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Tag: Health Plans

Probably Illegal and Unquestionably Stupid: Covered California’s Release of Personal Health Information.

The Los Angeles Times has reported that Covered California, the largest state’s health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act, has started releasing to insurance agents throughout the state the names and contact information of tens of thousands of persons who started an application using the state’s online system but failed to complete it.

The Covered California director Peter Lee acknowledges the practice but says that the outreach program still complies with privacy laws and was reviewed by the exchange’s legal counsel. “I can see a lot of people will be comforted and relieved at getting the help they need to navigate a confusing process,” explained Lee.

I am hardly as confident as Covered California’s lawyers apparently were that this practice was legal.

The law requires that disclosures to third parties be necessary and I do not see why Covered California could not have contacted non-completers directly and ask them if they wanted help from an insurance agent rather than disclosing their identity to insurance agents.  But even if the practice could be said to be borderline legal, it is difficult to imagine a practice more likely to sabotage enrollment efforts in California — and, since California’s interpretation could be precedent for other states — elsewhere.

For every person unable to complete their application online in California and who will, with the comforting help provided by insurance agents, now want to complete it, there are likely 10 who will be turned off by the cavalier attitude towards privacy exhibited by this government agency.  Beyond a violation of ACA privacy safeguards, the action is either a sign of desperation about enrollment figures, even in a state that boasts of its success such as Peter Lee’s California, or monumental stupidity.

If California wanted to create an adverse selection death spiral, it would be difficult to be more effective than, without notice or consent,  releasing personally identifiable information to insurance agents.

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Why “Liking” Your Plan Is Not the Point

In recent weeks, President Barack Obama has been appropriately raked over the coals for saying, multiple times, “If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep it.” He shouldn’t have said it. The problem is, he shouldn’t have said it for entirely different reasons than most Americans think.

Let’s begin with a basic question: What does it mean to “like” one’s plan? And what is the value of this statement? All of this came to a head at an October 30 Congressional hearing with the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius.

At the hearing, in a cantankerous challenge to Sebelius’s credibility, Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn highlighted two constituents, Mark and Lucinda, who “like their plans,” but were being told they could not keep them because of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), so-called “Obamacare.” A long-entrenched individualist rhetoric provided the framework for Blackburn’s point, namely that we should allow Mark and Lucinda to keep their plans in the name of individual freedom, just because they “like” them.

For purposes of argument, let’s assume that what Mark and Lucinda’s insurers are saying—that the cancellations are a result of the ACA—is true. But, as we do this, let’s also keep in mind that just because insurers claim premium hikes and cancellations are because of the ACA doesn’t mean that it’s true. In fact, it seems to be true only rarely and, even then, often as a half-truth.

But, anyway, let’s assume it is true. The question then becomes: why is it true? The problem is that this individual freedom is made possible by the assurances of a social safety net. This brings us back to the existential foundation of the ACA, namely that the choice to not carry health insurance—or to carry poor health insurance that individuals may find out, at some point, doesn’t cover something important—simply dumps those individuals into social institutions such as emergency rooms and local care centers, and does so in an extremely wasteful way. This returns us to the problem we started with and a question of whether or not ACA opponents are concerned with solving the problem of building a sustainable health care system.

In other words, Blackburn’s logic, as inspirational as it might be to some, bathed as it is in the rhetoric of freedom, is not premised on an analysis or understanding of health insurance, but deference to Mark and Lucinda to make their own choices, consequences be damned.

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What Public Insurance Exchanges Will Look Like 5 Years From Now

When envisioning what public insurance exchanges of the future can and should look like when it comes to technology and structure, one only needs to look at the successful private exchanges that have paved the way over the past several years.

This experience has taught those who administer private exchanges that open enrollment—the phase that the federal government’s Health Insurance Marketplace is struggling through currently—is only the beginning. Public exchanges could benefit from lessons already mastered by private exchanges—starting with open enrollment but extending to even more complex technology-based transactions.
There are 10 scenarios that vendors must be able to handle.

