Monthly Archive: October 2016

Greater than expected staying power of employer-sponsored health coverage could jeopardize viability of post-ACA individual market

There are three basic explanations being offered up by individual health plan issuers on the eve of plan year 2017 open enrollment to justify sharply increased premiums in many states:

  1. Most of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act premium stabilization programs are expiring in 2017 and money is still owned plans under one of the expiring mechanisms designed to even out a given health plan issuer’s loss experience with that of other issuers;
  1. Plan issuers have more extensive loss experience data than in the initial years of the individual market segment as the Affordable Care Act reforms kicked in and it was harder to estimate what to charge;
  1. Closely related is the previous point, loss data indicates statewide individual risk pools are posting higher than expected medical utilization, with even higher utilization among plans sold on state health benefit exchanges. Premiums are thus being aligned to reflect the true quality and loss experience of the statewide risk pools.

The third point describes a dynamic situation that could change over time. For example, if medical utilization decreases and the health risk profiles of those in the individual market improve, premiums could readjust downward to reflect that more favorable environment.

However, a more long term concern that should be troubling for health policymakers voiced within some quarters of the health insurance industry is the state risk pools are unbalanced. Or to use an insurance industry term, adversely selected and skewed toward those more prone to using a lot of medical care with too few folks in the pool who use less. Those are actuarially assumed to be the so-called “young invincibles” in their twenties and thirties.

This is a larger concern because it could reflect a more long term, structural problem in the individual market as a whole. If the pool remains unbalanced, premium rates are likely to remain elevated since there are fewer premium dollars flowing into the pool from those who use less medical care to offset the expenses of higher utilizers. The longer premiums remain elevated, the greater the risk to the viability of the individual market as a whole since adverse selection tends to perpetuate an unvirtuous cycle of more people abandoning the market as premiums increase, reinforcing the need for additional premium hikes. This was the situation that existed prior to the Affordable Care Act’s 2010 enactment. Even in populous states like California, where accounts of premium increases of nearly 40 percent and an individual market poised to enter the terminal “death spiral” phase of adverse selection tipped the political scales to assure the needed votes in Congress for the law’s approval.

One of the assumptions of the Affordable Care Act’s individual market reforms is that by making individual coverage more like employer-sponsored coverage with minimum benefit requirements, annual enrollment periods and no medical underwriting, employer-sponsored coverage among smaller organizations would decline. It hasn’t turned out that way. The greater than expected staying power of employer-sponsored health coverage could reinforce an ongoing structural imbalance in the individual market, particularly in smaller states where by definition the risk pool is naturally limited.

The reason is the twenty and thirty somethings health plan issuers say they need to help achieve a good spread of risk for a balanced pool are more likely to be covered in employer sponsored plans than people age 50 and older  — and therefore not participating in the individual market. They are beginning their careers and more likely to be employed full time and whereas the latter age cohort is more likely to be retired, semi-retired, self-employed, and otherwise not employed full time by an employer offering health benefits.


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. 

High premiums for catastrophic coverage violate consumer expectations

Levine has a Bronze plan, which has a $6,800 deductible, up from $6,500 last year. This year, Anthem has ended out-of-network coverage in its Bronze plans, turning them into EPOs, throughout much of the state.

That means Levine will be paying $517 month for a policy he says he may not even use.

“It has turned into a catastrophic policy,” he said, referring to plans intended to only cover large unexpected medical bills.

Source: As Obamacare enrollment nears, some Californians see big hikes in health premiums

This goes to the heart of the low value perception of bronze-rated individual health plans. When people are paying their own costs out of pocket for routine and minor medical care, they reasonably expect their premiums to be lower. Paying more than $500 a month for catastrophic coverage violently upends that expectation.


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. 

Sharp premium increases could boost tax penalty exemptions, undermining ACA goal to enhance individual health insurance market risk pool

Steep premium increases next year could potentially shrink state individual health insurance risk pools, particularly among individuals and families whose household incomes are too high to qualify them for premium and cost sharing subsidies on state health benefit exchanges. That in turn would undermine a goal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to boost the viability of the individual market by enhancing the spread of risk among a larger pool of people. Fewer people in the pool means less premium dollars to cover the cost of medical care for those who use it.

Big premium hikes for this cohort that I’ve dubbed the 401 percenters (the subsidies end at 401 percent of federal poverty levels) could result in more constituents seeking exemptions from the individual shared responsibility mandate to have some form of health insurance coverage in place throughout the year under pain of an income tax penalty for going bare.

