Trump’s ACA Reform Principles and What They May Mean

President Donald Trump gave a speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night. A significant portion of his speech dealt with his commitment to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. What did he say, what does what he said mean, and what will be the impact on the ACA?

What He Said

President Trump devoted considerable time to discussing his goal to repeal and replace Obamacare. Here is what the President said, “Tonight, I am also calling on this Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare with reforms that expand choice, increase access, lower costs, and at the same time, provide better Healthcare.”

Then, after reciting his criticism of the Affordable Care Act he proclaimed, “We must act decisively to protect all Americans.  Action is not a choice — it is a necessity. “So I am calling on all Democrats and Republicans in the Congress to work with us to save Americans from this imploding Obamacare disaster.”

He then cited five principles that “should guide the Congress as we move to create a better healthcare system for all Americans:

“First, we should ensure that Americans with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage, and that we have a stable transition for Americans currently enrolled in the healthcare exchanges.

“Secondly, we should help Americans purchase their own coverage, through the use of tax credits and expanded Health Savings Accounts — but it must be the plan they want, not the plan forced on them by the Government.

“Thirdly, we should give our great State Governors the resources and flexibility they need with Medicaid to make sure no one is left out.

“Fourthly, we should implement legal reforms that protect patients and doctors from unnecessary costs that drive up the price of insurance — and work to bring down the artificially high price of drugs and bring them down immediately.

“Finally, the time has come to give Americans the freedom to purchase health insurance across State lines — creating a truly competitive national marketplace that will bring cost way down and provide far better care.”

What He Meant

I hesitate to try interpret what President Trump means when he, well, uses words. We’re talking a moving target here.  However, given the gravity of the speech, I assume what he said was thoroughly vetted and intentional.  So, I’ll go try to interpret the President’s message. Full disclosure, however, Republicans are already fighting over the meaning of his five health care reform principles, so there’s clearly room for differing interpretations.

Pre-existing conditions: In the past, President Trump has expressed the desire to keep the ACA’s guarantee issue provisions that prevents insurers from declining coverage due to a consumer’s health status.  Last night, however, he said used a different wording, stating that pre-existing conditions should not bar Americans from having “access” to coverage. These are two different things. The ACA requires carriers accept consumers, even those with expensive medical conditions, into any plan for which the consumer is eligible. Calling for access means that, as an alternative, these Americans could be shunted into high-risk pools or plans designed specifically for high cost insureds.

Offering access to high-risk pools means Americans with existing medical conditions would have fewer choices, limited benefits and pay higher premiums than their healthier neighbors. In testimony before a California legislative committee I once referred to high-risk pools as “a ghetto of second-hand coverage.” The author of the legislation establishing the state’s pool sat on the committee. Oops. But I stand by my description.

The President indicating a willingness to accept high-risk pools was good news for House Speaker Paul Ryan, who supports them. However, there are millions of Americans with pre-existing health conditions. How will they react to being removed from the “normal” market? And how will they, and their family and friends, express those feelings at the polls?

Tax Credits and HSAs: Health Savings Accounts have long been a staple of Republican health care reform proposals.  In a draft of Speaker Ryan’s Obamacare replacement bill, leaked last week, tax credits are the primary means of making health insurance premiums affordable. Conservatives have pushed back against tax credits calling them a new non-means tested entitlement program. The President’s backing of this approach will give the Speaker some leverage in negotiations with these members of the GOP caucus in the House.

Medicaid: President Trump’s call for giving governors more say in how their states implement Medicaid seems to support efforts to move federal payments for the program into block grants, which aligns the White House with Republicans in the House.  Currently states receive funds based on Medicaid enrollment (subject to a host of adjustments for a variety of factors, but let’s keep it simple for now). Block grants would give states a fixed amount to spend within very broad federal guidelines. This approach enables the federal government to cap their spending on the program and leaves it to states to manage the program.

Lowering the Cost of Care: Too often the debate over health insurance affordability ignores a harsh reality: the major driver of health insurance premiums is the cost of medical care. Most of the President’s principles concerning health care reform focuses on health care coverage. But he’s also seeking to lower costs through malpractice reform and through taking steps to drive down the cost of prescriptions. That the President is addressing medical expenses at all is a good thing. Hopefully as a replacement to the Affordable Care Act moves through Congress there will be an even greater emphasis placed on reducing the cost of medical treatments and services.

Interstate Sales: President Trump and many Republicans invoke letting consumers buy out-of-state coverage with the same passion as Hogwarts students learning their first spells. They proclaim it will increase competition and lower premiums across the country. Like that school of witchcraft and wizardry, however, this proposal is, unfortunately, a fantasy. I’ll write a post on why soon, but for now consider just one factor. Virtually all health insurance policies sold today rely on discounts offered by “in-network” doctors, hospitals and other providers of care. Plans sold in State A may look good to a consumer in State B, but if that carrier doesn’t have a strong network in State B, what good is that policy? In short,

The Impact

Let’s assume I’ve interpreted what the President said correctly. What will be the impact of his position on whatever Obamacare repeal and replace bill that emerges from Congress and lands on his desk to sign?

First, it is very significant that the President’s health care reform principles align as closely as they do with those of Speaker Ryan. This gives the Speaker a powerful card to play when herding his splintered caucus behind his preferred legislation.

Second, it seems to signal that the White House is ceding to Congress the responsibility to develop an ACA replacement. The President carved out no bold vision for what he wants nor are his principles in conflict with longstanding Republican positions. The only exception is his call for federal action to lower prescription drug costs. But would President Trump veto a bill that meets all of his principles except for this one? Doubtful.

