Matthew Holt

The post-reform insurance market, or will Mega survive?

I had an interesting call from a member of the legal profession the other day, and it got me thinking about the post-reform prospects for my own particular collection of bete noirs—the insurers who prey on desperate people in the individual market. Yes, you can expect the subject of Mega Life & Health to appear later in this article.

Now some dummies are starting to complain about what, to this point, have been broadly accepted parts of the upcoming reform legislation. Robert Samuelson is a typical advantaged recipient of community-rated insurance yet complains about the same concept being extended outside his community-rated group made up of Washington Post employees. AARP suggests in response that he should be sending (his much younger WaPo colleague) Ezra Klein a check, as Ezra is in effect subsidizing Samuelson’s health insurance.

While the political cognoscenti is struggling with the public option and payment rates to rural hospitals (and other bribes needed for DINO Senators from Nebraska & Louisiana, and the NEDINO one from Connecticut), the real issue of health insurance regulation is getting scant attention. In particular three huge issues remain to be resolved:

1. Cross-border insurance sales. Now I’m all for abolishing state insurance departments, allowing one company to sell to multiple states, and Federally regulating health insurance sales. But as Trudy Lieberman points out at the CJR, the insurance industry would be delighted if the law only changed for the first two-thirds of that sentence. And here’s the crux:

The provision, euphemistically named the Health Care Choice Compact, would work like this: Two or more states could join together and allow insurers selling health coverage to be governed by the laws and regulations of the state where the policy was issued, not the rules of the state where they’re sold. So a company wanting to sell in, say, Wyoming or South Carolina—which may have weak regulations—could choose to issue its policies in those states but actually sell them in New York or California—where the rules are tougher. If policyholders have problems with their coverage, too bad: the rules of the weaker state would apply, and they could be out of luck.

2. Are high deductible plans going to be all we get? It certainly appears that there’ll only be enough subsidies around for those receiving them to end up more or less having to buy high-deductible plans. There are both individual problems with high-deductible plans and systemic ones.

Individual—Sick people with high-deductible plans tend to neglect needed maintenance care because of cost. That’s why Pitney Bowes and other smart companies have removed co-pays for medications for those with chronic conditions. But most high-deductible plans don’t do this and so we can expect not only more catastrophic coverage, but more catastrophes as these high-deductible plans spread.

Systemic—I hate to bring this up, I really do. But the math is simple (as I’ve been writing about for years on THCB). If everyone has a high-deductible plan, either they need to be charged pretty much the same premium as they would with a low-deductible one, OR there will not be enough money in the insurance pool to cover the sick. It’s totally obvious. If average health spending is $8,000 per person, average premiums plus out-of-pocket spending need to be $8,000 per person. The overall pool needs to keep 80% of the money for 20% of the people, which means that if average deductibles go much above 20% of average health expenditures, the pool will not have enough money in it to cover the sick.

Of course the reason high-deductible plans are so much cheaper currently than low deductible ones is because insurers don’t allow sick people to buy them! It’s the risk selection not the deductible that impacts the price.

Related to this is the issue of what benefits a plan would have to provide outside versus inside the Exchange. Will the combination of regulation and exchanges prevent insurers from gaming the system to sell lower-cost plans to healthier people, even when such activity is theoretically banned? The obvious way to prevent this (other than abolishing insurers and having one social insurance pool) is to to do back-end risk-adjustment between plans selling exactly the same mandated benefits, as they have in the Netherlands. But there’s no sign of that language in any bill.

3. Junk Insurance. (Yes, Mega Life & Health makes its appearance here). Finally, the last part of insurance regulation concerns the real schlock-meisters. These are the companies that sell essentially fraudulent insurance. Watch any daytime TV, or get involved with “employer association” front groups and these companies will pop up. What they do is sell unsuspecting and usually desperate people insurance, and neglect to tell them that the coverage has detailed limits—such as a few hundred dollars per day in a hospital, when it really costs several thousand.

Mega Life & Health, a brand of HealthMarkets, which is owned by those upstanding citizens at Goldman Sachs, Blackstone and Credit Suisse, is the poster child of this segment of the market. I’ve written about them on THCB before lots of times. In 2006 they somehow convinced the California Supreme Court that their junk insurance was legal, and in 2008 they were fined $20m for actions that to quote the AG of Washington State “hurt alot of people”.

If you want to know more about the practices of Mega in essentially lying, cheating and stealing from some of the most desperate Americans, you might want to settle in and read this post and the long series of comments from several former Mega agents.

I would be very interested to know if Mega (or its sister outfits Chesapeake Life Insurance Company and Mid-West National Life Insurance Company of Tennessee) have changed their practices—particularly in agent training and management—since the 2008 settlement. (Healthmarkets says they have, but they would, wouldn’t they?) They were also fined $17m in Massachusetts in a separate complaint earlier this year. But again that was for offenses dating back to 2007.

The question is, how is Mega behaving now? If any former (or current) agents or customers would like to comment on this post (or email me privately) I’d be very interested in finding out more.

And of course, theoretically this type of junk insurance should probably become illegal soon—putting Mega out of business (or forcing them into a different type of business). But that devil is in the details of the legislation to come, and I'm sure HealthMarkets and its like have many smart lawyers and lobbyists focused directly on this topic.

Categories: Matthew Holt

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