One category worth watching for a possible bump as 2017 open enrollment begins is health sharing ministries. Like insurance plans, they are based on risk spreading but technically aren’t health plans and thus don’t have to meet Affordable Care Act provisions such as offering 10 essential health benefits and disallowing consideration of pre-existing health conditions. As faith-based nonprofit organizations, they can exercise a large degree of discretion as to who they wish to offer coverage – something Affordable Care Act compliant individual plans cannot. If health sharing ministries take off in 2017, advantage will go to those that have the best reputations and largest number of members since like insurance, the law of large numbers is paramount. More sharing members equates to greater risk sharing and greater likelihood of remaining solvent (having enough money to cover members’ medical care) to use insurance industry terminology.


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. 

Key factors driving perception of poor value in individual health insurance market

The law “requires you and each member of your family to have qualifying health care coverage (called minimum essential coverage), qualify for a coverage exemption, or make an individual shared responsibility payment when you file your federal income tax return,” the tax agency says on its website.

Some consumers who buy insurance on the exchanges still feel vulnerable. Deductibles are so high, they say, that the insurance seems useless. So some feel that whether they send hundreds of dollars to the I.R.S. or thousands to an insurance company, they are essentially paying something for nothing.

Obama administration officials say that perception is wrong. Even people with high deductibles have protection against catastrophic costs, they say, and many insurance plans cover common health care services before consumers meet their deductibles. In addition, even when consumers pay most or all of a hospital bill, they often get the benefit of discounts negotiated by their insurers

Source: Health Law Tax Penalty? I’ll Take It, Millions Say

Perception as political pundits often say is reality, particularly so when it comes to pocketbook issues. At the root of this perception is the more generous HMO plans that came about in the 1970s and 1980s that offered little or no out of pocket costs. That conditioned consumers to think of health insurance as pre-paid medical care rather than an insurance product. High deducible plans by comparison are predicated on a basic principle of insurance: to cover the risk of high and unexpected costs — and not to protect consumers from paying out of pocket to see a medical provider for routine care.

So not surprisingly, plans that come with high deductibles are seen as a poor value since consumers aren’t going to see any of their premium dollars returned to them unless they need high cost care such as hospitalization. Back in the pre-HMO days of the 1950s and 1960s, hospitalization and other “major medical” costs as health insurance policies were termed then was the main point of coverage and not primary care physician office visits. Hence, those policies came with high deductibles that were only triggered by high cost care.

A closely related perceptual problem with the return of the major medical model and high deductibles relates to high premiums for high deductible plans. That violates the established expectation of a tradeoff for accepting higher deductibles in exchange for lower premiums since less first dollar risk is being assumed by health plans. This is a huge issue for consumers in the individual market in age rating bands 50 and older but whose household incomes exceed 400 percent of federal poverty levels, thus disqualifying them for tax credit subsidies offered for coverage purchased through state health benefit exchanges. It has led to proposals such as allowing fifty somethings to buy into Medicare earlier than the minimum eligibility age of 65.


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. 

Aetna CEO warns of adverse selection in individual health insurance market — what the ACA intended to cure

Healthier people will avoid buying Affordable Care Act health insurance plans as premiums climb, threatening the stability of the market, Aetna Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Bertolini said.

“As the rates rise, the healthier people pull out because the out-of-pocket costs aren’t worth it,” Bertolini said at Bloomberg’s The Year Ahead Summit in New York. “Young people can do the math. Gas for the car, beer on Fridays and Saturdays, health insurance.”

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“What happens is the population gets sicker and sicker and sicker and sicker,” Bertolini said. “The rates keep rising to try and catch it. It’s a fruitless chase, and ultimately you end up with a very bad pool of risk.”

Source: Aetna CEO Says Young People Pick Weekend Beer Over Obamacare

That “fruitless chase” as Bertolini terms it refers to adverse selection. In plain words, adverse selection means risk pooling and risk spreading — the essential functions of insurance — fundamentally break down. As time goes on, the pool shrinks and those left in it are increasingly adverse risks more inclined to need payments for losses. The demand for coverage dollars paid out of the risk pool outpaces premium dollars flowing in. Premiums must increase substantially to restore balance, driving away those the pool needs to remain viable.

