Yet while the individual mandate repeal is problematic for insurers that do business on the ACA exchanges, nearly all insurance companies stand to gain from the GOP tax bill overall, according to Leerink Partners analyst Ana Gupte, Ph.D. She estimates that insurers can capture about 10% to 15% of the potential 25% upside from the legislation, subject to regulatory constraints such as medical loss ratio rules and competitive pricing constraints.

Likely the biggest gain for insurers is the fact that, per the New York Times, the compromise bill sets the corporate tax rate at 21%—significantly lower than the current rate of 35%. 

Though the House and Senate have ironed out the differences in their bills, the final version still must be approved by both chambers. GOP leaders have but two votes to spare in the Senate, and will likely have to include two bipartisan measures to shore up the ACA in Congress’ year-end spending bill to win the support of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

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Collins said on Wednesday that Vice President Mike Pence assured her that those measures would make it into the spending bill, according to The Hill. Yet some House conservatives have expressed opposition to the bills, which would provide funding for cost-sharing reduction payments and state-based reinsurance programs, among other provisions.

Meanwhile, the results of the headline-grabbing Senate race in Alabama have put a major crimp in Republicans' plans to retry repealing the ACA. Once Democrat Doug Jones officially takes his seat, the GOP will have an even slimmer majority in the Senate, where the defection of a handful of moderate Republicans was already enough to kill several repeal bills earlier this year.