Third, we’re only at the beginning of long, arduous march to reforming or replacing the Affordable Care Act. There’s many more parties will be heard from, including Senate Republicans, insurers, pharmaceutical companies, doctors, hospitals and other special interest groups. The public will have a lot to say on this subject, too. Plus, any reform package will likely require support from Democrats, and negotiations for those votes have not yet begun.

As I’ve written previously, what Republicans are putting forward now may bear only a passing resemblance to the health care reform we get at the end of what will be a very long, messy slog.

Please check out my health care reform magazine on Flipboard for constantly updated, curated articles.

Upcoming GOP Reform Package is Just the Start

Up until now, the debate over the repeal and replace of the Affordable Care Act has been limited to the reading of tea leaves and, at best, educated guesses. We’re about to get some meaningful data. Earlier this month, House Speaker Paul Ryan promised that Republicans in the House would unveil their health care reform legislation after the mid-February Congressional break. And, in fact, details of the GOP leadership’s Obamacare replacement plan leaked today. (More on that, below).

The introduction of this GOP health care reform proposal is significant, but hardly as earth shattering as you might think based on the news coverage over the leak, let alone the attention the official unveiling will generate. Nor is this proposal necessarily indicative reflective of whats going to emerge from Congress at the end of this process. Think of it as allowing educated guesses to be a bit more educated. That’s important, but it determines nothing.

If you’re interested in what the 106-page document leaked today shows, Sarah Kliff of Vox.com has an excellent analysis. She writes that “In broad strokes, the draft bill hews closely to ideas outlined by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.” However, she does identify one “important shift” from earlier GOP proposals: “This bill … has more generous financial support for those who buy their own plans … and lower penalties for Americans who do not maintain continuous insurance coverage.”

Of course, the first question to ask is whether the leaked document is legitimate. The answer appears to be yes. There’s no bombshell that would suggest it’s only a trial balloon. It hews closely to the long-espoused reforms put forward by Republicans supporting high-risk pools, promoting HSAs and permitting health insurers to sell across state lines. Let’s assume, then, what we’re seeing today is exactly what Speaker Ryan will unveil next week. Does it matter?

Yes, but not much.

Changing America’s health care system will take time, regardless of how many politicians tell you otherwise. There are a lot of reasons why. Here’s just three:

  1. Republicans can’t agree on what they want to do. Just in the House of Representatives there a numerous factions each looking for a different outcome. The (very) conservative Freedom Caucus wants to repeal the entire ACA now and deal with a replacement later (if ever). Establishment members want to work out the replacement plan first and then simultaneously repeal and replace the ACA after a long transition period. Some of the two dozen members who represent districts that went for Hillary Clinton in the recent presidential election (and, I suspect, a percentage of those who endured raucous town hall meetings this week) seem more intent on repairing the ACA as opposed to blowing it up. Meanwhile, Republicans in the Senate can’t agree on what should follow the Affordable Care Act either. Many Senators, however, seem certain they don’t like the direction the House is taking. In short, consensus among Republicans is a long way off.
  2. Republicans need Democrats to replace the ACA. Even if Republicans reach a consensus on health care reform, they still need to bring along some Democrats to get the job done. Yes, heavy damage can be inflicted on the ACA through changes to the federal budget that require a simple majority of lawmakers in each chamber to pass. Regulations and executive orders can tear down more of it. Replacing the Affordable Care Act, however, will require at least 60 votes in the Senate (unless Republicans take the highly unlikely step of ending filibusters). With only 52 Republican Senators that means at least eight Democrats have to vote for the replacement legislation. And if Republicans factions in the House get too entrenched, the House Leadership may need some Democratic votes in that chamber to get anything passed. All of which means a lot of negotiating before there’s any hope of getting a new health care reform bill on President Donald Trump’s desk..
  3. The stakes are high–really, really high. As I’ve written previously, if Republicans get health care reform wrong they could destroy the individual health insurance marketplace. And I mean destroy. In fact, it may be too late to save the individual market (a possibility I’ll have another post on soon). Yet the GOP has been promising their base to nuke the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something better since before it was passed. Republicans need to act, but in a way that doesn’t leave their party explaining to voters why the demise of individual coverage is not Republicans’ fault.

Don’t get me wrong. That the GOP House leadership is introducing health care reform legislation is a meaningful milestone along the path to a post-Obama American health care system. If Secretary Price and President Trump sign-on to the bill, it will be a “big league” milestone. At the end of the day, however, it’s a milestone, not the finish line; just the first steps in what will be a long slog through numerous committees, endless public posturing, lobbying by interest groups, tumultuous public demonstrations, and intense negotiation. What Republicans are putting forward now may bear only a passing resemblance to what we get at slog’s end.

Please check out my health care reform magazine on Flipboard for constantly updated, curated articles.

Is the GOP ACA Repeal Strategy Taking Shape?

GOPThere’s politics then there’s governing. As former New York Governor Mario Cuomo put it, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Republicans have been campaigning against the Affordable Care Act since its enactment with rhetorical flourishes along the lines of “repeal and replace” and “end Obamacare on Day One.” That is poetry (or at least what passes for poetry in politics). Come January, Republicans will need to prove they can handle the prose part. As discussed in my previous post, that won’t be easy.

Repealing the law outright would cause chaos in the health insurance marketplace and take medical coverage away from millions of consumers. However, doing nothing would break a promise central to the GOP’s electoral successes in the past four Congressional elections, not to mention the most recent presidential campaign. Either path could lead to voter retribution that would be devastating to the short- and long-term interests of the Republican party.

