Christmas is the time when kids tell Santa what they want and adults pay for it. Deficits are when adults tell government what they want and their kids pay for it. ~Richard Lamm
The day after a mid-term tidal wave of anti-incumbency sentiment swept through Congress resulting in the GOP reclaiming a controlling majority in the House and closer parity in the Senate, a seemingly contrite President Obama took personal responsibility for his party’s dismal showing at the polls. In a carefully worded conciliatory message, the President shared that, “the American people have made it very clear that they want Congress to work together and focus their entire energies on fixing the economy.”
Newly minted House Majority leader, John Boehner, subsequently reconfirmed that the GOP would not rest until Congress had reined in government spending. This would be partly achieved by deconstructing the highly unpopular and “flawed” Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – a “misguided” piece of legislation that would actually increase costs for employers thereby reducing the nation’s ability to jump-start an economy that relies on job creation and consumer spending. In Boehner’s mind, government is not unlike the average American, overweight – it’s budget deficits bloated by the cost of financial bailouts, Keynesian stimulus spending and failure to discuss the growing burden of fee for service Medicare.
The President’s failure to acknowledge healthcare reform in his speech was interpreted by many as deliberate and only served to cement the perception that in Washington, it will impossible to have constructive dialogue around the imperfections and potential unintended consequences of PPACA. The White House’s resolve to defend its hard-fought healthcare legislation is likely to extend the polarizing partisanship that has come to characterize Congress. The impasse may very well spark a two-year period of bruising, bellicose finger-pointing over how to fix rising healthcare costs.
The absence of a veto proof majority leaves the GOP in a position of holding high-profile hearings and tendering symbolic legislation designed to expose PPACA’s limitations and its failure to address the core problem – medical inflation and its principal drivers. The Obama administration and a Democratic Caucus will work to redirect legislative attention to the economy while working to protect the core elements of their health legislation – expanded and subsidized access for some 30M Americans, tighter regulation of insurance coverage and underwriting and an ambitious expansion of the role of Health & Human Services as a national oversight agency. It seems that “reforming” reform may end up unlikely inside the Beltway setting the stage for regulatory skirmishes across state legislatures. We may very well look back on this period leading up to the 2012 Presidential elections as “The War Between The States”.
Healthcare civil war will result in intense competition for dollars. Internecine fighting will flare across all lines – – between primary care physicians and specialists, community and teaching hospitals, brokers and insurers, employees and employers, as well as state and Federal regulators. Every stakeholder believes they are part of the solution, adding integral value to healthcare delivery. Meanwhile consumers cling to the notion that the best healthcare is rich benefits delivered through open access networks where no administrative obstacle gets in between the consumer and the care they believe they need. The question becomes who is fit to referee and regulate this highly radioactive food fight.
PPACA MLR Regs May Reduce Competition – Recently promulgated Minimum Loss Ratio (MLR) legislation will spark a fundamental shift for insurers as they are forced to underwrite locally and account for profits exclusively by license and by state. In higher loss ratio markets, insurers will need to price to their true cost of risk creating the potential for market volatility. In the past, regional and national insurers routinely redirected profits from lower loss ratio markets to subsidize higher MLR markets. This was particularly true when carriers were entering expansion markets in an attempt to create more competition. New markets generally meant poorer medical economics for insurers who did not have enough membership to negotiate favorable terms with providers. This led to premiums priced to higher loss ratios and lower profit in an effort to gain market share and increase competition.
With final MLR regulations imminent, competition in certain markets may diminish as smaller market share insurers no longer have the patience or economic staying power to build membership. If the threat of high loss ratios persisting in markets where rate increases cannot be approved, an insurer may attempt to withdraw from less profitable lines of business or a particular geographic market prompting a rebuke from a local insurance commissioner or HHS. Insurers will now be constantly weighing the cost/benefit of a public fight that may taint their ability to do business in an entire state.
A New Type of Non Profit Insurer ? – In the Midwest, a different battle is brewing as Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC), the powerful Illinois based non-profit Blue, is drawing criticism from consumer groups over its $6B war chest funded by accumulated reserves – reserves that some claim are well above the necessary statutory limits and should be used to reduce premium increases. Within historical market cycles, non-profit insurers and their reserves have played an important role in moderating medical costs as a non-profit can spend down excess reserves and in doing so, initiate a competitive pricing cycle that squeezes for profit competitors in select markets. Wall Street analysts closely follow insurer pricing cycles often portending lower managed care industry profits when non-profit insurer reserves reach too high a multiple of required reserves.