1. Life Events. In today’s individual Health Insurance marketplace, consumers can generally add or drop coverage for themselves or their dependents anytime they want. In other words, it’s a relatively “rule-free world.” In January 2014, that world changes to look more like the current group health marketplace in which many rules are defined by the federal government’s existing tax code (e.g., Section 125) and HIPAA requirements, and consumers must select and “lock in” their coverage once a year for the following 12 months, unless they experience a qualified life event.

As a result, each qualified life event – e.g., marriage, divorce, birth of a child, loss of spouse’s coverage and many more – must be configurable within the Exchange technology to enforce the appropriate rules. For example, if a person gets married, is that person allowed to drop coverage or change plans and carriers? How about with the birth of a child? Or with a loss of spouse’s coverage? For a truly scalable Exchange technology, thousands of scenarios must be configured in advance to enable consumers to make enrollment choices online without administrator involvement.

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The Two Million Scenario: What if the Affordable Care Act enrolls a lot fewer people in the Exchanges than predicted?

People can be blinded by dreams in many spheres.

Many people who remain basically positive about the Affordable Care Act are viewing the enrollment statistics like the football fan whose team is 2-6 and who point out that the team could win 7 out of its 8 remaining games and still probably make the playoffs.

Yes, getting off to a really bad start doesn’t preclude a happy ending. Success may still be mathematically possible. But unless there’s good reason to think that the fundamental factors such as poor coaching,  poor game plans or unexpected injuries that have led to the bad start no longer apply, the more reasonable prediction is that things will continue more or less as they have.

It’s time to start thinking realistically about what happens if a core component of the Affordable Care Act, subsidized, non-underwritten health insurance available from private insurers, essentially fails to provide many with better access to medical care. This might not happen in every state — there might be a few whose Exchanges can be deemed “successful” — but it is looking more and more to me as if we are heading for enrollments in many states well, well short of that on which the arguments for the ACA were significantly premised.

Indeed, some supporters of the ACA have started moving the goal posts, revising history to say that the real goal of the Act wasn’t to reduce the number of uninsureds but to have an actuarially sound pool. (So the purpose of the Act was to help insurance companies stay afloat?) And it hardly helps enrollment when President Obama urges his allies to hold back enrollment efforts so the insurance marketplace does not collapse this coming week under a crush of new users even after he earlier assured the nation  healthcare.gov  was supposed to be working much better by this time.

For purposes of this blog entry, I’m going to assume that enrollment in the Exchanges ends up being about 2 million for 2014 instead of the projected 7 million.  I can’t rigorously justify that number — but, of course, neither could the pundit who is now saying 4 million. And, if I had time and space I’d prefer to do this analysis under a variety of scenarios, but, for now, the 2 million figure feels about right. And if I were betting on which side of the 2 million we will fall, it would be the lower side. What are the consequences? I can’t address all of them in a single blog entry — and trying to predict matters past 2014 gets very treacherous — but here are some.

And, for those of you who don’t want to read further, here’s the headline:

Insurance sold through Exchanges without medical underwriting — a central promise of the Affordable Care Act — is likely to implode in a significant number of states by 2015 while limping along in several others but providing little net desired decrease in the number of people without quality health insurance.  The silver lining in this failure will be that the program will likely cost less than projected due to fewer number of people receiving subsidies, although this reduction will be partly offset by higher-than-projected subsidies to the insurance industry. Expect significant pressure to grow among supporters of the Affordable Care Act to use these net savings to increase the subsidies available to people buying coverage through the Exchanges and to lure insurers in the problem states back into the Exchanges.

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What Is the Difference Between On-Exchange and Off-Exchange Policies?

A THCB reader from Colorado writes in:

“I am an individual health insurance purchaser in Colorado. I know I need to buy my policy through the Colorado exchange if I want to get a possible subsidy. I am not likely to be eligible for a subsidy, however, and I found that it’s also possible to buy policies “off” the exchange. I briefly looked at some of those policies and found similar premiums, copays, and deductibles to policies “on” the exchange. I assume the “off-exchange” policies must also be as ACA-compliant as the exchange policies. 

Given all these similarities, what is the DIFFERENCE between “on”-exchange and “off”-exchange policies?