A GOP strategy may be emerging that aims to avoid this rock and that hard place. The idea involves passing repeal legislation as close to President Trump’s first day in office that is legislatively possible, but delaying the effective date of that legislation by a year or two. This enables Republicans to keep their promise to repeal Obamacare “on day one,” yet gives them time for the more difficult task of working out a replacement to the ACA. It’s a political two-step Joanne Kenen has dubbed “TBDCare.”

Yes, this would cast a dark cloud over the health insurance market for some considerable time and raises a host of questions: Is Congress capable of passing workable and meaningful health care reform? What happens if they don’t? What would those reforms look like? Who would the winners and losers be under Republican-style reform?  Not knowing the answers to these questions is terrifying. For GOP leaders trying to avoid the wrath of voters, however, living under a frightening dark cloud for a couple of years might look better than ushering in the health care reform apocalypse.

The repeal part of this two-step strategy is simple: Republicans in Congress eviscerate the financial mechanisms critical to the ACA through the budget reconciliation process. This type of bill requires only 51 votes, which means no Democratic support is needed. Meanwhile, President Trump dismantles other elements of the law by either revoking President Barack Obama’s executive orders or issuing new ones. Both the legislation and executive orders become effective at the end of either 2017 or 2018 to allow for a “smooth transition.”

Then the replace portion of the program would begin. Much of any new health care reform legislation would need to go through the normal legislative process and be completed before the effective date of the repeal. Given the Senate’s filibuster rules this means securing at least eight Democratic votes in the upper chamber. (Here’s a list of the Democratic Senators most likely to be recruited by Republicans).

Both Jennifer Haberkorn on Politico.com and Albert Hunt on Bloomberg.com do a great job in reporting on this evolving strategy.  Meanwhile, opposition to TBDCare is already building as evidenced by this editorial in the Denver Post.

What should not be overlooked in all this pain aversion is that the Affordable Care Act was neither the cause nor the solution to America’s deep-seated health care problems. Long before Senator Obama became President Obama everyone knew the key to successful health care reform was reducing medical costs. A few provisions in the Affordable Care Act address costs, but the legislation focused primarily on health insurance reforms because, well, reforming the health insurance market is a lot easier than reducing health care costs. If you were a politician, who would you rather take on, insurance companies or doctors, hospitals and pharmacy companies?

Whether using poetry or prose then, it would be nice if, once they get past the politics of health care reform, Congress and the new Administration addressed the substance of health care reform. Let’s hope that’s not asking too much.

Please check out my magazine on Flipboard for a curated collection of news and opinion concerning health care reform.

 

Republican Health Care Reform: Destruction or Refinement?

capitol-at-dusk

With the (surprising) election of Donald Trump as America’s next president I’ve been asked by quite a few folks what this might mean for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, especially as it relates to individual health insurance. It’s been over seven months since I posted anything in this blog (been busy launching a couple of companies), but I thought I’d use this space to provide my perspective on the answer.

For the impatient among you, that answer is: either a complete disaster or some modest fixes that actually improve the ACA. Dramatic, but non-lethal changes, are unlikely.

As for the details: Mr. Trump’s call to repeal and replace the ACA was core to his campaign. His official health care reform platform promised to:

  1. Repeal Obamacare in its entirety.
  2. Permit the sale of health insurance across state lines.
  3. Allow individuals to fully deduct their health insurance premiums.
  4. Promote Health Savings Accounts.
  5. Require all health care providers to publish their pricing.
  6. Provide block-grants to states for Medicaid expenses.
  7. Remove barriers that delay the introduction of new drugs.

Some of these ideas, such as promoting HSAs and increasing pricing transparency, have merit. Some, like enabling carriers to sell across state lines, are nonsensical for several reasons I described in a February LinkedIn post. None, however, offer much solace to the 20+ million consumers in danger of losing their individual coverage if the ACA is repealed. Mr. Trump and his Republican allies in Congress will need to do more.

I hesitate to predict how Mr. Trump will lead as president. He seems to be  a “big picture guy” who leaves details to others. So let’s assume he lets Congress take the lead on repeal and replace. In December 2015, Republicans in Congress passed legislation aimed at gutting the ACA. President Barack Obama vetoed the bill, but its major provisions are instructive:

  1. Repeal the federal government’s authority to run health care exchanges.
  2. Eliminate premium subsidies available to individuals purchasing through the exchange.
  3. Eliminate penalties on individuals for not buying coverage and employers who failed to offer their worker’s health insurance.

Combined with Mr. Trump’s campaign promises, these elements of the Republicans’ repeal and replace legislation, give a glimpse to the starting point of GOP-style health care reform. Add House Speaker Paul Ryan’s call earlier this year for high-risk pools and the hazy outlines of a possible reform package begins to emerge.

Given Mr. Trump’s commitment to start the repeal and replace process on the first day of his administration and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s statement yesterday that getting rid of the ACA was “pretty high on our agenda,” health care reform is coming — and soon.

Whether the result will be an outright, actual repeal of President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment is no sure thing. Supporters of the ACA are already vowing to defend the law. And while Republicans will hold majorities in both chambers of the new Congress, they are a long way from having 60 votes in the Senate. And that’s problematic.

