Health Care Reform: The Individual-Small Group Seesaw

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked about health care reform is whether the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will result drive people from group plans to individual plans or vice versa. It’s an interesting question. We have enough information to make some guesses, but not enough to know. And there are reasonable scenarios that can be created for each conclusion.

An individual coverage scenario: No small business owner I’ve met got into business for the thrill of buying health insurance for the company.  Now health care reform makes it easy for them to get out of the insuring business: give every worker a small raise along with the URL for the state health insurance exchange. The employees benefit: they get to choose their own health plan and some may qualify for premium subsidies. Their coverage isn’t tied to their employment and they can keep their plan if they change jobs. They don’t even need to spend all of their raise on premiums nor are they locked into the exchange. Once the employer decides not to provide coverage they can obtain individual coverage where they please.

Employers benefit from no longer having to shop for health insurance for their workers (they’ll have to shop for their own families, but that’s a lot less stressful). No more complaints. No more  bookkeeping.

A small group coverage scenario: Small business owners aren’t required to purchase coverage today, but there are good reasons for their doing so — and those reasons aren’t changed by health care reform. Providing health insurance helps small businesses recruit and retain good employees. Employers’ contributions to health insurance premiums makes coverage more affordable for employees. Yes, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act provides subsidies to some workers, but only those earning less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($43,320 for an individual and $88,200 for a family of four in 2010).  So, depending on their salary, sending employees to the individual market will be perceived as a loss to some employees.

Even if employees receive a small raise to help them with buying their own coverage, employees may see the loss of work-based coverage. How long before that raise is considered just part of their salary? A month? A quarter? The connection between the raise and the coverage is tenuous and easily forgotten. Look at it from an employee’s point of view who …

  • Receives a raise and buys own coverage: my boss gave me a $200 raise. Coverage costs $250. Wow that’s a lot. Of course, after the raise it’s a net expense of $50, but still — $250 a month for insurance is a lot of money.
  • Has employer-provided coverage: My share of the health insurance premium is just $50. My neighbor pays $250. I’ve got a good deal.

Which way?

There’s a lot of other factors that will impact the movement of consumers between individual and small group plans. Employers may cover the cost of Bronze benefit plans and allow each employee to buy-up to a Silver or Gold offering. Companies could drop — or add — ancillary products like dental, life, long term care or disability coverage. The exchange could be easier to use than is anticipated today — or much harder.

Predicting whether health care reform will shift consumers from small group to individual or move them the other way is simply guesswork at this point. My advice to brokers who ask what they should do to prepare for this seesaw ride is to get engaged in both market segments. Brokers active in both the individual and small group markets will have plenty of customers regardless of which direction the teeter totters. I also suggest they become expert on assorted other benefit plans (voluntary benefits, group dental, life, long term care and disability). That way they’ll have additional opportunities to meet clients’ needs. Success under health care reform will go to the nimble and flexible.

What’s your guess? (Please vote only once)

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