That health care reform would include an insurance exchange has been all but a given for months. Democrats and Republicans alike are enamored with the idea of creating a marketplace in which individuals, small business and maybe larger enterprises could shop for health insurance. There are differing opinions as to whether these exchanges simply help purchasers compare plans on an apples-to-apples basis by presenting benefits and rates in a common format and language (along with providing common enrollment forms and the like) or whether they should also negotiate benefit and pricing with carriers and help users select and purchase coverage. What is rarely brought up is that exchanges are effective only if they are innocuous or cheat.
By innocuous I mean they serve simply as a data resource, providing consumers basic information in a common format and using a common terminology. Don’t get me wrong. This would be an extremely valuable service. Numerous brokers provide this kind of information today, but they’re hamstrung by the differing language and descriptions used by carriers. By forcing health plans to adopt a shared language, consumers would enjoy greater clarity when determining what plan to buy.
By cheating I mean that the playing field needs to be tilted in the favor of the exchange or it will not either deliver the intended value or last very long. That’s not the point of an op-ed in the New York Times by Cappy McGarr, who helped launch Texas’ version of a purchasing pool back in 1993, but it’s a fair conclusion. (Note: you may need to register with the New York Times web site to view the article, but registration is free. And my thanks to reader Nosedoc for bringing this opinion piece to my attention). Mr. McGarr describes the failure of purchasing pools to take hold last decade in Texas, California, North Carolina and Florida. He blames their failure on cherry picking by private carriers outside the exchange, claiming these carriers signed up “all the small businesses with generally healthy employees and offload(ed) the bad risk … onto the exchange.”
From what I saw of the California version of a purchasing pool, Mr. McGarr claim is accurate in defining the problem, but wrong in describing the cause. California’s purchasing pool (called the Health Insurance Plan of California, or HIPC) did attract groups with higher claims. But this wasn’t the result of carriers directing expensive insureds to the pools as claimed by Mr. McGarr. Instead it was the direct result of a decision taken by the HIPC’s administrators.
Outside the HIPC, private carriers were required to accept all small groups applying for coverage, but could adjust rates up or down 10 percent based on a group’s risk profile. Virtually all of them did. The HIPC could have used this legal rating band, but its leadership chose not to do so. (The members and staff of the agency responsible for the HIPC were bright, well intentioned individuals, but they were reacting, at least in part, to public policy concerns, not a business needs). This meant low risk groups found the market outside more attractive and high risk groups found the offerings within the HIPC more attractive. The result is neither sinister nor should it be unexpected.
When competing against the private market, exchanges will have other disadvantages. For example, government agencies must hold open and public meetings. This is a good thing, the government shouldn’t operate behind closed doors. But it’s also a cumbersome process. Businesses need to adjust quickly to changing circumstances, move quickly to seize unexpected opportunities and to avoid unanticipated dangers. Government enterprises are restricted in their ability to take fast action; private companies are not.
So how can exchanges compete with a vibrant market beyond their jurisdiction? One way is to give the exchanges advantages over the private market; the other is to hobble the private market. For example, the legislation making its way through Congress offers premium subsidies to lower income Americans. yet those subsidies can only be used within the exchange. Why? If coverage outside the exchange meets the definition of acceptable coverage, shouldn’t consumers have the choice to use their subsidies on whatever plan they determine best fits their needs? Lawmakers claim to support consumer choice, but here’s an example of where members of both parties are willing to restrict that choice. Other methods of tilting the playing field? Force carriers to participate in the exchange. Limit what they can do with their non-exchange products.
Mr. McGarr’s suggested solution is to require private carriers to accept all applicants (an idea nearly everyone, including the private carriers agrees upon) and to prevent them from adjusting rates based on health status. He notes, however, that enforcement will be challenging and then makes an interesting proposal: instead of creating exchanges to foster competition, create a public plan.
As regular readers know, I’m not a fan of public plans. But it is interesting to think about the trade-off. If a public plan was required to play by the same rules as private carriers (no fair simply reimbursing providers a percentage of Medicare rates) and be self-sufficient, would that be worse than creating exchanges that lawmakers will find ways of benefitting through a tilted playing field? After all, if exchanges are to have a significant impact on the cost of health insurance, they will need to negotiate rates with doctors and hospitals. But that’s not what they do. It is, however, what public plans do.
Not that we have a choice, but if we did, which would you choose? An exchange? Or a public plan?