Senate filibuster rules require 60 votes to cut-off debate and allow legislation to come to a vote. This means the most powerful person in Washington on health care reform may not be President Trump, Speaker Ryan, or Senator McConnell, but the Senator needed for that all important 60th vote. Yes, the first through 59th supporters are important, but their support means little if a 60th vote is not found. As a result, the 60th Senator can have a tremendous impact on the final language in the bill simply by offering (implicitly or explicitly) a favorable vote in exchange for whatever is important to that Senator.

In 2017, the 60th Senator for repeal and replace will be a Democrat. A Republican is expected to win Louisiana’s run-off election giving the GOP a 52 seat majority in the upper chamber. Assuming Republicans vote as a block — something they’ve become quite adept at in the past eight years — eight Democratic votes will be needed to end a filibuster. The requests of each of the first seven will need to be considered and addressed, but it’s the demands of the eighth Senator, that 60th vote, that ultimately matters. Unless …

The Senate can temporarily eliminate the possibility of a filibuster against a bill under the rules of budget reconciliation. However, reconciliation bills must address the federal budget; a vague definition that Congress has interpreted with varying strictness throughout the years. Clearly, eliminating funding for exchanges, taxes, and monetary penalties impact the budget. Much of the ACA, however, doesn’t. For example, requiring carriers to issue individual policies to all applicants regardless of their health conditions (what’s called “guarantee issue”) has no impact on the budget.

This creates a dangerous, even apocryphal, situation. Just one example: Republicans use the reconciliation process to eliminate penalties paid by consumers who fail to purchase health insurance, but not the guarantee issue requirement. Under this situation, few consumers — especially young, healthy consumers — will likely obtain coverage until they get sick or injured. This adverse selection would be cataclysmic and few, if any carriers, would want to participate in such a market. After all, insurers are in the business of spreading risk across a broad population. Guarantee issue without an obligation to buy coverage guarantees a concentration of risk across a narrow population.

President Trump can significantly impact the Affordable Care Act through Executive Orders, but the risk is the same as a partial repeal through legislation. The ACA is a multi-faceted construct with interlocking pieces. The wrong changes can cause devastating unintended consequences.

Republicans in Congress and President Trump may not care. The ACA has taken on nearly mythic proportions as the symbol of all that is evil with the liberal, big government side of politics. However, doing so would not only be irresponsible, it would risk the wrath of millions of voters tossed out of the individual market. Those votes matter. Keep in mind, Donald Trump’s election was close. He lost the popular vote. His leads in Wisconsin and Michigan add up to a combined total of less than 40,000 (as of today).

Yet failing to repeal Obamacare after making it so central to their 2016 campaigns could be a political disaster as well. Republicans jumped on replace and repeal in 2010 and over the past six years this position helped deliver durable GOP majorities in both houses of Congress. Many in their ranks may not care about the consequences of dismantling the law.

Assuming a desire to address health care reform in a responsible way will require the help of at least eight Senate Democrats. Fortunately for Republicans, ten Democrats have an incentive to responsibly neutralize the ACA issue in 2017. All are up for election in 2018 and hail from red or nearly red states.

  • Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin
  • Senator Bob Casey, Jr. of  Pennsylvania
  • Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana
  • Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota
  • Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia
  • Senator Angus King of Maine (officially an Independent, but he caucuses with Democrats)
  • Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia (and arguably the most conservative Democrat in the Senate)
  • Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
  • Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan
  • Senator Jon Tester of Montana

The important question, then, is not what Republicans want to replace the ACA with, but what will it take to get enough of these Senators to come along? A task that could be extremely difficult if new Senate Minority Leader, Charles Schumer, doesn’t make it politically impossible for many of these Senators to break ranks.

Republican then have two choices:1) go nuclear and gut the ACA through the reconciliation process, but keep in place market reforms like guarantee issue; or 2) pass something palatable to eight Democrats, but which they sell as “repeal” to their base. Clearly the first option is irresponsible, but these are not necessarily responsible times. Nuking the ACA will appeal to many in the party, both in Congress and in their districts.

The more responsible choice, repealing the ACA in name only, makes the law more palatable and workable. This last point is critical: once they repeal and replace the ACA, the GOP will own health care reform. It darn well better be clear by say, October 2018, that the new system is working.

Which result — destruction or refinement — is most likely? We’re in a new and wacky world. We’ll find out soon enough.

The Endangered Individual Health Insurance Market

And then there were none? The individual health insurance marketplace is endangered and policymakers need to start thinking about a fix now, before we pass the point of no return.

Health plans aren’t officially withdrawing from the individual and family market segment, but actual formal withdrawals are rare. What we are witnessing, however, may be the start of a stampede of virtual exits.

From a carrier perspective, the individual and family health insurance market has never been easy. This market is far more susceptible to adverse selection than is group coverage. The Affordable Care Act’s requirement guaranee issue coverage only makes adverse selection more likely, although, to be fair, the individual mandate mitigates this risk to some extent. Then again, the penalty enforcing the individual mandate is simply inadequate to have the desired effect.

Add to this higher costs to administer individual policies relative to group coverage and the greater volatility of the insured pool. Stability is a challenge as people move in-and-out of the individual market as they find or lose jobs with employer provided coverage. In short, competing in the individual market is not for the faint of heart, which is why many more carriers offer group coverage than individual policies. Those carriers in the individual market tend to be very good at it. They have to be to survive.

Come 2014, when most of the ACA’s provisions took effect, these carriers suddenly found their expertise less helpful. The changes were so substantial historical experience could give limited guidance. There were simply too many unanswered questions. How would guarantee issue impact the risk profile of consumers buying their own coverage? Would the individual mandate be effective? How would competitors price their products? Would physicians and providers raise prices in light of increased demand for services? The list goes on.

