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Adjusting for Risk Adjustment

Risk adjustment in health insurance is at first glance, and second, among the driest and most arcane of subjects. And yet, like the fine print on a variable-rate mortgage, it can matter enormously. It may make the difference between a healthy market and a sick one.

The market for individual health insurance has had major challenges both before and after the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) risk adjustment program came along. Given recent changes from Washington, like the removal of the individual mandate, the market now needs all the help it can get. Unfortunately, risk adjustment under the ACA has been an example of a well-meaning regulation that has had destructive impacts directly contrary to its intent. It has caused insurer collapses and market exits that reduced competition. It has also led to upstarts, small plans and unprofitable ones paying billions of dollars to larger, more established and profitable insurers.

Many of these transfers since the ACA rules took effect in 2014 have gone from locally-based non-profit health plans to multi-state for-profit organizations. The payments have hampered competition not just in the individual market, which has never worked very well in the U.S., but in the small group market, which arguably didn’t need “help” from risk adjustment in many states.

The sense of urgency to fix these problems may be dissipating now that the initial rush for market share under the ACA is over and plans have enough actuarial data to predict costs better. There has been an overall shift to profitability. But it would be a serious mistake to think that just because fewer plans are under water, the current approach to risk adjustment isn’t distorting markets and harming competition.

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