By A. MARK FENDRICK, MD
It’s great news to read headlines that the average health-insurance premium will drop by 4% next year in the 38 states using federal Obamacare exchanges. As millions of Americans entered open enrollment this year to choose their health insurance plans, it is important to remember that premiums are only one of the ways that we pay for our medical coverage.
many plans lower premiums (paid by everyone) often mean a higher deductible —
or paying more out-of-pocket before insurance coverage kicks in. This burden is
paid only by those who use medical care services.
Deductibles are rising, and so is the number of
Americans enrolled in so-called high-deductible health plans
(HDHPs). Thus, more people with health insurance are being asked to pay
full price for all their care, regardless of its clinical value. Although
it may be better for many people with significant medical needs (and less
disposable income) to avoid plans with high deductibles, more and more people
who receive health insurance through their employer no longer have a choice
except to choose a plan with hefty costs in addition to premiums.
By WILLIAM ROSENBERG
A ‘single-payer’ plan is a target on the back of its supporters. But what about a ‘Medicare Public-Private Partnership’?
MOUNT VERNON — In February 2017, President Trump famously said: “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” Nobody other than about 99.9 percent of the almost 300 million people in the U.S. with insurance, that is. Yesterday, I received a copy of “Get to know your benefits,” the 236-page “booklet” for my new health plan. Like most people, I’ll never read the book, but its weight alone says “complicated.”
And it’s safe to guess that Trump also will never read his Federal Employee Health Plan information, even though one Aetna choice available to him has a “brochure” of only 184 pages. Thinking about the amount of information available to health insurance plan consumers, I began to wonder what Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar meant, also last February, when he said, “Americans need more choices in health insurance so they can find coverage that meets their needs.”
Presumably, were we to have more choices, we could study the hundreds of pages of information about each available plan and make better choices. According to the federal Office of Personnel Management, federal employees who live at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C. 20500, have a choice of 35 monthly plans. Too bad the president doesn’t live in Maine, where he’d have only 20 plans to study!
How many times have I talked about rate shock, the millions of people who would be getting cancellation letters from their current health plan, and the problem of people having to put up with more narrow networks?
And, how many times have those predictions been met by push back and spin: Today’s policies are just junk and people will be better off finding lower cost health insurance under Obamacare.
I have been in this business for 40 years. I know junk health insurance when I see it and I know “Cadillac” health insurance when I see it.
Right now I have “Cadillac” health insurance. I can access every provider in the national Blue Cross network––about every doc and hospital in America––without a referral and without higher deductibles and co-pays. I value that given my travels and my belief that who your provider is makes a big difference. Want to go to Mayo? No problem. Want to go to the Cleveland Clinic? No problem. Need to get to Queens in Honolulu? No problem.
So, I get this letter from my health plan. It says I can’t keep my current coverage because my plan isn’t good enough under Obamacare rules. It tells me to go to the exchange or their website and pick a new plan before January 1 or I will lose coverage.
First, the best I can get in a Blue Cross network plan are HMOs or HMO/Point-of-Service plans. In the core network those plans offer, I would have to go to fewer providers than I can go to now in the MD/DC/VA market. And, the core network has no providers beyond my area. I can go to the broader Blues network but only if I pay another big deductible for out-of-network coverage.
Last week, I reported on my informal survey of health insurance companies and their estimate for how much rates will rise on account of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).
Today, there are press reports quoting the CEO of Aetna with their estimate. The Aetna estimate is worse than mine.
Health insurance premiums may as much as double for some small businesses and individual buyers in the U.S. when the Affordable Care Act’s major provisions start in 2014, Aetna Inc. (AET)’s chief executive officer said.
While subsidies in the law will shield some people, other consumers who make too much for assistance are in for “premium rate shock,” Mark Bertolini, who runs the third-biggest U.S. health-insurance company, told analysts yesterday at a conference in New York. The prospect has spurred discussion of having Congress delay or phase in parts of the law, he said.
“We’ve shared it all with the people in Washington and I think it’s a big concern,” the CEO said. “We’re going to see some markets go up as much as as 100 percent.”
At our first meeting years ago, Tom Emerick, Walmart’s then VP of Global Benefits, told me,
“No industry can grow indefinitely at a multiple of general inflation. It will eventually become so expensive that purchasers will simply abandon it.”
He said it casually, as though it was obvious and indisputable.
Health care is playing out this way. From 1999 to 2011, health care premium inflation grew steadily at 4 times the general inflation rate. During that same period, the percentage of non-elderly Americans with employer-sponsored health coverage fell from 69.2 to 58.6 percent, a 15.3 percent erosion rate.
Health care’s boosters like to argue that it has buttressed the economy, and that it means more jobs and economic prosperity within a community. A February 2011 Altarum Institute report estimated that private sector health care jobs now account for nearly 11 percent of total employment. Since the recession began in December 2007, health care employment has risen by 6.3 percent while employment in other industry sectors fell by 6.8 percent.
But there’s a darker side. Health care’s ever-increasing revenue growth has come at the expense of individuals and firms that pay its bills, directly through health plan premiums, and through taxes, often instead of buying other goods and services. It transfers wealth to health care from everyone else. Like the finance services industry, health care has become a disproportionate “taker” industry, sapping economic vitality from America’s communities.
