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Tag: Health Plans

What Exactly Are Insurers Canceling? And Why?

A THCB reader in New York writes in:

There is one aspect of the ACA that isn’t being discussed a lot, but is pertinent to the future landscape of health care in this country — the extent to which the ACA is causing a sort of reset, or wiping of the slate, when it comes to insurance policies and procedures.

Previously, there were multiple insurers and multiple policies, many of which had been around for a long time.  If an insurer wanted to suddenly change providers in its network, ratchet down provider reimbursement, alter covered procedures or make other adjustments, this was feasible, but too much of a change would entail an outcry limiting insurers’ freedom of action.  The overall system had a certain air of stability or inertia, making any changes stand out, any big changes cause for scrutiny and possibly rebellion.

Now, with the ACA, everything is being tossed up in the air and when things land, much can and will be different.  Some changes are mandated by the ACA, such as minimum coverage, and insurers are cancelling inadequate policies, substituting very different ones.  But even when a policy doesn’t need to be changed, insurers will justify change by pointing to the ACA.

“Given the requirements of the ACA, we must make certain changes to your policy. In particular…”

We are at the beginning of a totally new insurance landscape, even if most of the insurers remain the same.  The public has been primed to expect major change and insurance companies will certainly make use of this expectation.

The result is likely to be more restrictive networks, decreased reimbursements to providers and other measures to limit cost.  Everything is now up for grabs.

If you have questions about the Affordable Care Act or your buying insurance on the federal state exchanges, drop us a a note. We’ll publish the good submissions.

The Obamacare Slippery Slope–What’s Your “Hardship?”

As of this morning, here are the new rules.

If you had a health insurance policy that was cancelled, you are now exempt from the individual mandate and its tax penalty should you not decide to buy a replacement policy. In addition, you can now sign up for the very high deductible Catastrophic Plan that was originally reserved only for those under the age of 30.

If you did not have a health insurance policy that was cancelled, you are still subject to the individual mandate and you are not entitled any special treatment toward signing up for the Catastrophic Plan. You must pay the full price for an exchange plan and accept whatever out-of-pocket costs and network limits it might have for the money.

The administration made this change under the “hardship” provisions already part of the law. They have simply defined hardship as having lost your old individual plan and your not being able to find something without it being a “hardship” to purchase, presumably over price or coverage.

This change was brought about when a number of Democratic Senators, some of them facing a tough reelection battle, demanded this concession.

The change was made without consulting the health insurance industry and it was a surprise to them. It is another Obamacare change months after their 2014 rates were set under the presumption all of these cancelled policyholders would be paying a lot more premium into the pool than they pay today.

One has to believe this will not be the last concession to Democrats under reelection pressure.

One has to wonder how this can’t other than undermine further how people feel about Obamacare––particularly its fairness––and taking their “social responsibility” to sign-up seriously.

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Data Points: More Backroom Chaos and Low State Numbers

Shifting Millennial Attitudes on Obamacare December 2013.
Harvard Institute of Politics. Dec 4th, 2013. Poll

A few observations after 10 weeks of Obamacare implementation.

The Obama administration released the first two months enrollment figures this week. With HealthCare.gov still struggling in November, the enrollment of 137,000 people in the 36 states was expected. The main event for the federal exchanges will play out in December now that most people can navigate it

What I found notable in the report was the lack of robust enrollment in the states. In states where the exchange has been running at least adequately for many weeks now, the enrollment numbers are far from what I would have expected.

California enrolled 107,000 people in private plans in the first two months. But California has cancelled 800,000 current individual health plans effective January 1––all of whom have to buy a new plan by January 1 or become uninsured. The only place those who are subsidy eligible can get a subsidized plan is in the California exchange.

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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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