In the ACA, what purpose do the two categories serve?”

The Real Reason You May Not Be Able to Keep Your Doctor Under the New Healthcare Law


Here is what the President said at the American Medical Association Meeting in July, 2009––and likely lots more times:

“No matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise: If you like your doctor, you will keep your doctor. Period. If you like your health care plan, your will keep your health plan. Period. No one will take it away. No matter what. My view is that health care reform should be guided by a simple principle: fix what’s broken and build on what works.”

We have all heard this repeated many times before in recent weeks. But with the front-page story in the Washington Post yesterday, “Health Insurers Limit Choices to Keep Costs Down,” it’s as if somebody rang a new bell this time focused on the “you will keep your doctor” part.

It’s not like we haven’t been talking about more narrow networks becoming a staple of the new health insurance exchanges.

It is as if some of this stuff is just starting to sink in.

Why the limited networks?

In the old health insurance market, insurers competed for business through price and plan design. Network size has historically been a minor factor with consumers and employer plan sponsors expecting to be able to use about any doctor or hospital, especially those with the best reputations.

But with the Affordable Care Act, health plans lost two of their historically big plan pricing variables; medical underwriting and plan design.

Under Obamacare, insurers can no longer underwrite, or exclude people, to keep the cost of their individual market health insurance plans down––a good thing.

Under Obamacare, insurers can no longer offer a wide variety of health insurance products in the individual health market––a good thing when it gets rid of the worst of the health plans out there but not such a good thing when it gets rid of the many policies people could choose and have liked and are now mad about losing. Now, all health plans have to fit into four strict boxes: Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. And, these boxes can only differ by out-of-pocket costs––not benefits.

So, if a health plan can no longer vary its benefit choices, how can it distinguish itself on price?

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The Next Shoe to Drop: Small Group Health Insurance Cancellations

Obamacare is impacting the small group insurance market in many of the same ways as the individual health insurance market. While employers with less than 50 workers don’t have to provide coverage, if they do they are required to comply with the same essential benefit mandates, age rating changes, and pre-existing condition reforms the individual market faces.

That means essentially all small group policies cannot continue as they are––they have to be discontinued.

What makes things a bit easier, if not any less expensive, is that small employers typically have health insurance brokers to run interference for them and help them through this change where individual consumers often get that dreaded cancellation letter telling them they will not have health insurance after a certain date if they do not act quickly in what is a confusing marketplace in the best of times.

The first small group renewals are now occurring––the January 1 renewals that typically have to be delivered during the month of November under state law.

Many employers are facing significant changes in order to comply with Obamacare and therefore price increases. One Maryland broker I spoke to this week has 90 small group accounts and he reports his smallest increase was 15%, his largest was 69%, and most are in the 30% – 40% range.

(By comparison, Mercer just announced the average large employer health care cost increase for 2014 will be 5.2%, meaning small groups could have reasonably expected an increase under 10% without Obamacare.) The biggest rate increases are generally going to those employers with the youngest groups the most impacted by the new “age compression” rules.

Does this mean these small employers’ coverage has been outright cancelled and they will now send their workers to the exchanges, as I have heard some commentators argue?

No, at least not anytime soon.

But that does not mean that lots of these small employers aren’t angry and confused.

What are these small employers doing?

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The Clock Is Ticking

There’s still time.  Much of the sensationalistic coverage since October has completely missed the point, argue defenders.  THCB reader Hiro Kawashima had this to say:

“What became clear is that President Obama’s most formidable enemy isn’t the Republican Party, angry insurers or antsy Congressional Democrats; it is time. The PPACA is running against the clock and what the PPACA needs most is time to work. Even before the bill was signed into law, it was clear that the true financial benefit of PPACA would not be realized for a decade. Each failure, each negative portrayal and each angry consumer shaves an additional second off the clock. The President’s proposed administrative fix will buy time for the White House to get the healthcare.gov website working and regain control of the narrative.