If Bertolini’s characterization of the individual health insurance market segment holds true going forward, it would mean the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s reforms have failed since they were specifically designed to restore an individual health insurance market trapped in the death spiral of adverse selection and rising premiums. The goal of the reforms is to restore the functionality and stability of the individual market risk pool by enhancing the spread of risk and ensuring members remain in the pool year round.


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. 

When ACA individual market reforms fail and reprise de facto high risk pool

The Minnesota Department of Commerce struck a deal with five health plans in the state’s individual market to prevent a market collapse. In June, Blue Cross Blue Shield announced that it was leaving the individual market, with 103,000 individuals left to find a new plan when open enrollment starts on November 1. It was feared that other plans would quickly follow suit. Given that BCBS had a broad network and notably higher risk profile, the remaining plans were not eager to take on new enrollees in a guaranteed issue environment. The agreement reached included caps on health plan enrollment and significant rate increases between 50-66.8 percent. Only one of the five plans, BCBS’s narrow-network HMO plan, Blue Plus, agreed to offer plans without an enrollment cap.

Source: Capping Enrollment To Save Minnesota’s Individual Market

A key element of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s reforms of the individual health insurance market is the formation of statewide risk pools comprised of those not covered by government or employer-sponsored plans. But as the Minnesota Department of Commerce notes in this news release, just five percent of Minnesota residents or 250,000 people don’t fall into these categories and make up the entire universe of the individual market.

When Affordable Care Act rules that permit health plan issuers to slice and dice state individual risk pools into county-sized rating areas where they can choose — or not — to offer a plan or plans are factored in, that universe is narrowed down. That effectively reduces the spread of risk for health plan issuers offering coverage in those rating areas if there are few issuers offering plans within them. Ultimately, the number of those in the individual market becomes too small to achieve effective spread of risk, even with the law’s individual shared responsibility mandate to have some form of health coverage in force. Especially in smaller states like Minnesota, where it appears from this Health Affairs blog post that rather than spreading risk across a larger population, the individual market is functioning more like a high risk rather than true insurance pool. That’s why Minnesota regulators accommodated health plan issuer concerns by capping enrollment — a defining characteristic of a high risk pool.

That’s a perverse development given the Affordable Care Act’s reforms of the individual market were specifically intended to restore the individual market to healthy functioning and obsolete state high risk pools that offered tightly limited coverage to those whose health status fell short of health plan issuers’ medical underwriting standards that existed prior to the reforms taking effect in 2014.


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. 

Individual market reform goals of spread of risk, affordability showing strains at extremes of age continuum

Two fundamental policy goals of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act reforms of the individual health insurance market are improving the spread of risk – the essential risk pooling element of any form of insurance – and affordability. Each complements the other. Having more affordable forms of individual coverage brings more people into the risk pool. That in turn improves the spread of risk. Better spread of risk means health plan issuers can set premium rates lower because there are more premium dollars being paid in to cover the costs of those who need medical care. A virtuous cycle in economic terms.

Four years after most of the reforms began to take effect, it remains unclear if these two policy goals will be achieved, with strains appearing at both ends of the age continuum of working adults not covered by employer sponsored health plans. At the lower end are the so-called “young invincibles” who as this Heath Affairs Blog post posits are opting not to purchase coverage. Its authors suggest the Affordable Care Act’s age rating rules designed to make coverage more affordable for older adults deter young adults – who may not see the need — from enrolling in coverage.

That has frustrated the policy goal of achieving greater spread of risk by shifting the risk pool toward older adults, the authors write, reinforced by the law’s bar on medical underwriting that previously kept these older adults who tend to use more medical services out of the pool. Consequently, they note, the risk pool faces the danger of adverse selection, with a surplus of older adults who consume more medical care and too few younger adults who tend to use less.

But despite the age rating rules that stipulate that the relative weight of age in setting premium rates cannot exceed a three to one ratio between the oldest and youngest adults in the pool, older adults with household incomes exceeding 400 percent of federal poverty and thus ineligible for premium tax credits for coverage sold on state health benefit exchanges are facing an affordability crisis. Shela Bryan, a 63-year-old maintenance supervisor from Hull, Georgia, is a typical example. She’s shopping for coverage for 2017 and told Kaiser Health News:

“They cost a thousand, $1,200 [a month], and they have a deductible of $6,000,” she said. “I don’t know how they think anyone can afford that.”

