Rate Regulation Grants Announced by HHS

Carriers set health insurance premiums based on several criteria. The single biggest component is the expected cost and utilization of medical services. Then there’s the need to cover overhead (such as operations, sales costs, marketing and armies of lawyers to deal with regulation) and profit (or retained earnings for non-profits). Insurers know they don’t operate in a vacuum, however, so they consider the pricing of competitors as well.

What’s a reasonable premium? Arguably it’s one that covers claims, operations, provides a profit, but is still affordable to consumers, at least relative to the pricing of competing carriers. This approach assumes an effective market. Carriers that get greedy (and overcharge) will lose market share to more fairly priced competitors. Those that underprice their plans one year will need to seek large premium increases the following year to make up for losses. At any one time a particular carrier’s pricing may be out-of-whack (to use the technical term), but over time the market is supposed to work things out to keep pricing reasonable.

The market, however, can be messy. A carrier seeking to make up for losses in prior years may need to seek substantial rate increases (think 40-to-50 percent).  Within the walls of the insurance company such increases makes perfect sense. Medical costs and utilization are skyrocketing. Operating efficiencies take time to achieve (without totally degrading customer service). Executives are rarely first in line to reduce their own take-home pay (nor would it amount to a lot if they did). The only way to make up for underpricing errors is to raise rates – a lot.

Outside the bubble that is most corporations, however, double-digit premium increases appear more like highway robbery than a logical business decision. How many items in our economy go up 10, 20, 40 percent of more each year? Year-after-year? Cars don’t. Most food items don’t. Gas prices may skyrocket, but they drop from time-to-time, too. Health insurance premiums seem to be on a one-way trajectory upward. When’s the last time health insurance premiums fell? (1996 is the last time I recall, but I may be missing some other exceptions).

This pricing trend is unsustainable. Some of you may recall the “rule of 72” from your economics (or math) classes. The rule of 72 is a way to estimate how long, given a growth rate, it takes to double a number. Just divide the assumed rate of growth into 72. Invest $100 in an account paying 5 percent interest and your principal will double in roughly 14.4 years (72/5 = 14.4). Increase the cost of health insurance by 10 percent per year and premiums will double in 7.2 years.

So here’s the situation: carriers price their products to cover their costs (both claims and administration), to earn a profit and to be competitive in the marketplace. Consumers see their costs increasing at unacceptable levels. What’s a lawmaker to do?

If that lawmaker believes in markets they let nature take its course. If the lawmaker: 1) believes the market isn’t working; and 2) government needs to step in when markets are broken, you require carriers to get government approval before raising their rates. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act includes provisions to encourage this latter approach. Or as the federal government’s web site puts it, “The affordable Care Act provides new tools and resources to protect consumers and employers from large and unreasonable health insurance premium hikes.”

That encouragement is the reason the Department of Health and Human Services is making $199 million in grant funds available to help states “create or enhance their premium rate review programs.” The goal is to bring greater transparency to the rate making process while assuring that the states are “comprehensively” reviewing carrier’s proposed prices hikes.

The idea is to prevent “unreasonable” rate increases – which begs the question: what’s unreasonable? According to a regulation proposed by HHS, that would be any rate increase of 10% or more in the individual and small group market segments. Maybe. The 10 percent threshold doesn’t determine whether a rate increase in unreasonable, but it would trigger a state review to determine if it is. Carriers would also need to post their justification for such rate increases on the Internet.

Personally, I don’t mind increased transparency in health insurance pricing. As I’ve written before, carriers need to educate consumers and lawmakers about the value they provide. After years of being hammered politicians in both parties and reams of articles about denied or rescinded coverage, the general public would be excused asking “what is it you folks do that’s of any benefit?”

So if the states ask tough questions and make carriers justify their increases, I’m fine with it. A second set of objective eyes couldn’t hurt and as I’ve noted in an earlier post, the resulting dialogue could be a way to educate the public about how rates are driven by the cost of medical care. But what we’re likely to see is an increasing number of states deciding their regulators need to sign off on any rate increase (some states already do this).

