HHS has now released its final set of draft regulations for provisions of the Affordable Care Act scheduled to go into effect early in 2011. This last regulatory publication—actually a “notice of proposed rulemaking” inviting comments prior to implementation—provides proposed rules for disclosure and justification of “unreasonable” premium increases.
The proposed “confess and explain” regulation requires insurers to publicly disclose rate increases in the individual or small group markets of ten percent or more in 2011, or above individual state-by-state thresholds starting in 2012. The thresholds will be set by HHS, presumably in conjunction with the states.
Although the proposed rules require review either by HHS or, if a state has an “effective rate review system,” by the state, no authority is provided for the rejection or modification of rate increases. Apparently, the Congressional drafters of the ACA language—which the proposed rule generally follows—felt that the threat of a premium increase being called unreasonable would have an adequate sentinel effect. However, insurers who show a “pattern or practice of excessive or unjustified premium increases” can also be excluded from insurance exchange participation.
In summary, the process proposed by HHS would require insurers requesting premium increases exceeding the thresholds to disclose their justification either to the appropriate state regulator or—if HHS has determined that the state does not have an adequate rate review procedure—to HHS itself. If the state (or HHS) then decides that the increase is excessive or unjustified, it is expected to make this decision public, with HHS then posting the determination on its website. The hope, obviously, is that an insurer will want to avoid such negative publicity and will trim or abandon the increase.
Reform advocate Timothy Jost has posted a lengthy critique of the HHS proposal in the Health Affairs Blog. He expresses concern that the rule would not apply to the large group market, that by tying the proposed rule to so-called “products” individual groups could face increases much higher than the nominal thresholds, and that the information that insurers would be required to disclose would be too limited (and could be further limited by recourse to protestations of trade secrets).
In a comment on Jost’s critique, Jeff Goldsmith questions the capability of HHS in evaluating a requested increase—and notes the potentially substantial effort involved—given that it might be driven by risk selection or the actions of monopolistic providers or other factors that may be difficult to determine. Goldsmith comments: “it’s a charter for arbitrary ‘jawboning’ of the industry, not an explicit charter for actually regulating it.”
HHS provides some statistics that help provide an estimate of the amount of effort that insurers, states, and HHS may incur as a result of the proposed rule. Based on HHS’ numbers, it seems likely that somewhere between 500 and 1000 premium increases a year could be subject to the disclosure and review processes, with the number gradually increasing as groups lose their grandfathered status, and with each review requiring hundreds or thousands of man-hours. How many of these reviews might result in insurers trimming their increases is anyone’s guess, but Goldsmith’s expressed preference for market competition over HHS rules may well be justified.