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What the California Rate Increases Should Tell Us

flying cadeuciiThe weighted average increase for plans being sold on the Obamacare California public exchange in 2015 will be 4%. So, that means Obamacare is working really well, right?

Well, wait a minute.

Let’s consider a few things:

  1. This week the California insurance commissioner reported that the average unsubsidized 2014 rate increase carriers charged going into Obamacare was between 22% and 88%. That was a pretty healthy bump (I’ll call it a bump because “Rate Shock” didn’t happen) to get everyone into Obamacare in the first place. And remember, many of these consumers are now in narrow networks in California to boot.
  2. California voters will go to the polls this fall to vote on Proposition 45. That ballot initiative would regulate health insurance rates in California for the first time––something the carriers are dead set against. Big rate increases on part of the carriers would do a lot to get that proposition passed and very low increases would do a lot toward defeating it. The state’s largest carriers have so far made $25 million in political contributions to defeat Prop 45.
  3. The health plans competing in the Obamacare exchanges are limited to very small losses this year because of the Obamacare reinsurance program that runs through 2016. In effect, anymore underpricing the insurers put into their rates for 2015 is subsidized by the federal government. In fact, the Obama administration recently took the statutory caps off of how much they can pay the carriers to keep their bottom line whole.

So, let’s summarize.

The California insurance commissioner has said that consumers saw individual health insurance rate increases of 22% to 88% to get into Obamacare in the first place.

There is a highly contentious November ballot initiative facing the health plans they absolutely do not want to see passed, that would put the government in charge of their rate setting in future years, giving the carriers every incentive to low-ball the 2015 rates so voters don’t have any more incentive to vote for it.

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In Which Your Author Does the Math

Healthcare.gov appears to be working much better, at least in enabling individuals to select plans. And some of the state exchange web sites appear to be improving their functionality too. Some have heralded these advances as providing hope that the Exchanges will be able to meet the enrollment projections on which the economics of insurance without medical underwriting in part depend. But do these claims stand up to the cold light of mathematics?  Not very well.

Here’s the headline:

A close look at the numbers shows that the pace of enrollments from here to the close of open enrollment needed to meet projections is high in every state, even those touted as successful, and almost impossibly high in many.  Given the incredibly slow start in most jurisdictions, it will not just take a little pickup over the next few months to achieve the projected and needed number of persons in the Exchanges. It will take a miraculous last minute stampede. Since miracles seldom occur,  the result may be two different stories of the Affordable Care Act: a few states in which the Exchanges proved from the start to be a somewhat stable mechanism for providing health insurance without medical underwriting but a significant number of other states in which the results for at least the first year represent a large failure.

Recent News

News appears to be breaking out
that the federal exchanges enrolled about 100,000 in November.  This is being heralded as somewhat of a success compared to the 26,000 who enrolled in October. And, of course, enrollment figures from healthcare.gov are difficult to assess due to the actual and feared dysfunctionality of the web site. But one way to look at this is to consider what has to happen between December 1, 2013, and March 23, 2014, the close of open enrollment to make projections. The states that are dependent on healthcare.gov need about 4.84 million enrollees by the end of that period if the nation is to meet the goal of having 7 million enrolled in the Exchanges by the close of open enrollment.  If, right now, there are about 126,000 enrollees in those states, we are just 2.5% of the way there.

The pace of enrollment on healthcare.gov will need to increase by a factor of about 20 in order to meet goal.  In absolute terms, healthcare.gov needs to be enrolling about 42,000 people per day. And while perhaps not every single one of those people need to enroll for the system to succeed, the 7 million enrollment goal isn’t just a mere wish. There are, as I and many others have noted potentially serious consequences to the stability of insurance markets if the figures fall well short, even in several states.

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