I’m Just Sitting on a Fence

Hello. As you may have noticed, this blog has been dark a lot longer than the month or two I thought it would be. But what’s 10 months among friends? I haven’t made it back to regular blogging because things at SeeChange Health have simply been too busy. We’ve launched statewide in California back in September, have grown very consistently since then (thanks to all of you supporting our approach to health insurance) and we’re waiting on regulators in Colorado to begin selling there. All of which has kept me away from this blog.

But how can I ignore what’s happening in Washington today? With the U.S. Supreme Court ready to announce their decision in just a few minutes, I thought I’d return for one more day of comment. So like much of the industry, I’ll be tuning in to SCOTUSblog for their live coverage and I’ll be back to provide whatever insight I can add as soon as the Supremes do their thing. Later tonight I’ll try to offer a more considered evaluation.

One quick observation first: what’s amazing about all this is that the Supreme Court’s decision concerning the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will be based on the constitutionality of the individual mandate. A provision that, in practical terms, is hardly a mandate at all. The fine/tax/penalty/whatever-you-want-to-call-it in the PPACA is so modest as to be all but meaningless. Yet whether a mandate in concept (if not fact) is constitutional will have tremendous impact.

As far as predictions go? I’m with the Rolling Stones on this one: “I’m just sittin’ on a fence You can say I got no sense Trying to make up my mind Really is too horrifying So I’m sittin on a fence.”

Be back soon.

States and Health Care Reform

Health insurance has long been a state affair in the USA. Insurance companies were even exempt from many aspects of federal anti-trust law to better enable state regulators to oversee their activities. Yes, there were federal laws that standardized certain aspects of the business—think HIPAA and COBRA. Think about Medicaid, Medicare and SCHIP while you’re at it. But when it came to health insurance regulation the states reigned supreme.

Enter Congress and President Barack Obama stage left. With the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act the federal role in shaping and regulating health insurance shifted significantly to Washington, DC. The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services is now arguably the most important health insurance regulator in the country. The Department of Labor and Internal Revenue Service will also play significant roles in determining the future of the nation’s health insurance market and the choices (or lack of choices) Americans have to meet their health care coverage needs. No wonder critics of the PPACA condemn the law as a “federal takeover.”

That the nexus of health plan oversight has shifted to the federal government is beyond argument. The new health care reform law touches everything from how medical plans are designed, priced, offered, maintained and purchased. To conclude that state insurance regulators are shunted to the sideline, however, dangerously overstates the case. In fact, the PPACA invests tremendous flexibility in the states, allowing them to implement the federal requirements in what will likely be very divergent ways.

Rebecca Vesely, writing in Business Insurance, makes this clear in her article describing how two states, Vermont and Florida, are taking strikingly different paths in addressing health care reform. Vermont has taken the first step toward creating a single payer system by 2017. Legislation to set up a five member board to move the state in this direction has already been enacted. And while many details need to be worked out (funding, to name one) and Vermont will need to obtain a waiver from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to put the package together, the state is further down the road to single payer than any other.

Then there’s Florida where the move is in the opposite direction. That state is seeking to shift virtually all of its Medicaid population from government coverage into private plans starting in July 2012. These private managed care plans would be offered through large health care networks with health plan profits above five percent shared with the state. Whether this approach will achieve the $1.1 billion in first year savings promised by the Governor or not, it has brought new participants into the Medicaid marketplace such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida.

The Business Insurance article includes a prediction by Boston University law professor Kevin Outterson that the Obama administration will sign off on the waivers Vermont and Florida need to move forward.

What the starkly different approaches to reigning in skyrocketing health care costs being taken by Florida and Vermont demonstrates is the broad flexibility states retain in shaping their own health care destiny. Yes, federal waivers are required, but that would be the case even if the PPACA had never passed—Medicaid is a federal program after all. The CMS web site lists 451 state waivers or demonstration projects in place today. The concept of allowing experimentations and exceptions is ingrained in the Medicaid program just as they are in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. There’s nothing wrong with this any more than having shock absorbers on a car is an indictment of an automobile’s chassis or tires.

The marked variation in approaches being taken by Vermont and Florida are extreme examples of what we’ll see as states implement exchanges and other aspects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Of course, whether this is good news or bad news depends a great deal on the state in which you live and work. States that are heavily tilted toward one party or the other (I’m looking at you California and Wisconsin) could make some of their residents yearn for the federal government to step in and keep things in perspective. Given the way the PPACA preserves state powers, however, they are going to be disappointed.

