Health Insurance Profits May Be Small, But Are An Easy Target

Profits, it seems, is the eye of the beholder. What to one person seems meager appears to the folks next door immorally exorbitant. When it comes to health care reform there are many who perceive the profit margins of health insurance companies are obscene. The politicians and pundits sharing this belief can be viewed with frequency stating their case. It almost seems that they consider the main goal of health care reform as a means of punishing greedy health insurance companies. (That’s not the case, they care about access and affordability, too, but it sometimes does look that way). These are many of the same folks who forget that health insurance premiums are driven by the underlying cost of medical care. It is, after all, so much easier to just attack villains raking in obscene profits than to discuss complex issues like restraining overall health care spending in the country.

A number of sources are beginning to question the math of these carrier critics. The Associated Press, for example, ran a story Sunday noting that health insurance profit margins “typically run about 6 percent, give or take a point or two. That’s anemic compared with other forms of insurance a broad array of industries ….” Among the statistic the Associated Press brings to light:  “Health insurers posted a 2.2 percent profit margin last year, placing them 35th on the Fortune 500 list of top industries. As is typical, other health sectors did much better — drugs and medical products and services were both in the top 10.”

Of course, last year was a bad year for a lot of industries profits, but some did quite well. Tupperware brands had a profit margin of 7.5 percent, Hershey 6.1 percent, and the folks who own KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell earned profits of 8.5 percent.

Another reality check raising doubts on how critics evaluate health insurance profits was published recently by PolitiFact.com. Senator Jay Rockefeller in September claimed “Insurance companies have seen their profits soar by more than 400 percent since 2001,” but the award-winning site, sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times, labels Senator Rockefeller’s charge a half-truth — an in my mind, that’s being kind. The problem with Senator Rockefeller’s statistics is the data is flawed. Senator Rockefeller’s statistics are based on an analysis conducted by Health Care for America Now. They examined profits between 2000 and 2008 of just 10 companies. (Interestingly, Senator Rockefeller cites just the change in profits from 2001-to-2007; if he had used 2008 the rise would have been 249 percent, not the 400 percent he claims).

In analyzing the profits of the big 10 carriers, however, the study ignored increases in profits resulting from carrier consolidation. “When big companies absorb smaller ones, the net effect may be to enlarge the profits of the biggest companies … even as the total size of the health insurance industry — the broader entity that Rockefeller seemed to be referring to — stays roughly the same.” This is more than a little problem as not all those smaller companies are truly “small”  (consider WellPoint’s merger with Anthem). This flaw alone makes any conclusions based on this study open to question.

Some will argue that, when it comes to health care, any profits is immoral. Yet profit exists throughout the system: doctors, nurses, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturers, and others all make a profit (or at least earn a living) from the medical services and products they provide. There’s nothing special or unique about carrier profits. Except that people like doctors and nurses and don’t like health insurance companies.

Instead of focusing on insurance carrier profits, industry critics would make a more significant contribution to the debate by broadening their inquiry to carriers’ administrative costs. This would lead to a more nuanced discussion on the value of expenses such as disease management, marketing, customer service, technology investments, taxes, regulatory compliance costs and, yes, profits, among other expenses. And it would require a discussion of what is an appropriate level for these non-claim costs. Here, I would suggest, the true measure of excessive costs is a carrier’s ability to bring health plans to the market that consumers buy. Carriers unable to control their administrative costs are unlikely to be able to compete long-term — another, more efficient carrier is likely to emerge and capture market share. (Yes, I know that in some states there simply isn’t enough competition among health insurance carriers for competition to work its magic, but in many states there are — and solutions can be found for where it is inadequate).

My point is not that anyone should feel sorry for the relatively low profit margins earned by health plans. Nor am I suggesting that it is unfair to question how insurance companies operate as part of the health care reform debate.

What I’m asking for is a broader examination into all contributors to the cost of health care in America, including looking at how the dominant fee-for-service method of reimbursing doctors and other medical providers, the  near monopolies enjoyed by some hospital chains in many regions of the country, the disparity between prices drug companies charge in the United States versus oversees, and the how medical malpractice and government regulations add to the cost of health care.

Because at the end of the day health care reform will be judged not by its impact on health insurance company profits, but on whether Americans can afford their health insurance coverage.