Too early to declare failure of individual health insurance market statewide risk pooling

One of the primary reforms of the individual health insurance market under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was to create a single risk pool for entire states for individual health plans effective 2014 and later. The purpose was to rescue the individual market from a death spiral crisis of adverse selection that threatened its existence. To keep their individual plans solvent pre-2014, plan issuers resorted to playing a game of whack a mole with their plans. As losses mounted in existing plans, they would shut them down and place them into runoff mode by closing them off to new enrollees. Then they set up new plans containing new enrollees stringently screened via medical underwriting in an attempt to hold down claims costs.

The result was widespread market failure. Many consumers in the individual health insurance market couldn’t purchase coverage because they couldn’t meet the increasingly strict medical underwriting criteria. Those already in existing plans faced steep premium rate increases making coverage unaffordable.

There are widely differing views on whether the Affordable Care Act’s single statewide risk pooling mechanism is achieving adequate spread of risk to remedy the adverse selection that plagued the market pre-2014. Media coverage is sloppy. Accounts such as this one conflate the statewide risk pool with the health benefit exchange marketplace. They are not one and the same. Individual plans are sold both on and off the exchanges. There is no separate risk pool for those enrolling in the individual market through exchanges and another for those who do not.

Many media reports frequently report individual market enrollees are “sicker than expected.” Higher medical utilization as the 2014 reforms kicked in was in fact expected. The Affordable Care Act contained premium stabilization mechanisms that took into account the possibility of high utilization due to pent up demand from those who were previously without coverage either voluntarily or because they fell short of medical underwriting standards or couldn’t afford the premium increases as the market imploded.

A problematic issue with current mainstream media coverage is the tendency to jump to the conclusion that high anticipated medical utilization in the early years of the individual market reforms are indicative of its long term viability. As the standard investment exculpatory disclaimer goes, past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, good or poor. Ditto short term volatility.

Respected health care industry blogger Timothy Jost offers a sharply contrasting perspective to bearish sentiment that the statewide risk pooling mechanism is a failure. He cites a report issued this week by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service indicating claims costs were flat year over year from 2014 to 2015 as evidence the statewide risk pools are functional. Higher premiums for 2017, he writes, are due to health plan issuers adjusting rates to comport with actual experience in 2014 and 2015 plan years instead of the educated guessing they employed for 2014, the first year of the major individual market reforms. Also being factored in is the end of the reinsurance component of the Affordable Care Act’s premium stabilization mechanisms starting in 2017.


Need a speaker or webinar presenter on the Affordable Care Act and the outlook for health care reform? Contact Pilot Healthcare Strategies Principal Fred Pilot by email or call 530-295-1473. 

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Frederick Pilot

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