Catching Up on Health Care Reform

Hello. It’s been awhile. Hope you’re all well. To all who have inquired, my thanks for your concern, but all’s good. Hectic, but good. Lot’s going on (more on that later) and an awful lot of travel. I’ve had a chance to meet and talk with brokers in various parts of the country, including a few places I’ve never been before or haven’t been to for years: Boise, Omaha, Denver, Nashville. It’s been a great time to learn, recharge and stay a bit too busy to write any meaningful posts. While staying busy appears to be the new constant, I’ll try to find something worthy to share on a more regular basis. For now, however, let’s play some catch-up:

We’ll start with some (relatively) good news. One of the more popular elements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is the ability for children up to age 26 to remain on their parents’ medical insurance. The Department of Health and Human Services estimated 1.2 million young adults would take advantage of this opportunity. A story at Kaiser Health News indicates the actual number may be much higher: at least 600,000 young adults have already obtained coverage under their parents’ health plans. While most of the growth has apparently been in self-insured groups, fully insured plans are experiencing the same upsurge in membership. WellPoint, for example, reports adding 280,000 young adult dependents nationwide and the federal government added a similar number (although the article didn’t state what percentage of these were in fully-insured plans).

Of course, when it comes to health care reform every silver cloud has a gray lining. The Kaiser Health News article quotes Helen Darling, CEO of the National Business Group on Health, as noting “I don’t think anyone is eager to spend more money. This is not something employers would have done on their own.” She further cites the unfairness of asking employers to cover adult children who may be employed elsewhere. And businesses (and their employees) will pay a bit more due to this expansion of coverage to young adults – about one percent more according to estimates. And while its unclear how many of these individuals would not be able to obtain coverage elsewhere, but the general thinking is that a large majority of these young adults would be uninsured or underinsured, but for this provision of the PPACA.

Next let’s pause to note how rate regulation can be big business for consumer groups. In some states, regulators must approve health plan rate increases before they take effect. In others carriers may need to file their rate changes with regulators, but so long as the rate increases are actuarially sound they move forward. California, where rate increases tend to generate national news, is in the latter camp. The state’s Insurance Commissioner, Dave Jones would like to change that. (Actually he’d like to put health insurance companies out-of-business by implementing a single-payer system, but that’s another matter). However, he and others are pushing to change that. Assembly Bill 52, authored by Assemblymen Mike Feuer and Jared Huffman. This legislation would give the Department of Insurance (which regulates insurers in the state) and the Department of Managed Care (which regulates HMOs) to reject rate or benefit changes the agencies determine to be “excessive, inadequate, or unfairly discriminatory.”

In the findings section of the bill (which are the “whereas” clauses justifying the bill), the legislation cites rising premiums and the need for the state to “have the authority to minimize families’ loss of health insurance coverage as a result of steeply rising premiums costs” are among the problems the bill is intended to address. The solution: give politicians and bureaucrats the power to reject rate increases. No need, apparently, to address the underlying cost of medical care. The assumption seems to be that the way to reduce health care spending is to clamp down on premiums. This, of course, is like saying that the way to attack rising gas prices is to limit what gas stations can charge at the pump. One might conclude that, to be charitable, the legislation is addressing only a part of the problem.

Not only does AB 52 give medical care providers a free pass, it is likely to result in a windfall for the consumers groups supporting its passage. Politico Pulse notes that AB 52 requires insurance companies to pay for costs incurred by groups representing consumers at rate hearings. For groups like Consumer Watchdog this can represent a substantial amount of income. The Politico Pulse post reports that “Under a similar California provision for property and auto insurance, Consumer Watchdog has recouped approximately $7 million in legal fees since 2003”

Then there’s the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals hearing on two Virginia law suits seeking to have the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act declared unconstitutional. A ruling from the three judge panel is expected in July. Much has been made of the fact that two of these three Appeals Court Judges were appointed by President Barack Obama – and the third by President Bill Clinton. While those so inclined are likely to consider this a conspiracy of cable news worthy dissection ad nauseum, it’s important not to make too big a deal about this.

