With the ACA exchange enrollment deadline almost behind us, this is a good time to take a look at the big picture.
Three years after the first baby steps of implementation, what has the ACA accomplished?
When we consider the ACA, we can think of two broad goals. The “easy” goal was expanding coverage to the uninsured. We say “easy” because regulators should be able to succeed by simply throwing money at the problem, and that is a task our elected officials seem particularly adept at accomplishing.
The “hard” goal was bringing down the rate of growth in health care spending.
This has proven to be a difficult task for policy makers, who have been trying (and failing) for decades and have often done more harm than good.
We first consider the goal of expanding coverage to the uninsured. From its onset, the ACA chalked up a small victory by requiring plans to continue coverage for dependents under age 26.
This provided coverage to as many as three million uninsured, albeit the healthiest members of the population. The lion’s share of the reduction in the numbers of uninsured was supposed to come from Medicaid expansions and private exchanges.
And here is where the problems emerge.
Medicaid ranks have swelled in the 27 states (including DC) that have chosen to expand the program. Republican leadership in other states continue to assert they will not expand Medicaid, but given the exceptionally generous federal funding for this expansion, we find it hard to believe that most of these states won’t soon join the expansion.
After all, even Louisiana eventually raised its drinking age to 21 to get its share of federal highway funding. Similarly, we can’t imagine that the red states will turn down billions of dollars in federal funds.
All eyes are on the hullaballoo created by the challenges at Healthcare.gov and several of the states’ public insurance exchanges. Yet all the while, like in a magic show, attention has been diverted from the real action going on elsewhere. Quietly and in a relatively drama-free way, the private health insurance exchanges are busily taking over the world of insurance and, in my opinion, portend a radical set of changes in how our health insurance system operates.
Several years back, a number of companies began building private health insurance exchanges to initially help companies offload the incredible burden of retiree benefits. Companies such as Extend Health (now owned by Towers Watson), Senior Educators (now owned by Aon), and several others provided a way for large employers to get themselves out of the business (and balance sheet liability) of providing group benefits for retirees, instead providing them with money to purchase their own individual health policies through then small, now large companies. The private exchanges went about the business of building websites that work, call centers that buzz and a wide array of insurance product offerings at various prices. Now, several years later, hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of individuals are out there shopping their little hearts out, choosing their own plans, and dealing with the consequences of high deductibles and the like.
These various private exchanges are now poised and ready to begin serving active employees in 2014 as guaranteed issue (the requirement that all can be insured and no one turned away) goes into effect as a result of the Affordable Care Act. And lest you think this is a small marketplace, you are wrong. In 2008 there were about 120 million total employed workers and just over half of these worked for companies of 500 employees and above (39 million worked for companies with 5000 employees or more). In other words, we are talking about nearly half of American adults and that doesn’t even include the dependents they bring along into their insurance plan.
Interestingly, such large US employers as Walgreens and Petco and DineEquity (parent company of Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar® and IHOP® restaurants) are all-in on the private exchange program, committing to transfer all of their employees from group plans to the exchange to purchase individual plans come January 2014. The exchanges of Towers, Aon, Mercer, Buck Consultants and a plethora of others are alive and well and open for business at exactly the time when employers are trying to figure out how fast they can reasonably get out of the middle of health insurance administration and run for the hills.
As of last week, the heart of Obamacare is upon us with the opening of the health insurance exchanges (HIXs). And while some think this represents the heart of darkness, it is hard to imagine that anything will stop January 1, 2014 from coming and, with it, a new legal requirement for all Americans to have health insurance.
Ushering in this new world order, the HIXs are essentially a “Match.com” to put people together with insurance products, representing a way that, for the first time, Americans will directly purchase healthcare without the prospect of being denied coverage or having their employers buy on their behalf.
In fact, the new HIXs create a direct relationship between consumers and health insurers in a way that has never existed before, and with that comes the need to fundamentally disrupt traditional methods of delivering health insurance products. Not since the advent of employer-paid health insurance after World War II or the start of the Medicare program in 1966 has there been such a broad-scale opportunity for health system transformation.
There are few markets that are mandated by law to include virtually every single American man, woman and child, making the opportunity particularly juicy to investors. For those entrepreneurs who figure out how to transfer the secret sauce from cheeseburgers that impair health to insurance-related products and services that improve it, the next few years offer an opportunity to turn market confusion into gold.
Among the biggest opportunities are investments in technologies and services that power the new healthcare exchanges. Venture-backed companies, such as GetInsured.com, have emerged to provide the various state-sponsored exchanges with the back-end technology that enable comparison-shopping, financial transactions and enrollment support essential to operating the HIX marketplaces.
But while state and federal healthcare insurance exchanges are the main topic of conversation this week, much of the real action has and will continue to take place in private exchanges serving the large and small employer market, particularly as employers do the math and figure out it may be in their financial best interest to end their role as benefit plan intermediaries.
NPR ran a story recently about how some retailers are retooling efforts to appeal to consumers in light of increased competition, particularly from online vendors.
Many are striving to be more “customer friendly”; Kohl’s department store was mentioned for adopting a “no questions asked” return policy with the idea that customer loyalty could be enhanced as the retailer made itself easier to do business with.
Comparisons between health care and retail abound, and while we say it is ideal for the consumer experience to be the same in both industries, in fact they are much different. The gap between the two industries was well-illustrated in this video of a shopper in a grocery store. We see them at the counter having their items rung up. But they aren’t told the prices and when they are given the receipt at the end, they’re told the final amount due may actually differ from what they see on the receipt.
Let’s take the analogy a step further: what if the customer expected the same “no questions asked” return policy from Kohl’s? Or a money back guarantee? In health care, only recently has the federal government taken steps to impose financial penalties in instances of poor care (which is the health care system’s equivalent of a “return policy” from providers).
When our team was at Subimo we initially focused on cost and quality (outcomes) information on hospitals. It was clear that – for the same procedures – there were both low cost and high quality providers as well as high cost and poor quality providers. Our efforts with transparency were designed to help people sort through the information so they could make more informed decisions and understand what quality outcomes might mean to them. We knew there was much variation in outcomes with certain procedures (e.g. aortic aneurysm repair) and less variation with others (e.g. normal vaginal delivery). Helping people understand when a poor outcome was more likely to occur helped them with their decisions (and presumably made them better shoppers).