Does it matter whether health insurance exchanges are state-level or national? I used to think that it wasn’t a major issue, but my opinion has changed.
During the health reform debate early in 2009, I thought that other exchange design issues were more important than whether they are organized at the state or national level. In my view, who is eligible to join (all small business employees or just those who receive subsidies?), whether the exchange is the exclusive market for individuals and small groups, and how the exchange will be protected from an adverse selection “death spiral” are critical design features and will determine whether the exchanges are successful.
It seemed to me that the arguments put forward by advocates of a national exchange were not compelling. The most common argument was that a national exchange was needed in order to gain sufficient size, which would supposedly give the exchange more bargaining power with health insurers. But I always thought that size was more important at the local level. Health insurers negotiate provider contracts locally, not nationally, and they gain leverage based on their size locally regardless of how big they are nationwide. In addition, the “bargaining power” argument is relevant only if the exchange is negotiating rates with insurers. In an “all comers” model, the exchange isn’t negotiating rates; it relies on healthy competition among insurers to drive down premiums.
Now that the Senate has passed its version of health care reform along partisan lines, let’s look ahead to the single biggest issue that will draw the most heat in conference: The tax on so-called “Cadillac plans,” the largest revenue raiser in the Senate legislation.
As regular readers of this blog know, I consider it ill-considered and unfair, a tax on people stuck in expensive plans because they belong to groups with older and sicker beneficiaries who use more health services; small groups generally; or who live in areas with expensive delivery systems. The idea that taxing those plans will somehow encourage people to reduce their utilization is wishful thinking that ignores who actually makes health care decisions — doctors, hospitals, drug companies, and other providers.
It also ignores why most people use health care — it’s because they are sick. The latest research shows less than 4% of the higher cost of some plans is due to extra benefits. Most of the rest is due to the higher claims of people in those more expensive plans, or the fact that the plans cover people in areas with expensive medicine.
On Monday, liberals sneered when insurers’ stocks rose, indicating that speculators thought ObamaCare (HR 3590) would be good for the big regional companies. But today several of the stocks are sinking, probably in response to University of Chicago Professor Richard A. Epstein’s op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, “Harry Reid turns insurance into a public utility; the health bill creates a massive cash crunch and then bankruptcies for many insurers.”
Here are charts for AET, CI, CVH, HS, HUM, UNH and WLP. Click on a chart for more information. The stocks that are sinking serve the individual and small group markets. Those that are rising are less invested in those markets, I think.
Now, the big companies might benefit from having smaller insurers that serve individuals and small employers bankrupted. But they would be crushed by new regulations and price controls that would not allow them to make profits. Nothing in the bill says insurers should be allowed to earn market returns. That means they’re as likely to go bankrupt as the smaller insurers.
Epstein’s impact graph:
The perils of the Reid bill are made evident in a recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report that focused on the bill’s rebate program, which holds that once an insurance company spends more than 10% of its revenues on administrative expenses, its customers are entitled to an indefinite statutory rebate determined by state regulatory authorities subject to oversight by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Defining these administrative costs is a royal headache, but everyone agrees that they are heaviest in the small group and individual markets, where they typically range between 25% and 30%, without the new regulatory hassles.
Equally important, Epstein writes, the bill would turn insurers into heavily regulated utilities without giving them the right to make market rate returns on investments, which is unconstitutional.
That the bill appears unconstitutional may be good news for insurers, but think of the uncertainty that investors in insurers will face for years as the courts take their time deciding the case.
How will the Senate bill impact health insurance companies and their customers?
Even better, how will it impact a not-for-profit health plan–one with a reputation for being a “good guy” that continually wins the country’s top awards for member services and with historic profits of less than 1% of premium? And, one that is operating in Massachusetts–a market that has already been through much of this?
I will suggest that, in combination, these are three intriguing questions.
That is why I thought that the Harvard Pilgrim’s CEO’s recent post on their website was important. It is short, direct, and to the point. And, from everything I know, it is bang-on.
Last week, the Congressional Budget Office weighed in on the biggest economic imponderable in the health care debate: how private health insurance premiums will behave under health reform. Building on its December 2008 CBO health insurance market analysis, CBO forecast largely benign effects from health reform’s private market reforms and subsidies on the vast majority of the presently insured (e.g. voting public).
According to CBO, only 17% of Americans in the so-called non-group market–largely individuals–would see premium increases in 2016 (the CBO reference year), because they would be required to purchase fatter benefits with less economic risk. CBO believes that the other 83% of the presently insured will see little or no change.
Analysis of how the health insurance market will behave under health reform has become ferociously politicized. After the infamous PriceWaterhouseCoopers study sponsored by health insurers suggested possible large premium increases, the CBO report might provide cover for members of Congress who are contemplating irreversibly tying the federal budget to a volatile “private” insurance market. I think the fiscal risks of a partially federalized private health benefit are significantly greater than CBO has suggested.