First, courtrooms are not like the floor of Congress: partisan leanings have far less influence there. Second, as the Associated Press article points out, there are 14 judges on the court. Which of them hear a particular appeal is randomly determined by a computer program. There’s nothing sinister about the three judges selected for these appeals being appointed by Democrats, it’s just the way things turned out. No black helicopters are involved. Third, whatever this panel decides will be appealed by whichever side loses. The appeal could go to a hearing before all 14 Appeals Judges in the 4th Circuit or it could go straight to the Supreme Court. Finally, even if the appeals remain at the circuit level for another round, the final decision will be made by the Supreme Court. Everything going on in the lower courts (and there’s a lot of other suits out there needing to go through their appropriate Circuit Courts), is simply prelude. Yes, what the appeals court decide influences the Supreme Court Justices, but in a matter of this magnitude, far less than one might imagine. What happens at the District and Circuit levels is not unimportant, but it’s far from definitive.

While we’re playing catch-up: my previous post noted that Congress was likely to repeal the 1099 provision in the health care reform law. They did and the President Obama signed the law removing the tax reporting requirement from the PPACA. The PPACA no longer impacts 1099 reporting. I know you already knew that, but I wanted to close the loop on this issue. It’s now closed – and repealed.

Finally, a note about broker commissions and the medical loss ratio calculations required by the health care reform law. Where we last left our heroes, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners was debating whether to endorse bi-partisan legislation (HR 1206) that would remove broker compensation from the MLR formula used to determine a health plan’s spending on claims and health quality initiatives. The NAIC task force dealing with this issue wants time to review data being pulled together by the National Association of Health Underwriters, carrier filings and elsewhere.  Pulling together all this information, much of which has never been gathered before and is not maintained in a centralized data base, took a bit longer than initially anticipated. According to Politico Pulse, however,  the task force no”now believes it has all the data it will be able to get.” Which means the task force’s final report on broker commissions and the MLR calculation is now expected by May 27th.

Stay tuned.

And thanks again for staying tuned to this blog.  I look forward to continuing the dialogue with all of you.

Repealing PPACA’s 1099 Provisions Could Happen Soon — Maybe

Getting anything done in today’s Washington is never easy. Even when there’s widespread agreement. .

Congress has been trying to eliminate the 1099 requirements since last year. Everyone agrees that the provision is an unaffordable burden on American business. President Barack Obama supports removing it from the health care reform law. So do a majority of Democrats and Republicans in Congress. It’s not hard to see why. Today businesses file a 1099 with the Internal Revenue Service only when they pay contract workers $600 or more. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act expands this to all vendors and contractors providing $600 or more in goods or services. Meaning a business (non-profit or government agency) buying $600 in paper and staples per year from, say Staples, would be required to file a 1099 form. Same with paying the guy who waters the plants. Or UPS for delivering products. Or the printer, the security service, the landlord, the … well, you get the idea.

Even with what passes in the Capitol these days for near universal support, Congress has tried and failed to repeal the provision. The problem is that more thorough reporting of payments for goods and services is expected to bring roughly $20 billion into federal coffers over the next 10 years. Repeal the enhanced reporting and the money goes away.

Democrats and Republicans have differed on how to make up for these lost funds. The House approach is to increase the amount consumers will need to repay if they receive premium subsidy overpayments. (The PPACA will assist consumers purchasing coverage through exchanges set up by the health care reform law. The premium subsidies vary based on consumers’ income as reported in previous years. If their income turns out to be higher than anticipated consumers will need to repay a portion of the subsidy).

Here’s an example used by Representative Joseph Crowley as reported in the New York Times: “A family of four with an annual income of $88,000 buys a typical family insurance policy costing $13,000. The family would have to pay $8,360 in premiums and could qualify for a federal tax credit of $4,640, which the Treasury would pay directly to the insurance company. If the breadwinner receives a $250 bonus at work, the family would become ineligible for the tax credit and would have to repay the full amount, $4,640, with its income taxes.”

Democrats oppose this outcome because the overpayment of the subsidy was no fault of the consumer. As reported in the The New York Times article, they see this as a “tax increase on the middle class” claiming “honest taxpayers might find themselves owing large sums to the I.R.S.” This they consider a tax trap. Republicans in the House deny repaying money to which one is not entitled can be described as a tax increase. They also claim it’s the same offset Democrats proposed to pay for adjusting Medicare payments to doctors, according to The Hill’s On the Money blog.