Actuaries are great at forecasting results when given large amounts of data concerning long-term trends. Enter a horde of unknowns, however, and their science rapidly veers towards mere educated guesses. The drafters of the ACA anticipated this situation and established three critical mechanisms to help carriers get through the transition to a new world: the risk adjustment, reinsurance and risk corridor programs.

Risk corridors are especially important in this context as they limit carriers’ losses—and gains. Carriers experiencing claims less than 97% of a specified target pay into a fund administered by Health and Human Services; health plans with claims greater than 103% of this target receive funds. You can think of risk corridors as market-wide shock absorbers helping carriers make it down an unknown, bumpy road without shaking themselves apart.

You can think of them as shock absorbers. Senator Marco Rubio apparently cannot. Instead, Senator Rubio views risk corridors as “taxpayer-funded bailouts of insurance companies.”

In 2014 Senator Rubio led a successful effort to insert a rider into the budget bill preventing HHS from transferring money from other accounts to bolster the risk corridors program if the dollars paid in by profitable carriers were insufficient to meet the needs of unprofitable carriers. This provision was retained in the budget agreement Congress reached with the Obama Administration late last year. Senator Rubio in effect removed the springs from the shock absorber. The result is that HHS could only reimburse carriers seeking reimbursement under the risk corridors program just 12.6% of what they were due based on their 2014 experience. This was a significant factor in the half the health co-operatives set up under the ACA shuttering.

Meanwhile individual health insurers have taken a financial beating. In 2015 United Healthcare lost $475 million on its individual policies. Anthem, Aetna, Humana and others have all reported substantial losses in this market segment. The carriers point to the Affordable Care Act as a direct cause of these financial set-backs. Supporters of the health care reform law push back on that assertion, however. For example, Peter Lee, executive director of California’s state-run exchange, argues carriers’ faulty pricing and weak networks are to blame. Whatever the cause, the losses are real and substantial. The health plans are taking steps to staunch the bleeding.

One step several carriers are considering is to leave the health insurance exchanges. Another is to exit the individual market altogether; not formally, but for virtually. Formal market withdrawals by health plans are rare. The regulatory burden is heavy and insurers are usually barred from reentering the market for a number of years (five years in California, for example).

There’s more than one way to leave a market, however. A method carriers sometimes employ is to continue offering policies, but make it very hard to buy them. Since so many consumers rely on the expertise of professional agents to find the right health plans, a carrier can prevent sales by making it difficult or unprofitable for agents to do their job. Slash commissions to zero and agents lose money on each sale.

While I haven’t seen documentation yet, I’m hearing of an increasing number of carriers eliminating agent commissions and others removing agent support staff from the field. (Several carriers have eliminated field support in California. If you know of other insurers making a similar move or ending commissions please provide documentation in the comments section).

So what can be done? In a presidential election year not much legislatively. Republicans will want to use an imploding individual market to justify their calls repealing the ACA altogether. Senator Bernie Sanders will cite this situation as yet another reason we need “Medicare for all.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, has an incentive to raise the alarm. She wants to build on the ACA. Having it implode just before the November presidential election won’t help her campaign. She needs to get in front of this issue now to demonstrate she understands the issue and concerns, begin mapping out the solution and inoculate herself from whatever happens later this year.

Congress should get in front of the situation now, too. Hearings on the implosion of the individual market and discussions on how to deal with it would lay the groundwork for meaningful legislative action in 2017. State regulators must take notice of the endangered individual market as well. They have a responsibility to assure competitive markets. They need to examine the levers at their disposal to find creative approaches to keep existing and attract new carriers into the individual market.

If the individual market is reduced to one or two carriers in a region, no one wins. Competition and choice are consumers’ friends. Monopolies are not. And when consumers (also known as voters) lose, so do politicians. Which means smart lawmakers will start addressing this issue now.

The individual health insurance market may be an endangered species, but it’s not extinct … yet. There’s still time to act. Just not a lot of time.

Will Rubio’s Measure Undermining ACA Survive?

Republicans stated goal is to “repeal and replace” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. That hasn’t happened and won’t at least through the remainder of President Barack Obama’s term. So a secondary line of attack is to undermine the ACA. And Senator Marco Rubio has had success in that regard.

As reported by The Hill, Senator Rubio accomplished this feat by weakening the ACA’s risk corridors program. Whether this is a long- or short-term victory is being determined in Washington now. We’ll know the answer by December 11th

President Obama and Congress recognized that, given the massive changes to the market imposed by the ACA, health plans would have difficulty accurately setting premiums. Without some protection against under-pricing risk, carriers’ inclinations would be to price conservatively. The result would be higher than necessary premiums.

To ease the transition to the new world of health care reform, they included three major market stabilization programs in the Affordable Care Act. One of them, the risk corridors program, as described by the Kaiser Family Foundation, “limits losses and gains beyond an allowable range.” Carriers experiencing claims less than 97% of a targeted amount pay into a fund; health plans with claims greater than 103% of that target receive funds.

The risk corridor began in 2014 and expires in 2016. As drafted, if payments into the fund by profitable insurers were insufficient to cover what was owed unprofitable carriers the Department of Health and Human Services could draw from other accounts to make up the difference.

Senator Rubio doesn’t like risk corridors. He considers them “taxpayer-funded bailouts of insurance companies at the Obama Administration’s sole discretion.” In 2014 he managed to insert a policy rider into a critical budget bill preventing HHS from transferring money from other accounts into the risk corridors program.