As hospitals and doctor groups consolidate and the supply side of healthcare repositions in the face of inevitable changes to reimbursement, non profits are recognizing that size and bargaining power matters. In a departure from normal excess reserve driven pricing, HCSC is building reserves, perhaps out of conservatism over an uncertain future or because they are looking for an opportunity to acquire another non-profit.
Should HCSC use excess reserves – essentially profits accumulated in four states – to potentially acquire a non-profit in another state, some regulators and consumer groups may argue that these reserves should be rebated to policyholders. When a non-profit chooses more conservative reserving, they give for profit competitors a potential pass from the pressure of having to moderate premiums. Non-profits play a vital role but are not without their perceived warts. While clear exceptions exist in many markets, criticism of non-profit insurers is often leveled at their utility-like behavior – – limited innovation, bureaucratic insensitivity to customer service and waste. As these non-profits become tougher and more formidable, they will begin to emulate certain for profit behaviors intensifying the debate in state legislatures over the nature of for profit and not-for-profit insurance.
Some states may condone non profit excess reserving practices – especially if there is a plan for non-profit to for-profit conversion. In these cases, a trust is established to convert the non-profit’s reserves to state control, presumably to be used to impact areas regarding public health. Given that 80% of every state’s budget is dedicated to either “education, incarceration or medication”, a non-profit conversion can be a boon for a cash strapped state. Losing a non-profit local insurer to for profit status is hard to explain to consumer advocates pushing for more competition among insurers but easier to ensure reelection by using one time windfalls to finance staggering state budgets.
Medicare Cost Shifting – As reform imposes restrictions on insurer loss ratios, it is also poised to shift more costs to the private sector through Medicare fee cuts – cuts that are expected to generate $ 350B of the estimated $940B of revenues required to cover the $800B price tag of PPACA. Congress, nervous over mounting evidence that added underfunding of Medicare reimbursement would only reduce access to medical services for seniors, has chosen to further delay these cuts in legislation. The stop-gap delay on cuts known as “Doc-Fix” will challenge the upcoming lame duck session of Congress. The moratorium on cuts expires in November, 2010, leaving the newly comprised Congress to wrestle with the highly unpopular consequences of further cutting Medicare. Given that fee for service Medicare costs continue to spiral out of control, each month that Congress fails to pass these fee cuts reduces revenues earmarked to offset the costs of reform – – potentially turning PPACA from a bill that sought to reduce the public debt by $ 140B to a bill that would further increase our national debt by as much as $ 300B.
Regulatory Debates Over Premiums for Individuals and Small Business– Healthcare civil war will further inflame as public spending in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements are reduced – causing providers to cease accepting patients, ration access and/or cost shift more to commercial insurance. Medicaid already reimburses providers less than 70% of retail costs of care followed by 80-85% by Medicare. Commercial insurance picks up this cost shift currently paying $1.25 for similar services with the most disturbing costs of $2.50 being charged to any uninsured patient uncovered by public or private care. With the new public spending cuts, commercial and uninsured care costs are likely to rise higher. Some insurers estimate unit costs likely to increase to as much as $1.40.
As rising unit costs result in higher medical loss ratios, insurers will raise rates – prompting more state conflicts with regulators seeking to manage the optics of rising insurance premiums for individual and small business. New MLR regulations will require extraordinary underwriting precision as conservative pricing will result in lost market share or the potential for large premium rebates while under-pricing premium will result in the need to raise rates higher and in doing so, risk high-profile battles with regulators as they weigh the political optics of allowing proposed increases. In at least half of US healthcare markets, states have prior approval rate authority allowing them to effectively prevent insurers from collecting premiums required to cover loss ratios in excess of the newly mandated 80 or 85% loss ratio limit. History has taught us that price controls are effective political but ineffective economic levers to address underlying cost inflation.
The first shots of the rate adequacy debate have already been fired in California, Colorado, Maine and Massachusetts — all markets who represent a perfect storm of rising medical costs, budget deficits and a firebrand belief that insurers should be highly regulated, non profit utilities. The result has been a rising war of words over the right balance between rate regulation and historical profit margins of insurers.