The Senate has taken a different approach to paying for repeal of the 1099 provision. They want the Office of Management and Budget to recapture unused federal dollars from various governmental agencies. But it appears there may now be sufficient votes in the Senate to go along with the GOP approach. So things will happen quickly now, right? Perhaps, but maybe not.

Senator Robert Menendez wants the Senate to consider an amendment requiring Health and Human Services to determine the impact the subsidy claw-back provision in the House bill will have on the overall cost of coverage purchased in the exchange. If this amendment were to pass, the Senate version of the legislation would differ from that passed by the House. This, in turn, would require the bill to go back to the lower House delaying passage of the repeal.

Republicans, however, are expected to stand united in opposition to this amendment, effectively blocking its passage. Assuming this is the way things play out next Tuesday, the bill could wind up on President Obama’s desk sooner rather than later. The Administration, in the past, has expressed “serious concerns” about the way the House bill retrieves subsidy overpayments. A statement from the Office of Management and Budget notes “H.R. 4 could result in tax increases on certain middle-class families that incur unexpected tax liabilities, in many cases totaling thousands of dollars, notwithstanding that they followed the rules.” The statement goes on to support the Senate approach to paying for repeal of the 1099 reporting provisions in the health care reform law.

Whether President Obama signs the legislation in an act of bi-partisan compromise or vetoes it in the cause of avoiding a middle class tax cut won’t be known for sure until the bill is before him. It remains highly likely the tax reporting element of the PPACA will eventually be repealed. Whether this will happen soon remains an open question.

NAIC to Study MLR Impact on Compensation and Consumers Before Voting on Changes

Brokers holding their breath to see if their compensation will be removed from the medical loss ratio formula required by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will be turning a darker shade of blue. The hoped for support from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, which was expected to result from a meeting of the NAIC’s Professional Health Insurance Advisors Task Force this past Sunday, has been delayed at least four weeks.

While there was widespread and strong support for removing independent broker compensation from the formula carriers are used to calculate their medical loss ratio under the PPACA, the Task Force opted to ask their staff to provide additional data before making a decision.

While disappointing the delay is not really surprising. A substantial of the commissioners are new, having just been elected or appointed as a result of the November 2010 election. As Jessica Waltman at the National Association of Health Underwriters put it in a message to NAHU’s leadership, “[I]t was clear as soon as we arrived in Austin that some of the new Commissioners (and there are quite a few of them) had reservations about moving that quickly since this is their first meeting…. some of the more senior Commissioners were very sympathetic to their concerns about rushing things through. The NAIC almost never endorses legislation, so this is a huge deal for them.“

In addition, the issue is controversial. Consumer groups and some liberal Democratic Senators have voiced opposition to changing the MLR formula.

The Agent-Broker Alliance leading the charge for this change to the health care reform law met with several supportive commissioners and the decision was made to delay the vote. This would allow time for information relevant to the issue, already requested of carriers, to be received and considered. This time will also be used by the Agent-Broker Alliance to gather and submit data on how independent brokers are able to save clients money and the post-sale service brokers provide their clients.

Most observers I talk with are optimistic the NAIC will eventually endorse this change in spite of hesitancy from some liberal commissioners. In this regard, Politico Pulse is reporting that “Liberal insurance commissioners got a little feisty (well, for insurance commissioners) … pushing back against the speedy, one-month time line for” considering the broker compensation exemption proposal. Politico quotes California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones as saying “I’d hate to see haste impede us having the information in front of us to make a relevant decision.” And Washington state’s insurance commissioner Mike Kreidler as declaring “I hope what we produce as a work product we can stand behind and that we’re more interested in accuracy than speed.”

When politicians speak of the need to “study” and “consider” an issue it means 1) they sincerely want to learn more about the topic or 2) they want to defeat the proposal without having to go on the record voting against it. While I hope I’m wrong, given the opposition to the exemption from liberal consumer groups, I’m betting on the latter motivation in this case. (Time will tell as I’m inclined to believe the data will be very supportive of moving forward with the exemption). That the NAIC went ahead with just a four week delay in spite of calls from Commissioners Jones and Kreidler to slow down is a sign that while there will be debate, there’s a better than even chance the NAIC will indeed support legislation to make changes to the medical loss ratio provisions of the PPACA.