The impact of this rider has been profound.

In October HHS announced a major problem with the risk corridors program: insurers had submitted $2.87 billion in risk corridor claims for 2014, but the fund had taken in only $362 million. Subsequently, payments for 2014 losses would amount to just 12.6 cents on the dollar.

This risk corridor shortfall is a major reason so many of the health co-ops established under the ACA have failed and may be a factor in United Health Group to consider withdrawing from the law’s health insurance exchanges. (United Health was not owed any reimbursement from the fund, but likely would feel more confident if the subsidies were available).

The Obama Administration certainly sees this situation as undermining the Affordable Care Act. In announcing the shortfall, HHS promised to make carriers whole by, if possible, paying 2014 subsidies out of payments received in 2015 and 2016. However, their ability to do so is “subject to the availability of appropriations.” Which means Congress must cooperate.

Which brings us back to Senator Rubio’s policy rider. It needs to be part of the budget measure Congress must pass by December 11 to avoid a government shutdown. If the policy rider is not included in that legislation, HHS is free to transfer money into the risk corridor program fund from other sources.

Senator Rubio and other Republicans are pushing hard to assure HHS can’t rescue the risk corridors program claiming to have already saved the public $2.5 billion from a ‘crony capitalist bailout program.” Democrats and some insurers, seeing what’s occurred as promises broken, are working just as hard to have it removed.

By December 11th we’ll know whether the ACA is further undermined or bolstered.

 

The Affordable Care Act and Affordability

The official name of what some call Obamacare is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Most frequently it’s referred to as the Affordable Care Act or the ACA. There’s just one problem with this title: it’s questionable whether the new law is making health care — or health insurance — more affordable

When you ask politicians about bringing down the cost of medical care, they invariably pivot to discussing health insurance premiums. And the press lets them, no doubt because: 1) insurance companies are easier to beat up on than doctors and hospitals; and 2) controlling the cost of care is much more complex than addressing insurance premiums.

When it comes to “bending the curve” concerning premiums, the ACA is arguably working. While every broker can cite examples of clients receiving double-digit increases (often, many examples and north of 20%), overall, according to PolitiFact, “premiums have risen by about 5.8 percent a year since Obama took office, compared to 13.2 percent in the nine years before Obama.” This year, for example, the 2015 UBA Health Plan Survey indicates that the average annual health plan cost per employee in 2015 is increasing just 2.4 percent from the prior year.

One point for the ACA–for now. In some parts of the country, it should be noted, the second most affordable silver plan in the exchanges (a key benchmark) is increasing by 30% or more.While this development doesn’t mean all rates are going through the roof in all places, it’s a warning sign that needs monitoring moving forward.

For now, the rate of increase we’re seeing in health insurance premiums have stabilized. That, however, doesn’t mean that health care coverage is more affordable. Health insurance costs are like a teeter totter. On one side is fixed-costs known as premiums. On the opposite seat are variable costs represented by out-of-pocket expenses. The higher the fixed-costs, the lower the variable ones and vice versa. The laws of physics cannot be legislated away. So as the ACA helps keep premiums down, out-of-pocket costs are rising.

One driver of higher out-of-pocket costs is straightforward: High deductibles in health plans are increasingly common. Another less obvious reason is that carriers are narrowing their provider networks while increasing the cost of seeking treatment outside their networks. For example, according to the UBA study, family out-of-network deductibles increased 75% in the past five years.

For healthy consumers this is a net positive. Premiums are lower under the ACA and, since they don’t see providers, narrow networks aren’t a problem. For those who do need health care treatment, however, (and families are especially likely to have someone needing medical attention in a given year), this teeter totter is what’s making the Affordable Care Act not so, well, affordable.

This isn’t to say that the ACA is a failure. The uninsured rate in America dropped to 10% in 2014 from 18.2% in 2010–and will likely be lower in 2015. This means 15 more million Americans now have coverage than in 2010. Perhaps if we renamed the ACA the Health Insurance Access Act the description would be more accurate.

However, that’s not what it’s called and the ACA is failing to keep live up to its name. The reason, I believe, is because it does too little to address the cost of medical care. To be fair, the ACA includes provisions to reduce medical costs. Accountable Care Organizations and the Independent Payment Advisory Board are two elements of President Barack Obama’s health care reform plan that show promise.

At best, however, the ACA only lays the groundwork for controlling medical costs, and we need to do more. Because at the end of the day, to make coverage more affordable, we have to attack where the money is going. And in that regard, the facts are straightforward: health plans must spend 80% (individual and small group coverage) or 85% (large group plans) on claims. If health insurance is to become more affordable, health care must be more affordable.

That means changing the ACA something that will not happen during a presidential election year. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t begin pinning presidential candidates on what they would do to bring down medical costs. We’ve had a question  about fantasy football during the debates. Maybe the moderators could slip one in on concrete steps the candidates would take lower the cost of health care … and not let them pivot to the easy dodge of attacking health insurance premiums.

OK, that’s asking too much. Maybe they could ask them what they’d do to control insurance premiums and then ask about controlling medical costs. If nothing else it would be interesting to see how many of the candidates realize these are two different questions.

The Open Enrollment Convergence: Scope and Resources

To state the obvious, there are 12 months in the year. Unfortunately for health insurance companies, brokers, exchanges and those they serve, various health care coverage open enrollments for most Americans are crammed into less than four of those months. The scope and challenge of this Open Enrollment Convergence is mind-boggling.

