HEALTH PLANS/POLICY: Why is the individual market such a mess?

Following my post last week on the individual and small group insurance market, the Anonymous Academic declared some of his political colors by saying this:

    I haven’t followed the situation in California, but I am familiar with the situation in Washington State in the late 1990s, when the individual market there was a mess. The main culprit was a package of "progressive" reforms designed to enable chronically ill people to buy coverage, but which ended up making the individual market completely dysfunctional (for example, basically eliminating the market for generous individual coverage). After the reforms, most of the insurers (and many beneficiaries) fled the individual market, and those few insurers that remained offered truly crappy plans.

    Unbelievably, the state’s insurance commissioner, Deborah Senn, and many left-wingers denied that there was a problem–or if they acknowledged the problem they denied that the legislative reforms were in any way responsible. One prominent liberal said that "sometimes things have to get worse before they get better," by which I believe she meant the market for individual coverage had to be destroyed to engender support for a single-payer approach.  Prior to the reforms, the individual market in Washington functioned reasonably well, although admittedly the situation was not very good for someone who got hurt or sick while uninsured. I don’t see how this problem can be avoided in a voluntary insurance market. If (a) people can choose whether to buy insurance and (b) there are few or no adverse consequences for getting sick while uninsured, then (c) few people will bother to buy insurance until they get sick.

A little later in our conversation, while giving the proviso that his comments are directly limited to the insurance reforms in Washington State in the late 1990s (guaranteed issue, community rating, 3-month waiting period for coverage of pre-existing conditions), he adds:

    There were few serious consequences to being uninsured. If you got sick, you could get coverage in just 3 months with no underwriting.  I do think there are some problems with the individual market, but I definitely do not think that guaranteed issue, community rating, etc, are the right way to solve those problems.

Now I’m going to have to agree and disagree with the Academic. He is right. Individual health insurance CAN NOT work as a market if the insurer has any idea who they’re insuring OR if the individual has the choice to buy or not buy insurance. Both of them lead to one extreme–sick people being unable to get insurance–or the other–the adverse selection that kills companies that are compelled to offer insurance to the sick, as under those Washington State reforms. Insurers make money by getting rid of the expensive people. One of my buddies in the consulting business has been looking at individual enrollee profitability, and his analysis for his health  plan customer helped that plan increase profitability by identifying and enrolling the psychogrpahic profiles of a consumer who is less likely to be a big user of health services. Conversely if the plans have any clue in advance who those expensive people might be it’s their raison d’etre to make sure they don’t write them insurance. And funnily enough, crude though they may be, insurers have some tools to help them do that (hence my 300% quote increase when they found out I’d had knee surgery 2 years ago).  It’s the same concept as an insurer who covers fire damage knowing which 15% of houses are already on fire and therefore not covering them.  If an insurer gets it mostly right they do OK; if they get it wrong, they get hosed (pardon the pun).

And, by the way, as both the Academic and on a larger stage Mark Pauly gloss over, there are damn serious consequences for getting sick while uninsured. For example, there’s the raft of stories in the WSJ about denying care to the uninsured at UT Galveston. Another recent story well covered in the medblogs was the hospital in Indiana that carted deadbeat payers off to debtor’s prison.  And anecdotally (but I know her well), there’s my friend who has had no steady job in 30 months, is off COBRA, has a chronic blood-clotting illness (DVT) that flares up occasionally and was quoted (legally) $1200 a month she didn’t have for coverage with a $2,000 deductible (with no coverage of her pre-existing condition for the first 6 months) by California Blue Shield.  Her barely existing middle-class life will be torpedoed the next time she’s carted off to hospital when her condition breaks out, and she’ll probably have to declare bankruptcy to avoid paying the $20,000 bill she’ll likely receive.

I guess that if Pauly and other "free market" economists really believe that an insurance market is "good enough" if it works for the 80% of people who don’t actually need care, then the individual insurance market is fine.  If, on the other hand, you think that sick people should be able to get health care and have their costs spread over a larger group of healthy people (which I believe is the original concept of insurance) then everyone has to:

a) be anonymously community-rated in a big pool and
b) be forced to be in the pool (i.e. have to buy insurance)

But then again, that means that if you take it to its logical extension we should all be in one pool (or have large pools which make genuinely risk-adjusted transfer payments between each other), and then that means that the government is the logical organization to run that process. That then means the premiums we pay are called taxes, and we don’t like that.  So we pay much higher taxes called "premiums" for worse coverage and services (and pay way more out of pocket) and keep a bunch of useless anachronisms called brokers and small insurers in business all for the pleasure of avoiding "socialized medicine"–even though in Japan, Germany, Holland, Germany, etc, etc, they’ve worked out how to do this without nationalizing care delivery.

But instead we conduct minor and meaningless reforms like HIPAA at the edges of the individual insurance market, and try to get coverage to specific underinsured groups such as kids via tack-on programs like SCHIP which, as Cal Healthline and USA Today report, are incredibly vulnerable to the ongoing fiscal crisis at the state level. There is no way to put lipstick on this pig. But there’s no political interest in fixing it.

My personal solution for this whole mess is for Mark Pauly and all members of Congress to be forced to buy their health insurance on the individual market (even the over-65 year olds!).  Then you’d see a Clinton-style pooling plan implemented in about 3 weeks flat.

Wierd historical footnote: It was of course the smaller insurers who along with the AMA destroyed the Clinton plan with theHarry and Louise ads–the big guys fancied their changes in the pool structure. Ironically enough, a decade later the HIAA and the AAHP just merged!).

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