If none of the reasons above made any sense to you, here is an analogy from President Obama:

One way I described this to — I met with a group of senators when this issue first came up — and it’s not a perfect analogy — but we made a decision as a society that every car has to have a seatbelt or airbags.  And so you pass a regulation.  And there are some additional costs, particularly at the start of increasing the safety and protections, but we make a decision as a society that the costs are outweighed by the benefits of all the lives that are saved.  So what we’re saying now is if you’re buying a new car, you got to have a seatbelt.

Well, the problem with the grandfather clause that we put in place is it’s almost like we said to folks, you got to buy a new car, even if you can’t afford it right now.  And sooner or later, folks are going to start trading in their old cars.  But we don’t need — if their life circumstance is such where, for now at least, they want to keep the old car, even if the new car is better, we should be able to give them that option.  And that’s what we want to do.”

Think You’re Young and Invincible? You’re Young, Yes. Invincible? Maybe Not.

Life was getting underway the day I found a suspicious lump. My first book had just been published and was being received well in my field. I was traveling and speaking about a new research project. The phone kept ringing and there was little time to think.

I figured that was the reason why my weight was falling. It was one of those good side benefits of a busy schedule. Why worry about a pea-sized lump? Lots of women have those and they turn out to be nothing. Coincidentally, that was exactly what my gynecologist said it was: nothing but a cyst.

Two more visits to that doctor resulted in him telling me that, at my age and with my family history, there was nothing to worry about and I should get on with life. He refused my request for a mammogram, suggesting that I should relax. I gave relaxation a try until a friend told me, “You look bad. If you don’t go see your GP for another opinion, I’m not going to talk to you.” There were dark lines under my eyes and I was becoming tired and downright skinny. I took her advice. It was cancer.

When I read about young people declining to sign up for health insurance, I remember back to that time. Sure, it’s great to be young. One of the best things is thinking you have a long time before you need to worry about your body giving you major problems. And isn’t life a gamble anyway?

I’m sure many young people reason this way and to some extent they’re right. Having spent a significant part of my career studying how people reason about health, it’s no surprise to me that weighing the odds causes a good many of us to take risks.

Yet, there is no such thing as a “young invincible,” the term currently bandied about to describe adults under the age of 35.

It’s not their fault if the system is unresponsive when they attempt to learn their insurance options. But it is their responsibility, to themselves and their families, to make sure that if something does go wrong — as it often does — their insurance will afford them the care that could save their lives.

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The Real Fix? The Exchanges Aren’t Working. Here’s Why …

Last week President Obama announced that he will try to keep his oft repeated promise to Americans in the individual market that they can keep their plans if they like them … for a year. The media have done an excellent job explaining why President Obama’s temporary patch to the ACA may endanger its existence; in the process the American public has learned more than it ever wanted to about adverse selection, cream skimming, and most importantly crass politics.

Though the full costs of adverse selection will be muted in the first year by risk corridors and reinsurance, it is clear that the failing website, the bad press, and the recently announced delay are placing maximal stress on even those backup provisions of the bill.

Even if the ACA survives this additional insult against the economics that support its very existence, we have witnessed yet another missed opportunity for positive reform to President Obama’s signature legislative achievement. And this time we can’t just blame intransigent tea-party Republicans and their quixotic efforts at repeal; here the buck stops at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW.

While many of the plans that are affected by the President’s temporary patch might actually be plans that don’t qualify as “insurance” (i.e. they have low lifetime caps on expenditures or don’t cover hospital services), numerous others actually offer quite good coverage that just don’t meet the exceptionally high standards of the newly developed minimum essential health benefit (EHB).

In many ways, the first dollar coverage for preventive care and the wide ranging number of services covered by the ACA aren’t truly insurance either. Instead, these features amount to a very generous pre-payment plan for medical services supported by the United States treasury.

These elements of the EHB are too costly and unnecessary. Perhaps even more concerning, they are just the ante. As time goes on, vested interests for everything not included in the EHB will work tirelessly to insure that their favorite benefits are included. If you want evidence of this eventuality, you need look no further than the remarkably long and growing list of benefits mandated by most states.

Keep in mind that as the EHB grows more generous the premiums and subsidies on the exchanges will also grow. And we know who will pay their “fair share” of those increases.

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