There also a very real perception of poor value at work here that can deter older consumers from purchasing coverage. High deductible plans shift what’s known in insurance terminology as “first dollar” or “burning layer” risk to insureds. Consumers in age rating bands of 55 and older naturally wonder why they are being asked to pay so much for what is essentially catastrophic coverage. Particularly older adults who are relatively healthy and are committed to leading healthy lifestyles, knowing they are not bulletproof 29-year-olds anymore. Unlike other forms of insurance where an insured can earn lower premiums and discounts for mitigating risk, the Affordable Care Act prohibits use of such incentives that could improve the individual risk pool.


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. 

An unvirtuous combination: Prevalence of chronic disease and consumer expectations spawned by decades of managed care

The prevalence of chronic illness and the expectation built up over decades of managed care that health plans should cover office visits with no or little out of pocket costs are combining to drive up America’s health care costs – and health insurance premiums. People are visiting physician offices more often and want their wallets protected from paying for those visits.

Case in point is California’s health benefit exchange, Covered California. Its benefit standards for participating high deductible health plans require them to offer low, set co-pays for office visits at $35 for primary care doctors and $70 for specialists. The goal, as Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee told the Los Angeles Times, is to take the sting out of high deductibles that require people to pay the full cost of an office visit until they are reached. “No patient I know wants to pay $2,500 to see the doctor,” Lee told The Times, referring to a $2,500 high deductible plan. But there’s no proverbial free lunch. There’s a tradeoff involved. More office visits equal greater utilization and administrative costs — which in turn lead to higher premiums.

The thinking here appears to be to avoiding creating an economic disincentive for people to see a physician in order to catch a health problem before it develops into a more serious, costly condition. For some people, that may apply. But not for all if not most. The great majority of people are blessed with the ability to maintain good health by leading healthy lifestyles that include adequate exercise, sleep and a healthy diet. Unlike motor vehicles that require regular maintenance to stay road worthy, human beings do not require ongoing preventative maintenance in a doctor’s office. If the current policy that health coverage is to be an insurance product – and all indications it will remain so for most working age Americans barring a collapse of employer-sponsored health benefits – that policy should treat it as insurance.

Insurance is for large, unexpected costs. It’s not for maintenance. That’s why most insurance policies exclude coverage for losses arising out of neglected maintenance. That’s why they won’t pay a claim for a roof collapse if the roof not properly reshingled or for a blown engine due to missed oil changes.

Health insurance isn’t really something that can be purchased. It’s something all people can give to themselves by respecting their ability to maintain their own health in order to avoid needing medical care. That’s true health maintenance. It can’t be legislated via public policy. It must become a widespread cultural ethic that respects it and the need for people to invest in their own health.


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. 

Bill Clinton criticizes ACA gaps

At a campaign event for his wife in Flint, Mich., Bill Clinton had praised the law for insuring millions of Americans, but noted that many middle-class Americans were still unable to afford coverage and talked up his wife’s plan to allow those close to retirement age to buy into Medicare.

“The people who are getting killed on this deal are small business people and individuals who make just a little too much to get any of these subsidies because they’re not organized,” he said. “They don’t have any bargaining power with insurance companies so they’re getting whacked.

“So you’ve got this crazy system where all of a sudden 25 million more people have health care and then the people who are out there busting it, sometimes 60 hours a week, wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half. It’s the craziest thing in the world.

Source: Bill Clinton’s Obamacare remarks put Hillary on the hot seat

The former president’s talking about shortcomings in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act relative to making health coverage more accessible and affordable for individuals and small employers. Regarding the former, I’ve referred to them as the “401 percenters” — those who exceed the household income cutoff of 400 percent of federal poverty for advance premium tax credits for individual qualified heath plans sold on state health benefit exchanges. There have been numerous accounts that even those with household incomes between 300 and 400 percent of federal poverty levels get too little in the way of subsidies to make coverage affordable or even worthwhile, federal income tax penalties for going bare notwithstanding.

As for Bill Clinton’s reference to small business, the Affordable Care Act envisioned small businesses organizing to gain some degree of bargaining power in the health benefit exchange’s Small Business Health Options Program known as SHOP. In theory, the SHOP was to enable small business to aggregate their market power, aided by the law’s creation of a single statewide risk pool for the small group market segment. In reality, it didn’t work out that way. SHOP turned out to be a flop, with little interest among small employers and insurance brokers in participating in the program.


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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