Ultimately whether broker compensation is included in medical loss ratio calculations will be determined by Congress and President Barack Obama – which means nothing is certain. While I believe taking this action furthers the intent and purpose of the health care reform bill, the proposal will not enjoy smooth and speedy sailing. The bipartisan legislation introduced by Representatives Mike Rogers and John Barrow, HR 1206, has been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but no date for a hearing has yet been set.

That the idea is still alive, however, is both remarkable and encouraging. But it’s still too early to start breathing again quite yet.

Maine Gains Three Year Waiver from Medical Loss Ratio Target

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires carriers offering coverage to individuals and families (not purchased on their behalf by an employer) to spend 80 percent of premium on medical claims or other costs related to health care quality. These medical loss ratio provisions took effect in January of this year and has created a host of challenges for states, carriers and brokers.

Authors of the PPACA anticipated that quickly implementing this 80% MLR requirement could disrupt the individual market. Consequently, the health care reform law empowers the Secretary of Health and Human Services to waive this requirement if states can demonstrate that meeting the 80 percent target would “destabilize the individual market” in the state.

To date, five states have sought this waiver: Florida, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, and Nevada. And one of those requests, Maine’s request for MLR release was recently granted by HHS. In approving the waiver, HHS agreed with that a 65 percent medical loss ratio was appropriate given the circumstances in Maine. The waiver is for three years (meaning carriers will have to achieve the 80 percent MLR target in 2014) although the Maine Bureau of Insurance will need to demonstrate the need to keep the waiver in place for 2013. In the letter approving the request, HHS noted that only three carriers issued almost all of Maine’s individual insurance policies: Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield of Main (with 49 percent market share), MEGA Life & Health Insurance Company (with a 37 percent share), and HPCH Insurance Company (13 percent).  As reported by HealthCare Finance News, MEGA Life and Health had stated it “would likely withdraw from the state if forced to immediately adhere to the 80 percent MLR standard.”

What level of disruption to their individual market that states will need to demonstrate is still unknown. The Maine decision is based on the unique situation of that state and one data point is hardly a trend. However, the Obama Administration is focused on making health care reform work, so they are being very practical when considering waivers and the like. They seem very intent on giving states latitude in implementing the law, James Gutman at AIS Health refers to as “’bend but not break’ mode.”It would not be surprising to see additional states consider seeking the waiver in light of Maine’s success.

In fact, Florida officially filed its waiver request only last week. In making the request Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty asserts that meeting the 80 percent MLR requirement would drive some carriers to exit the individual market in the state, erect barriers to entry discouraging new carriers from entering the market, reduce the number of offerings in the individual market and “severely hamper agent involvement in the individual market to the severe detriment of Florida consumers.” Florida is seeking the same three-year waiver received by Maine for insurance plans (65 percent) and a 70 percent MLR for HMO.

For those interested in what their own state is considering concerning requesting a waiver from the PPACA’s medical loss ratio targets in the individual market, Politico Pulse runs a scoreboard each day. As of today, in addition to the five states mentioned above, 11 are leaning toward seeking a waiver, 16 are leaning against requesting relief, and the remainder have yet to make their intentions known.

Health Care Reform on Judicial Fast Track

The wheels of justice, as the cliché goes, grinds slowly. Given the complexity of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act this poses a bit of a problem. Federal District Court judges are reaching contrarian conclusions concerning the constitutionality of the PPACA. Everyone knows the validity of the health care reform law will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, however, should states continue to implement the law or hold off on complying? The sooner the Supreme Court weighs in the sooner federal and state regulators (let alone carriers, employers, brokers, and consumers) will know what’s what.

Remember the law suit filed by 26 states (and the National Federation of Independent Businesses) in Florida? That’s the one in which U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson decided that the PPACA’s requirement that individuals obtain health care coverage or pay a penalty/tax/fine/whatever was unconstitutional. In making his decision Judge Vinson stated the law’s violation of the Commerce Clause made the entire Act unconstitutional, but he declined to issue an injunction to stop implementation of the health care reform law. Some states used the the Judge’s ruling to stop work on implementing the law; others did not.

This is the suit likely to move things to the Supreme Court the fastest. Because in an attempt to bring some clarity to the situation, the Justice Department asked Judge Vinson to clarify whether he intended to halt the law – at least in the 26 states party to the suit. They got their answer from Judge Vinson in a response that, when you weed out the criticism of the Justice Department, comes down to yes, he did mean to halt implementation of the law, but he would stay his ruling (which means he’d delay making it effective) so long as the federal government appealed his decision on an expedited basis.