Open Enrollments by the Numbers

Medicare’s open enrollment period is October 15th through December 7th of each year. Open enrollment for individuals runs from November 1, 2015 through January 31, 2016. The majority of small and large group plans renew on either December 1st (because last year employers wanted to put off coming into the ACA market for as long as possible) or January 1st (so benefit years coincide with calendar years).

Cramming all these open enrollments and renewals into a 15 week period impacts most Americans. The US Census Bureau estimates that in 2014 enrollment was:

  • 50 million in Medicare
  • 60 million in Medicaid
  • 45 million in medical policies they purchased themselves (primarily individual and family coverage)
  • 175 million in private group health coverage

Renewing any one of these cohorts in a two-or-three months is a Herculean challenge. Deal with all of them at once and you’ll find the Demigod in a fetal position off in a corner somewhere muttering about ACA compliance reports. Yet, all at once is when they’re happening.

Resources:

Alcohol is not a resource. Nor will it help get brokers through the Open Enrollment Convergence. Avoid it until February 1st. The three sources, however, will help. This blog’s Health Care Reform Resources page lists additional useful sites.

The National Association of Health Underwriters, the preeminent organization for health insurance brokers, consultants and benefit professionals, publishes a lot of extremely useful material. The NAHU Compliance Cornered Blog is accessible to everyone. Tools and information in the association’s Compliance Corner are available only to members, but well worth the dues. One feature allows members to pose detailed questions to experts and quickly receive a personalized response. The breadth and depth of the compliance expertise available through this service is impressive and invaluable.

The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation is an outstanding resource for dependable information on health policy and parsing the Affordable Care Act. (The Foundation is unrelated to Kaiser Permanente health plans). The Foundation’s Health Reform FAQs recently updated 300 items on a broad range of ACA topics. If you’re into Twitter, you’ll benefit from following the Kaiser Family Foundation. (Of course, if you’re into Twitter I hope you’ll follow me as well, he shamelessly plugged).

The Department of Health and Human Services is the government’s lead agency on the ACA. The HHS Health Care site serves up extremely helpful data, forms and explanations along with a bit of not unexpected ACA cheer leading.

Go Team

I wish I had a pithy message to help get you through the fourth quarter renewals; some poster-worthy motivation you could hang on your wall. However, in the accurate words of the folks at Despair.com, “If a pretty poster and a cute saying are all it takes to motivate you, you probably have a very easy job. The kind robots will be doing soon.”

Robots will not be handling an Open Enrollment Convergence anytime soon (the stress would rupture their … whatever robots rupture). New tools are on their way to help benefit brokers manage the workload. These, however, will amplify the high-touch service and expertise benefit brokers deliver, not replace agents.

Because there’s nothing easy about helping consumers find and use the health care coverage they need. Fortunately, professional benefit brokers are really good at doing just that.

This may not be a motivational statement, but it is factual.

ACA Co-op Troubles Not Surprising

Strong support emerged during the Congressional deliberations that led to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act behind a government-run health plan to compete with private carriers. The “public option” failed, but did create political space for the concept of consumer-owned, non-profit health insurance co-operatives. The co-ops found their way into the ACA, but now, as a group, are in big trouble. Eight of the nation’s 23 health co-ops are going out-of-business and more may follow.

The Case for Health Co-ops

Then Senator Kent Conrad championed health co-operatives during the health care reform debate. Modeled after the electrical co-ops in his home state of North Dakota, he saw them as health plans owned by local residents and businesses. They would receive start-up money from the federal government, but otherwise would compete against private carriers on a level playing field.

Co-op advocates hoped they would bring competition to markets dominated by too few private carriers. In addition, they expected these non-profits to provide individual consumers and small businesses additional affordable health insurance choices. With focus on the first goal, health co-ops might be in a better place today. Unfortunately, too often they sprung up in states where competition was already strong.

The ACA set-up a roughly $6 billion fund to help get “Consumer Operated and Oriented Plans” up-and-running. The long-term financial viability of health co-ops was to flow from premiums paid by those they insured and the “Three Rs”—programs established by the ACA “to assist insurers through the transition period, and to create a stable, competitive and fair market for health insurance.” Specifically these were the ACA’s reinsurance, risk adjustment and risk corridor programs.

It’s Tough Being New

A (not so) funny thing happened on the way to the health co-ops’ solvency. Starting a health insurance plan is difficult and failure always an option. (I know. I was executive vice president at start-up SeeChange Health, an insurer that failed last year.) New carriers, by definition, have no track record, no data concerning pricing, provider reimbursements, claim trends, and the like. Their first foray into the market is an educated guess. Worse, new plans usually have a small membership base. This provides little cushion against the impact of miscalculations or unwelcome surprises.

A new health plan launching in the midst of the industry’s transition to a post-ACA world faced added exponentially greater difficulties. In 2013, when most of the health co-ops launched, no one knew what the market would look like in 2014. Exchanges, metallic plan requirements, guarantee issue of individual coverage and more were all happening at once. Were employers going to stop offering coverage? How were competitors going to price their offerings? Would provider networks be broad or narrow? The questions were endless; the answers at the time scarce. In a speech during the lead-up to 2014 I described the situation as carriers “playing chicken on tractors without headlights in a dark cave while blindfolded–at night.”

This is the world into which ACA-seeded health co-ops were born. That they now face  serious financial problems should surprise no one. They saw themselves as “low-cost alternatives” in their markets. If they were going to err in setting prices it was not going to be by setting premiums too high.