The seeds of civil war were buidling for a decade prior to the passage of reform. Some industry observers attribute the ill-timed efforts of Wellpoint California to collect a requested 39% increase on its individual lines of business as the spark that rekindled Federal reform. While the loss ratios in their Individual Medical line of business had clearly deteriorated as a result of declining economy and a loss of healthier membership, Anthem/Wellpoint failed to think across its entire book of business – an insured multi-line block where small group, Medicare Advantage and other lines of business were all generating profits. The failure to correctly understand the enterprise risk of raising rates – despite their actuarial justification, cost Wellpoint/Anthem and the insurance industry dearly as calls for reform rekindled across the US. Wellpoint has subsequently resubmitted lower requested rates, accepted higher loss ratios in its individual line of business and taken a hit to earnings.
A Social Contract with States – The for profit insurer conundrum is clear. Providing health insurance carries with it an implied covenant within every market in which an insurer does business. This social contract suggests that insurers and other for profit stakeholders must be actively demonstrating community stewardship, and that they are improving the health system, not merely benefiting by its dysfunction. Responsible stewardship is also in the eyes of the beholder – – in this case, regulators, politicians, pundits, consumers, and a range of stakeholders. In the upcoming battles that will wage within each state, it will become increasingly relevant in the court of public opinion that how one makes money in healthcare is as relevant to policymakers as to how much one makes.
A low pressure system is already building over New York, California, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and other blue states as they begin to re-assert their regulatory authority to support federal oversight of healthcare. Red and blue politics now matters as states will be either guided by an ethos of “healthcare is a public/private partnership anchored by employer based healthcare and consumer market forces that drive quality and efficiency” or a mindset that “healthcare is in need of radical reform – reform that begins with PPACA and most likely ends with a single payer system acting as the catalyst to drive the least politically palatable phase of healthcare — rationing of resources.”
A Ray of Sunshine ? – There may prove to be a silver lining if certain states become incubators for successful alternative models of delivery. States quick to embrace medical home models that expand the role of primary care providers may make faster strides to control readmission rates, formulary compliance and emergency room overtreatment. Additional local regulatory reforms could include all payer reimbursement reform which levels in-patient reimbursement among all payers. There is a need for expanded malpractice reform and a tolerance of compliance based designs that hold those seeking access to subsidized care accountable for greater personal health engagement.
The battles will wage up to the 2012 Presidential elections – – a vote that could very well determine the future of healthcare in America. A Democratic administration is likely to cement basic reforms into place and further placing near term faith in expanded access highly regulated insurance exchanges, rate regulation and the potential trigger of a public option if private plans are unsuccessful in taming medical inflation. A 2012 GOP win would likely mean revocation of individual mandates, a scaling back of the role of exchanges, greater incentives to preserve employer sponsored healthcare and a focused but modest expansion of Medicaid to cover those most in need of a core level of coverage. The GOP and Democrats alike face a common challenge of tackling soaring fee for service Medicare costs and the eventual need to reshape a healthcare delivery system that is rewarded for treating chronic illness not preventing it.
Most states will be agnostic to the presidential elections, choosing to continue to pass regulations if they feel reforms are falling short of dealing with local access and affordability issues. Only larger employers in self insured health arrangements will avoid the crazy quilt of shifting multi-state regulations.
Robert E Lee once remarked, “it is good that war is so horrible, ‘lest men grow to love it.” As with war, the politics of reform is a zero sum game. Achieving savings means someone in the healthcare delivery system makes less money. The war over healthcare reform will not be popular nor easily understood. Every American will be impacted. Fear and misinformation will rain over the battle field like propaganda. Yet, if we could agree on a guiding vision – improvement of public health, personal responsibility, elimination of fraud and abuse, torte reform, the digitalization of the US healthcare delivery system, the preservation of our best and brightest providers and a system built on incentives to reward quality based on episodes of care, perhaps we may achieve a public/private détente where we focus less on vilifying and more on healing a system, it’s consumers and our unsustainable appetites.
Michael Turpin is frequent speaker, writer and practicing benefits consultant across a 27 year career that spanned assignments in the US and in Europe. He served as the northeast regional CEO for United Healthcare and Oxford Health from 2005-2008 and is currently Executive Vice President for Benefits for the New York based broker, USI insurance Services. He blogs regularly at Usturpin’s Blog.