By LAWRENCE LEISURE
When it comes to health care prices, the burden piled on payers can seem almost cartoonishly heavy. News stories on the state of the industry read as though some satirist decided to exaggerate real systemic flaws into cost-prohibitive fiction. A particularly painful example hit the presses earlier this year, when a writer for Reuters revealed that the cost of a full course of oncology treatment skyrocketed from $30,447 in 2006 to $161,141 in the last few years. The change was so unbelievable as to verge on dark comedy — but there isn’t much to find funny in the situation when lives and health outcomes are on the line.
For the average employee in my home of Silicon Valley, the price crunch is challenging regardless the size of your paycheck. For local employers, however, the dilemma can be even more pointed. Today, employees of companies, large and small, expect their employer to provide comprehensive health care benefits and are largely unaware of or insensitive to the factors exacerbating market problems today. Providing these benefits, however, is easier said than done.
Employers and insurers alike face a multitude of barriers to connecting employees with affordable care. Recent research suggests that prices will increase at an average clip of 5.8% annually between now and 2024, well above the expected rate of inflation. Even worse, the increased consolidation of healthcare providers has drastically undermined the negotiating power that payers would otherwise have in more competitive markets. In Northern California, for example, major health systems, including Sutter Health, sparked outrage and protest as they have managed to amass enough of the region’s hospitals, outpatient facilities, and primary care offices to diminish regional competitors and set what many view as unacceptably high rates — all the while knowing that the lack of local competition makes it challenging for the major health insurers to push back.
Prior to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), with 47 million Americans uninsured, advocates and policy experts focused on expanding health insurance coverage for those who lacked it. Now that the law has broadened access to insurance, states are turning their attention to protecting enrollees from disruptions when they transition from one type of coverage to another, movement known as churn.
Churn is typically caused by a change in eligibility status, which itself stems from fluctuations in income, loss of a job, or changes in family circumstance, such as pregnancy. Short of a system, such as single-payer, where people may stay on the same plan for most of their lives, churn is inevitable. Indeed, in our fragmented health insurance system, millions of people naturally churn over the course of a given year, moving from employer-provided insurance to private insurance, or from private insurance to Medicaid, and so on. At low income levels, employment is particularly unstable, leading to high levels of churn among that population. For example, a newly-eligible Medicaid beneficiary (in an expansion state) who experiences a change in income over the course of a year—such as picking up an extra retail job during the holiday season—may lose his or her Medicaid eligibility as a result. Switching over to the exchange for new coverage could mean a totally different network of doctors, new drug formularies, and higher premiums and cost-sharing, not to mention the complexity and burden of going through a new and different enrollment process.
Is the ACA to blame for churn? No—in fact, the ACA directly reduces one form of churning, and offers tools to mitigate the impact of other forms. Before the ACA, millions churned off insurance coverage for all the reasons mentioned above. And after losing coverage, many people—especially those with preexisting conditions—found it hard, if not impossible, to get it back. Because the ACA makes the individual health insurance market more accessible and affordable, the law creates a new culture of coverage with a continuum of options, and actually cuts down on churning into uninsured status.