Inserting politics into the premium setting process distorts an already messy process. What politicians (or their appointees) are going to sign off on a significant rate increase – even an objectively necessary substantial premium hike – in the middle of an election season? Rates are already impacted by the underwriting cycle, now they are to be beholden to election cycles? The calculation for a politician is simple: if they allow a substantial rate increase they anger voters; if they deny it they upset an insurance carrier. Sure they could try to explain to their constituents why the rate hike was needed. But that’s hard work. It’s far easier to just say no.

Nor are public officials likely to link medical cost increases to premium hikes. Far easier to attribute increasing costs to greedy insurance executives than doctors or hospitals. Nor is there anything regulators with the authority to reject premium increases can do about increases to medical costs. The PPACA does not give states the power to tell doctors what they should charge for a given procedure. Anyone who has read this blog for long knows I’m not a fan of a single payer health care system. I do respect, however, the honesty of single payer advocates who recognize that their approach is about controlling the cost of health care at its source – what doctors and hospitals charge for care.

Advocates of increased government involvement in rate setting believe it will help lower costs. And there’s no requirement that states seek approval powers over premiums to qualify for the grants. But some (I’m looking at you California) no doubt will.

There are cost containment provisions in the PPACA. Certainly not enough, but they’re there. Rate regulation, and encouraging states to establish themselves as the final arbiters of what rate increases are permissible, is not one of them.

New York Shows Perils of Imbalanced Health Care Reform

One area of agreement likely to be quickly identified at President Barack Obama’s bi-partisan health care reform summit on Thursday is the principal that carriers should be required to accept all applicants for coverage regardless of their health status. This concept, known as “guarantee issue,”  is high on the wish list of Republicans and Democrats alike. What will be far more divisive is whether a requirement that carriers sell health insurance coverage to all consumers should be balanced against a requirement that all consumers buy health insurance coverage.

The issue has both a political and a substantive component. Politically Republicans, and some Democrats, consider forcing individuals to purchase coverage to be overly paternalistic, unfair, a tax-by-another-name, and/or yet another step toward socialism.

From a public policy point of view, it’s hard to see how a system can work without a balance between the requirement to sell and to buy coverage. Otherwise people will wait until they need the insurance before they obtain it. It’s the equivalent of allowing motorists to buy auto insurance from the tow truck driver who shows up at a car wreck. Why buy it before you need it?

Noam Levey, in a thorough article running in the Los Angeles Times describes the costly mistake New York made when it required carriers to sell coverage to all applicants without mandating that individuals purchase coverage. After nearly two decades of this situation health insurance premiums in New York “are now the highest in the nation by some measures, with individual health coverage costing about $9,000 a year on average. And nearly one in seven New Yorkers still lacks health coverage, a greater proportion than before the law was passed.” In some New York counties, Mr. Levey reports “it is impossible to buy an individual plan for less than $12,000 a year.” For some older residents in other states, premiums of $1,000 per month may be close to what they’re paying now. But because New York has pure community rating (meaning all insureds pay the same premium regardless of their age) $12,000 is the premium facing 24 year olds, not just 64 year olds.

I’ve written about this health care reform surcharge frequently and for a long time. The Los Angeles Times article does a great job of showing why New York should serve as a case study on the issue for negotiators at the health care reform summit in Washington. The message is simple.  Mark Hall, a Wake Forest University economist who has studied New York’s experience, summarizes it well in the Los Angeles Times article: “You basically can’t have a functioning insurance market if people can buy insurance on the way to the hospital.”

If those at the summit are serious about solving problems they’ll recognize this reality. However, even folks who should know better, by which I mean anyone with an insurance license, condemn requiring individuals to obtain coverage as un-American in some way. (Never mind the various other duties we impose on citizens in this country.)  The Administration and Republicans are likely to reach an impasse on this issue.