The Department complied and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has put a hearing of Judge Vinson’s decision on a fast track. For a case of this magnitude, the Court set a short timetable. Lawyers for the Obama Administration must file its first briefs by April 4th. The states will have until May 4th to make their case. Federal attorneys will have until May 18th to respond to the states’ filing.

Usually appeals of this nature are heard by a panel of three Circuit Court judges. The losing party may then appeal the case to the all the judges in the Circuit (referred to as an “en banc” hearing). Some of the states involved in the suit have are seeking to skip the panel and have all 10 judges in the Circuit consider the case. This approach would more quickly get the case to the Supreme Court. In any event, oral arguments before the 11th Circuit will likely occur this summer. Given the importance of their decision, a decision by the Court could take a few months.

This is not the only case moving through the system concerning the constitutionality of the PPACA. And even with this expedited timetable the odds are the Supreme Court will announce its decision in the midst of the 2012 elections. Which means there’s plenty of time for Congress to modify the law, for other suits to address non-Commerce Clause issues, and for health care reform to dominate the presidential campaign and the fight for Congress. Which means the Supreme Court’s decision will not be the end of America’s health care reform process, regardless of what they rule it will only be the start of the next round of America’s health care reform process.

President Obama Endorses Earlier State Opt-Out of PPACA

The ongoing debate over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is about more than whether this provision or that provision is beneficial or damaging to the nation’s economy and health care system. The debate is also about the appropriate role of the federal government compared to that of state governments and individuals. Health insurance, and consequently much of health care, has long been the purview of the states. The PPACA changes that balance considerably.

Enter Senators Ron Wyden and Scott Brown – the former a Democrat the latter a Republican. They are co-sponsoring a bill allowing states to opt-out of many of the more controversial provisions of President Barack Obama’s health care plan as early as 2014 if they meet certain eligibility requirements. (The health care reform law already provides for this opt-out in 2017, but by then states will have invested heavily in implementing the PPACA).

This legislation, one of the few bi-partisan health care reform-related measures put forward in the past few years, just received a politically important boost. Speaking before the National Governor’s Association meeting in Washington, DC today, President Obama endorsed the Wyden-Brown proposal. Were the bill to pass, states could replace the individual and employer mandate, health insurance exchanges and whatever the federal government comes up with as “essential benefits” all health insurance policies must cover. Yet the states would still receive the insurance subsidies and administrative funding they’d be eligible for under the PPACA.

Gaining this privilege to go their own way, however, is no easy task. As described by Kate Pickert in Time’s the Swampland blog, states would need to show their own health care reform approach would:

  • not increase the federal deficit
  • provide insurance to as many people as would the PPACA
  • provide insurance as least as comprehensive as that called for in the PPACA
  • provide insurance that’s just as affordable

Avik Roy at Forbes’ The Apothecary blog has an excellent presentation of the pros-and-cons of the Wyden-Brown legislation. For example, he sites Ben Domenech as observing that “states would have to prove a greater number of people will purchase a product under their alternate plan than would do so under a law requiring them to purchase that product!” However, this may be easier than Mr. Domenech apparently believes. As I’ve pointed out previously, there are other ways to encourage consumers to obtain coverage than a government imposed mandate. The Waiver for State Innovation, as the Wyden-Brown proposal is referred to, doesn’t allow states to return to the status quo. On the contrary, states would still need to put forward comprehensive health care reform. They can just go about it in a different way than that taken by the Obama Administration in the PPACA.

As President Obama said to the Governors when describing the value of moving the state opt-out opportunity to 2014, “It will give you flexibility more quickly while still guaranteeing the American people reform.”

For example, states could set up a system in which consumers are given health insurance vouchers to purchase coverage. Carriers could be required to issue policies to all who apply. To protect their pools from the adverse selection of people waiting until they’re on their way to the hospital to obtain insurance, carriers could be permitted to exclude coverage for pre-existing conditions for as long as a consumer has been without coverage. This kind of approach would do away with exchanges and the PPACA’s approach to the individual mandate. Of course, so would the single-payer approach being considered in Vermont.

A wise man once told me, “You never solve problems, you just replace old problems with new ones.” President Obama is giving states the opportunity to solve – and create – their own problems. Whether any will be able, or willing, to seize this opportunity remains to be seen.