Besides, if they priced too low they were protected by the risk corridor program. As described by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which manages the ACA’s financial safety net, the “risk corridors program provides payments to insurance companies depending on how closely the premiums they charge cover their consumers’ medical costs. Issuers whose premiums exceed claims and other costs by more than a certain amount pay into the program, and insurers whose claims exceed premiums by a certain amount receive payments for their shortfall.”

The majority of the nation’s health co-operatives saw claims exceeding premiums. Being on the “shortfall” side of the equation, the government was to come to their rescue like the proverbial cavalry with the money needed to keep them going.

Except the cavalry is a no-show. Too few carriers had too little claims surpluses to cover the too large losses of too many health plans. Only 12.6 cents on the dollar due under the risk corridor program is expected to make it to plans on the shortfall side of the equation the CMS announced on October 1st.

The Math Always Wins

Several of the health co-ops were in financial trouble before this news. Losing millions of dollars in expected relief doomed more. As of today, the dollars-and-cents have failed to add up for CoOportunity Health (the co-op in Iowa and Nebraska), the Kentucky Health Cooperative (which also served West Virginians), Louisiana Health Cooperative, Health Republic Insurance of New York, Health Republic Insurance of Oregon, the Nevada Health CO-OP, Community Health Alliance (a Tennessee co-op), and the Colorado HealthOP. Just to use the Colorado situation as an example, the Colorado HealthOp needed $16.2 million; they expect to receive $2 million.

Do these failures mean health insurance co-ops are a bad idea? Not necessarily. What they point to is that health co-ops may have been better off focusing on bringing competition to markets where there were too few plans, not joining a pack where there were enough. Even then, the collapse of the risk corridor program may have doomed them, but they’d have stood a better chance.

As noted above, Senator Conrad modeled the health co-operatives on electrical co-ops found in some rural communities. Where too few customers make it unprofitable for traditional utilities to invest in the infrastructure required, consumers, seeking electricity, not profits, come together to extend the grid.

Those implementing the ACA should have followed this model. Instead of funding 23 health co-operatives, the Administration should have offered seed money to fewer co-ops located where they would be the alternative in the market, not just another one. This may have allowed them to extend financial support long enough to at least partially offset the risk corridor shortfall. Then, just maybe, we could have avoided the “surprise” of failing health co-ops.

Health Care Reform Absent from Democratic Debate

Two hours of policy-heavy dialogue and, unless I missed it, not one of the five Democratic candidates for President uttered the words “Obamacare,” “Affordable Care Act” or “health care reform.” True, Senator Bernie Sanders brought up “Medicare for all” and declared that health care coverage is a right of citizenship. However, there was no mention of his remarks by the other candidates, former Senator Lincoln Chafee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Governor Martin O’Malley, and former Senator Jim Webb.

Update: October 14, 2015: Oops. There was a brief discussion of allowing undocumented immigrants eligible for coverage under the ACA. The focus of this segment was immigration and the candidates mention of health care was incidental. I don’t think this undermines the point of this post, but they did mention it. My bad.

Ignoring health care reform is a s pretty amazing development when you think about it. Health care reform was a big part of the Democratic presidential primary campaign in 2008. The passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010 turned American politics upside down adding copious amounts of fuel to the Tea Party movement. Yet, in the CNN/Facebook debate from Las Vegas … not a word.

I’m not saying CNN should have made health care reform the primary topic of Tuesday night’s Democratic debate. However, a short simple question soliciting short simple answers would have, I believe, highlighted some differences among the candidates. At the very least it would have contrasted the Democrats running for president from the Republicans seeking the office.

My hoped for question: “What changes to the Affordable Care Act, if any, would you seek if elected President?”

We know Senator Sanders’ response: he’d scrap the Affordable Care Act for a single payer system. Would any of the others join him? Maybe. Would any of them defend the health care reform law as is? Possibly. Quizzing the candidates on legalizing marijuana was of interest to some, no doubt, but, in my mind at least, finding out what they’d change in the ACA is both a more important and fascinating topic.Of course, given the topic of this blog, I am a bit biased.

Jeb Bush Reveals Health Care Reform Plan

Ironically, this is the day former Republican presidential candidate, Governor Jeb Bush, detailed his health care reform proposal. Calling the ACA a “monstrosity,” Governor Bush said the government should help Americans obtain catastrophic coverage (albeit with a preventive care component) to protect them from financial ruin, but not force individuals to buy and businesses to offer comprehensive coverage.He would require carriers to cover insured’s pre-existing conditions for individuals who maintain continuous coverage.

Under Governor Bush’s proposal, individuals without employer coverage would receive tax credits allowing them to buy coverage against “high cost medical events.” Governor Bush also called for raising the contributions limits allowed on health savings accounts.

Significantly, Governor Bush recognizes that the ACA can’t simply be repealed without serious adverse impacts on what he calls “the 17 million Americans entangled in Obamacare.” He calls for a transition plan to help them move from the ACA to the Governor’s system.

Governor Bush’s health care reform plan also calls for restoring state regulation of insurance markets, promotion of health information technology adoption, wellness rewards and innovation in care delivery models. An interesting, and maybe wishful, provision of his proposal is “an app on your smart phone that calls your doctor to your front door, just as it does for a car to come pick you up.”

Maybe Next Time

Health care reform in general and the Affordable Care Act will no doubt be a big part of the general election. Governor Bush has laid out one approach for Republicans. It would be nice to learn a bit more about what Democrats would do. CBS hosts the next one on November 14th. Maybe the issue will come up then.

Is requesting one straightforward health care reform question asking for too much?