You may have received a refund check in the past few months from your health insurer. This is not your individual reward for staying healthy; it is your insurer’s punishment for making too much money because you did.
Obamacare includes what the health care technocracy calls the “MLR rule” – minimum requirements for medical-loss ratios – or the percentage of premiums collected by health insurers that must be spent on medical care or refunded. The inverse of the MLR is the percentage spent on administration and marketing, and earned as profit. Obamacare sets minimum MLRs of 80 percent for individual and small group plans, and 85 percent for large groups.
Aside from its obvious populist appeal, this profit regulation mechanism signifies a belief, now enshrined in legislation, that health insurance markets do not work. Without such a rule, the architects of Obamacare believe, insurers can name their prices, however inflated, and we all just pay.
In the short term, that is true. Most health insurance plans price only once per year, are subject to long delays in cost trending information and multi-year underwriting cycles, and endure the meddling of a carnival midway’s worth of employee benefits tinkerers, agents, brokers, consultants, and other conflicted middlemen. But in the long term, over multiple annual cycles, premiums do rise and fall, and the health insurance industry’s fortunes with them.
The fight is on — again. Mitt Romney, Scott Brown, and Republicans across this country are doubling down against President Obama’s health care reform law. Now that the Supreme Court has said that most of the new law passes constitutional muster, the Republicans are running for office pledging to repeal every aspect of the health care reforms.
For millions of people this isn’t a political issue, it’s a personal one. Their health depends on it.
Massachusetts has led the country in health care reform. Most of us — 98 percent — have health care coverage, and our state leads the country in tackling head-on the ever-growing costs of health care. That is why President Obama used our law as a model for health care reform. But the national Affordable Care Act adds some important elements that improve care even here in Massachusetts.
For seniors, health care reform means expanding Medicare coverage to pick up the costs of prescription drugs. As the donut hole closes, the average Massachusetts senior has so far saved about $650. But Mitt Romney, Scott Brown, and their fellow Republicans want to take that away.
For young people, health care reform means staying on their parents’ insurance plans until they are 26. So far, more than 20,000 young people here in Massachusetts have taken advantage of this. But Romney, Brown, and their fellow Republicans want to take that away.
Not to be overly dramatic, but for me the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act was a matter of life and death. Because the law was largely upheld, I will be able to continue receiving treatment for breast cancer.
I was one of the early beneficiaries of the law. When I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer late last year, I had no health insurance, which meant my options were extremely limited. No insurer would pick up someone in my circumstances. But luckily, the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan had already kicked in, and it made it possible for me to purchase insurance under a government program.
I was uninsured not because I’m a lazy, freeloading deadbeat but because my husband and I are self-employed. We had been purchasing health insurance on the individual market along with 6% of the rest of the population. But after exhausting all of our resources trying to keep up with premiums of $1,500 a month, we had no choice but to cancel it.
Of all the provisions of the ACA, probably none has received greater attention from health insurers than the exchanges. Though the exchanges are expected to be the conduit for just a small fraction of all the insured at their start in 2014, they will be where most of the growth in health insurance lies. Given the rule that the individual exchanges must be integrated with Medicaid, their role will be critical for any insurer that wants to compete and grow in the individual or Medicaid markets. The dominance of the exchanges for growth in the small group and even the Medicare markets may not be not far behind. It should be no surprise if, eventually, all fully-insured business goes through the exchanges, leaving only self-insured plans outside.
So getting it right matters. Now is the time to think hard about getting it right, before the exchanges are created and inertia sets in. And, as some have argued, getting it right means that we think about the exchanges as places for people to choose their health care, not just their health insurance. So how should we do that?
Here is what we should not do: make it easy to choose care without considering both the quality and the cost of care delivered by the care system. It would be an enormous lost opportunity to improve consumer attitudes towards health care if we built the exchanges to make it easy for people to reason: “I like doctor A. Doctor A accepts insurance products X, Y and Z. Of these three, insurance product X seems to have the lowest cost, so I’ll choose product X.”
Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of the administration’s health law, aka ObamaCare. Opponents are giddy with the possibility that the law might be struck down.
But what then? Millions of uninsured, both those who choose not to purchase coverage and those who can’t due to pre-existing conditions, will still be with us. The rising costs and inefficient delivery of health care will still be with us.
The country can have a vibrant market for individual health insurance. Insurance proper is what pays for unplanned large expenses, not for regular, predictable expenses. Insurance policies should be “guaranteed renewable”: The policy should include a right to purchase insurance in the future, no matter if you get sick. And insurance should follow you from job to job, and if you move across state lines.
Why don’t we have such markets? Because the government has regulated them out of existence.
Most pathologies in the current system are creatures of previous laws and regulations. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli explained as much in his opening statement to the Supreme Court: “The individual market does not provide affordable health insurance,” he noted, “because the multibillion dollar subsidies that are available” for the “employer market are not available in the individual market.”
Start with the tax deduction employers can take for their contributions to group health-insurance policies—but which they cannot take for making contributions to employees for individual, portable insurance policies. This is why you have insurance only so long as you stay with one employer, and why you face pre-existing conditions exclusions if you change jobs.