Clarifying the Individual Mandate Alternative

In a recent post I suggested that President Barack Obama should abandon the individual mandate contained in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. My theory is that the uncertainty surrounding the constitutionality of imposing a fine on Americans who fail to obtain health care coverage starting in 2014 is both a political and public policy risk that is simply not worth taking – especially since the penalty for failing to be insured is unlikely to achieve its public policy purpose.

I’ve received several questions about how this would impact the PPACA. Questioners have asked whether, without an individual mandate, the PPACA collapse? Does the reform law mean anything without a mandate? Would the exchanges be necessary without the mandate? That kind of thing.

So, to clarify.

Perhaps the title of my post, “President Obama Should Jettison the Individual Mandate.”  is causing some confusion. What I was addressing was the individual mandate as defined in the PPACA. The law includes one approach to encouraging individuals to take the responsibility for obtaining and maintaining health insurance. I was not suggesting that the President strip this individual accountability provisions from the health care reform law. Quite the contrary, I was suggesting he replace the current, government-enforced mandate with a privately enforced version.

The PPACA imposes a fee (or a tax, depending on whom you ask and when) if an individual fails to obtain health insurance. This is the constitutional weak-link in the law. Those asking the courts to overturn the law describe this approach as Congress forcing Americans to engage in an economic activity or pay the equivalent of a fine to the government.

Instead of this government-centric approach, I proposed replacing the fine with alternatives enabling carriers to protect themselves from consumers who have waited until they are on their way to a hospital before seeking coverage. As has happened in New York and New Jersey, without such protections premiums skyrocket even faster and higher than medical inflation would normally require. Creating an open enrollment period (perhaps the applicant’s birth month) would counteract this dynamic. Allowing carriers to set premiums higher for those who have gone without coverage and to exclude pre-existing condition for some period of time, would help keep the cost of insurance lower, too. (These are financial disincentives imposed on individuals who fail to maintain medical insurance. Fairness would dictate that these disincentives should be commensurate with how long the individual went without coverage, thus the limited time during which a premium surcharge or benefit exclusion would be permitted).

Carriers would not be obliged to impose these penalties. If they were commanded to do so by law some would argue they are simply agents of the government and the Administration would be back defending the constitutionality of a government-imposed individual mandate. By allowing, but not forcing, carriers to use an open enrollment period, increase premiums, or exclude coverage for existing conditions, the government is out of the equation. And so are constitutional challenges – at least to this provision.

The impact of this approach on other provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is minimal. In fact, by shifting the enforcement of personal responsibility from the IRS to private carriers this alternative might even save money overall.

Nor would removal of the individual mandate as currently defined in the law mean the rest of the PPACA would collapse – even if it were not replaced by an alternative. For example, exchanges can (and do) exist without an individual mandate. In fact, many Republicans and conservatives who are ardent supporters of exchanges oppose requiring all Americans to obtain coverage. They, like Democrats supporting the exchanges, believe a primary benefit of exchanges are to allow individuals to aggregate their purchasing power to obtain better pricing from carriers just as large employers do today. Exchanges and the individual mandate are aimed at two different policy goals and each can survive without the other. (This is not to say there’s not plenty of reasons to oppose exchanges or to seek changes to how they’re envisioned in the PPACA).

Without an individual mandate, but with a requirement that carriers accept all applicants for coverage, premiums will rise substantially. However, it is possible (if unwise) to have the one without the other (as is the case in New York and New Jersey). Nor would would the PPACA collapse if the individual mandate was removed and not replaced by something along the lines I’m suggesting? The PPACA is about a lot more than the individual mandate. The law creates exchanges, enables co-ops, imposes limits on carriers’ administrative expenses, establishes market reforms (such as requiring carriers to keep dependent children on their parent’s policies until age 26), changes rating practices (eliminating premium variations based on gender), creates new taxes, provides for premium subsidies, launches demonstration projects in an attempt to lower medical costs, expands Medicaid, reduces out-of-pocket expenses for some Medicare beneficiaries, and a whole lot more. The individual mandate is one part of a much larger whole.

All of which makes the risk that the individual mandate could lead the Supreme Court to find the entire PPACA unconstitutional an even greater incentive for President Obama to change the way individual responsibility is encouraged (or, more accurately, enforced).  That the President should seek a different approach to individual responsibility is both good public policy and smart politics. Whether Congress and the White House could agree on what those changes should be an altogether different question.