There is at least one other way to balance guarantee issue with the need to prevent gaming with the system. As I’ve suggested before, the solution is to allow carriers to exclude coverage for existing health conditions and to impose a premium surcharge on those applying for coverage who have gone without health insurance for a significant period of time.  The premium surcharge and pre-existing exclusion period could vary depending on how long the individual went without coverage. This approach is a part of the California Association of Health Underwriter’s Healthy Solutions health care reform plan.

Yes, premium subsidies would be required to help lower income Americans purchase the coverage. Republicans have supported refundable tax credits for this purpose in the past while Democrats have put forward direct subsidies. At the end of the day, however, both parties recognize the need to provide premium support. The debate is only over methodology.

The problem with this compromise is that “pre-existing conditions” have become a blasphemous word in Washington, at least among Democrats. Whether they would allow carriers to impose restrictions on existing health problems as an alternative means of encouraging (if not requiring) all consumers to obtain health insurance is unlikely. This is where presidential leadership could make the difference. If President Obama wants bi-partisan health care reform legislation — and, a big if here, the Republicans are willing to negotiate in good faith — the Healthy Solutions method of balancing the need to balance a requirement to sell health insurance with a requirement that consumers obtain it makes sense.

 The health care and health insurance status quo in this country can not long stand. Health care reform is needed. Democrats and Republicans can insist on the purity of their positions. But if they are sincere about solving problems, there are ways to get the job done. The question is, whether there’s the will.

Pointed Questions for WellPoint

On February 24th WellPoint CEO Angela Brady will appear before the House Energy & Commerce Committee. She will attempt to explain why the company’s California operating unit, Anthem Blue Cross of California, recently sought to raise rates on some individual policy holders upward of 39 percent. While the effective date of the rate increase was postponed, the hearing is not. And that it is being held the day before President Barack Obama’s bi-partisan health care reform summit with Congressional leaders is no coincidence. The Administration and others have pointed to the rate increase as one of the reasons comprehensive health care reform – or at least health insurance reform – is needed.

In preparation for the hearing, House & Energy Committee Chair Henry Waxman and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chair Bart Stupak sent a letter to Ms. Braly asking for background information. The information ranges from the general (“reasons for the premium rate increase”) to the specific (for 2005-2008, “a table listing, as applicable, premium revenue, claims payments, sales expenses, other general or administrative expenses, and profits for all individual health insurance products”) to what some might call a fishing expedition “all internal communications, including e-mail, to or from senior corporate management relating to the company’s decision to increase premium rates in California in the individual health insurance market.”)

The hearing will be closely watched, not only by lawmakers but by WellPoint’s competitors. It could provide an interesting glimpse into the rate making process employed by health insurance carriers. The information will certainly be cited by advocates – and opponents – of requiring carriers to spend a certain percentage of the premiums they take in on medical claims as opposed to administrative expenses and profits.

Ms. Braly’s testimony will also likely highlight the different ways politicians and business people view the same data. What to a member of Congress may look like profiteering could look to an executive like a prudent hedge against unknown risk.

The Associated Press has taken a balanced approach to explaining the issues behind the Anthem Blue Cross of California rate increase. The analysis is worthwhile reading for anyone following this particular controversy. Among its conclusions: rising medical costs are the main driver of rate hikes, not profits; health insurance rate regulations vary considerably from state-to-state; non-profit health plans also have large rate increases; carriers can’t, and probably shouldn’t, subsidize rates for one business line in one state with profits earned by other lines of business, especially in other states; and that there’s a lot of elements taken into consideration by carriers when they set their rates. While there’s little specifics many insurance professionals don’t already know (other than the make-up of WellPoint’s profits), it’s a very useful summary and analysis of the issues.

The timing of Anthem Blue Cross of California’s rate increase is generally perceived as constituting political malpractice. But there may be a silver lining. Ms. Braly has an opportunity to educate lawmakers on how and why carriers charge the health insurance premiums they do. If members of the Energy & Commerce Committee are willing to look beyond the politics of the rate increase, they might gain a better understanding of how health insurance works in this country.