By DOUGLAS BLAYNEY, MD
Amid hundreds of amendments offered in the health care reform debate, there is a non-partisan, non-controversial gem that will both help patients and speed the search for new cures to deadly diseases.
Senators Sherrod Brown [D-OH] and Kay Bailey Hutchison [R-TX] have proposed an amendment that would encourage patients with life-threatening diseases or conditions to participate in clinical trials by requiring private insurers to cover patients’ routine care. It is essential that the Senate pass this amendment as part of health care reform.
As a cancer physician, I can speak to the benefits of clinical trials in my field of oncology. Virtually every advance in cancer prevention, screening, and treatment over the last 40 years can be traced directly to clinical trials – colonoscopies; curative treatment for testicular cancer; improved survival for most pediatric cancers; chemotherapy after surgery to prevent recurrence; new personalized therapies that target specific characteristics of cancer cells; and symptom management. Thanks primarily to the knowledge gained through clinical trials, today two-thirds of cancer patients survive at least five years after diagnosis, compared with only half in the 1970s.Continue reading…
I had an interesting call from a member of the legal profession the other day, and it got me thinking about the post-reform prospects for my own particular collection of bete noirs—the insurers who prey on desperate people in the individual market. Yes, you can expect the subject of Mega Life & Health to appear later in this article.
Now some dummies are starting to complain about what, to this point, have been broadly accepted parts of the upcoming reform legislation. Robert Samuelson is a typical advantaged recipient of community-rated insurance yet complains about the same concept being extended outside his community-rated group made up of Washington Post employees. AARP suggests in response that he should be sending (his much younger WaPo colleague) Ezra Klein a check, as Ezra is in effect subsidizing Samuelson’s health insurance.
While the political cognoscenti is struggling with the public option and payment rates to rural hospitals (and other bribes needed for DINO Senators from Nebraska & Louisiana, and the NEDINO one from Connecticut), the real issue of health insurance regulation is getting scant attention. In particular three huge issues remain to be resolved:
I've had this sitting in my inbox a while, but I thought that with the Senate bill out it was time to have a bit of weekend fun with it. The topic is the fear that a public option/government-run health plan/Hitler-ization of America (delete where applicable) will of necessity put all those worthy private health plans out of business. And worse because it will impose government's lower pay rates on providers, it'll also put them out of business, or at least into a position equivalent to that of Ukrainian peasants working on a collectivized farm.
Everywhere you go in the hospital world you hear complaints that Medicare pays less than private payers, and that the private insurance business is the only thing keeping providers alive.
Everywhere but Orark mountains of southwest Missouri and Northeast Arkansas.
Paul Taylor is the CEO of a tiny hospital system there called Ozarks Community Hospital. It's basically a safety net hospital and it only gets about 5% of its business from the leading commercial insurer, Blues of Missouri–part of Wellpoint. And does Wellpoint pay more for its patients than Medicare?
In fact this chart shows that it pays less than half in many cases. I thoroughly recommend you read Pauls blog piece on the topic from which I lifted that chart. It's an entertaining, detailed and sensible read.
But what he's saying is that a public option will be better for hospitals serving lower-income populations than a simple expansion of private insurance.
It can be challenging to find an organ donor for someone who needs a transplant. But when a donor and desperately sick person are matched up, living donors should not be “punished” for their gift, especially by the health insurance industry.
This is a little-known aspect of the health care debate that should be brought to light — the fact that there is nothing that prevents health insurance companies from either denying coverage or charging higher premiums to those who donate an organ by categorizing them as people with “pre-existing conditions.”
This lack of regulation makes it potentially difficult for donors to get health insurance after giving the gift of life.
Here’s a health care reform strategy that I have not heard anywhere else. Think about this:
Why aren’t health plans more aggressive in promoting the long-term health of their members, like getting them to eat better, stop smoking, get a little exercise, and all that? Because of “churn.” For something that has immediate consequences, helping their members stay healthy has an immediate payoff for the health plans. But most of the big things that would make you healthier take a longer time to manifest: You quit smoking or start eating better, you will have a much better health profile in five years, but it won’t make as much of a difference in, say, one year.
“Churn” is the industry term for the annual percentage of members who leave a health plan, and it can be surprisingly high. If each year 20 percent of a health plan’s members go to some other health plan for whatever reason (they move, lose their job, change employers, get Medicare, find a better deal), then it is not worth it for the health plan to invest in their members’ long-term health. If the health plan invests time and effort (which means money) to get you to quit smoking, and you then quit and become someone else’s customer, they lose that investment – and the other company gains, by getting a customer who is less likely to need expensive long-term treatments.
But what if they did not lose that investment?