Politics, Math and Premiums

Math. Can’t live with it. Can’t live without it. We all like things to “add up.” We want ledgers to balance. And some folks even believe numbers don’t lie.

But when politics joins the equation the math gets a bit slippery. OK, they get a lot slippery. One accepts that politicians and pundits will perceive the same event quite differently (if only to have something to argue about). But math is pure, right? 2+2=4 and if it doesn’t somebody is selling something – or Congress is in session. (Both cheap shots, but you get the idea).

Which brings us to an interesting Politico story in which David Nather does some fact checking concerning claims being bandied about concerning the impact of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on premiums. Mr. Nather does an excellent job of showing how both Democratic and Republican are playing the numbers game.

President Barack Obama, for example, claims that the PPACA will lower premiums. Mr. Nather notes that while some supporters of the PPACA claim the law may reduce the rate of increase, no one is claiming premiums are going down any time soon. Mr. Nather cites an HHS report claiming annual premiums will fall by as much as $2,300 thanks to the PPACA, but that’s from where they would be without the reform bill in 2014, not from today.

Republicans fare no better (or worse, depending on your point of view) when it comes to juggling numbers. GOP lawmakers have cited the spate of recent rate hikes as evidence that the new health care reform law is already increasing premiums. However, even some of the carriers raising rates exonerate the PPACA. For example, Blue Shield of California has gotten a lot of attention for rate increases of as much as 59 percent on their individual policies (although it’s amazing how few stories mention that the average rate increase is dramatically less). Republicans blame health care reform for this hike. Unfortunately for their cause-and-effect claims, Mr. Nather reports that Blue Shield has said “the increases ‘have almost nothing to do with the federal health reform law. These rates reflect trends that were building long before health reform’ including higher prices demanded by health care providers, more use of health care, and healthy people dropping their coverage because of the bad economy.” How inconvenient.

Mr. Nather concludes his fact checking by citing a Hewitt Associates’ research indicates that “employers will see their premiums go up by about 8.8 percent in 2011 – and about 1 to 2 percent is because of the law.”

Maybe in 2011, but there’s a lot more to come from health care reform and the impact of the PPACA on premiums is only going to grow. Consider:

  1. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act imposes new taxes on insurers. Insurers, in turn, will do what companies always do: pass this additional cost of doing business onto their customers, in this case, through higher premiums.
  2. The PPACA also raises taxes on non-insurers such as makers of durable medical equipment. They will pass this cost along to their consumers and, to the extent these added costs are covered by insurance, the result will be higher premiums.
  3. Today it’s not uncommon for young people to pay 1/6th of the premium charged to older insureds. The PPACA reduces this ratio from 6-to-1 to 3-to-1. Let’s assume carriers will compress the premium spread by moving toward the average (as opposed to converging on the highest premiums). For 60 years olds the result would be a premium reduction; for 20 year olds the cost of insurance is going up.
  4. The new health care reform law requires carriers to offer “essential benefits” (yet to be defined) and offer plans with specified actuarial values. This will eliminate many lean, low-cost plans from the market, increasing the average premium of all plans offered.
  5. Many expect the PPACA’s medical loss ratio provisions to restrain future premium increases. However, as I’ve written before, because the MLR is stated as a percentage of premium dollars that must be spent on claims and health improvement, the result may be to encourage carriers to eliminate lean, low-cost plans and focus on more expensive offerings. After all, 20% of a $300 premium plan provides twice as many dollars that can go to administrative costs and profits as 20% of a $150 premium plan.
  6. Supporters also claim the exchanges will help drive down premiums. By driving a hard bargain with carriers the theory is that prices will come down. Maybe, but at least 80% of premiums are going to pay doctors, hospitals and other medical providers. Exchanges can be tough with carriers, but they’re addressing the smaller part of the premium dollar. Yes, the exchanges may wring some administrative expenses out of the system, but over time medical inflation will erase any of those savings.
  7. While there are provisions in the PPACA aimed at restraining medical costs (really, there are) most are pilot and demonstration projects or studies whose impact. Their impact, if any, will not be felt for many years.

In short: there’s a lot of factors in the PPACA which will tend to drive up premiums. There are far fewer that will tend to lower premiums. So even if the numbers take a vacation from reality, logic would lead one to conclude that the new health care reform law will drive up premiums.

At least that’s the way I add things up.