Requirement that Carriers Justify Double-Digit Rate Increases a Teachable Moment?

Reasonableness, like a host of other things, can be in the eye of the beholder. Regulating reasonableness, consequently, is nothing like a science. Yet the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires health insurance carriers to disclose their reasons for “unreasonable premium increases.” The Department of Health and Human Services has issued a preliminary version of the regulation aimed at determining how and where this rate increase disclosure will take place.

The draft regulation, which is open to comment and subject to change, requires carriers to publicly disclose any individual or small group rate increases higher than 10 percent. While double-digit increases will not be automatically considered unreasonable, they will trigger a review by state or federal regulators to determine if they’re justified. States will get the first shot at scrutinizing the rate hikes. Only if HHS determines a state lacks the ability to do a thorough actuarial review of premium increases will federal regulators step in. States are eligible for federal grants to bolster their review capabilities and 45 states have taken advantage of the program to date.

Over time this 10 percent threshold could be adjusted on a state-by-state basis according to the National Underwriter. “After 2011, a state-specific threshold would be set for the disclosure of rate increases, using data that reflect each state’s cost trends.”

HHS has the authority to require disclosure of large group rate increases, but chose not to do so.. They’re asking for comments on the advisability of seeking disclosure of large group claims, but according to the National Underwriter, regulators are concerned that doing so would not align with current practices. 43 states, however, already review — and some can deny — rate increases on individual and small group medical insurance coverage. Significantly, neither the regulation nor the PPACA gives HHS the power to deny rate increases. If they determine a premium hike sought by a carrier is unjustified it will post that finding on a government website, but the increase will still be permitted (again, unless a state regulator prevents it). 

The mechanics of the rate review are described in the proposed regulation. To oversimplify, if its desired rate increase is over 10 percent or greater, the carrier will need to notify HHS and post its justification on the insurer’s web site. In evaluating the increase HHS will consider whether:

  1. “the rate increase results in a projected future loss ratio below the Federal medical loss ratio (MLR) standard
  2. “one or more of the assumptions on which the rate increase is based are not supported by substantial evidence.
  3. the choice of assumptions or combination of assumptions on which the rate increase is based is unreasonable.”

The timing of the rate increase is determined by state law, so HHS’ review cannot delay implementation of the rate change. What it will do, however, is require disclosure of a great deal of information, bringing an unprecedented amount of transparency to the rate setting process.

Transparency is one of the reasons Consumers Union praises the draft regulation. According to Kansas City InfoZine, its spokesperson, DeAnn Friedholm, cited two benefits the group expects the premium regulations to deliver: “First, it provides a strong incentive for insurers to do a thorough review of their justifications before asking for big rate increases. And second, it will help consumers better understand why their rates are going up and they can decide to look for better plans.”

Which could lead to an interesting result. As the Consumer Union notes, the regulation could “help consumers better understand why their rates are going up .…” And the scrutiny on carriers explanation for increases will be intense. Which makes the posting of the reasons behind the price hikes a powerful  “teachable moment.”

Carriers can use the disclosure to tell a detailed explanation for their actions. For example, in California, hospital rates increased by 150% between 2000 and 2009. Carriers can, and should, get creative in presenting how this medical trend drives premium increases. The question is whether carriers, their actuaries and their attorneys have the skill and willingness to take advantage of this opportunity to present the full story behind skyrocketing insurance costs. Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield provides an example of a meaningful explanation for premium hikes. They even explain the impact of deductible leverage, which is no mean feat.

Regence is providing a general explanation of how pricing works, something other carriers will need to do as well. However, when justifying specific rate increases, Regence and others should go further, naming names. A hospital increases their reimbursement rates by 10%? Name the hospital. A pharmaceutical manufacturer introduces a new drug that costs 20% more than the effective medicine it replaces? Name the drug and the manufacturer.

Carriers could – and should – get even more specific. If the hospital initially sought a 20% increase the insurer should note it’s success in reducing the increase. After all, the beneficiaries of carriers’ successful negotiations with providers are consumers. As I’ve noted previously, health insurers need to do a better job justifying their role in the system. Most health insurance executives would justify their enterprise’s contribution to the system as lowering the cost of health care. Yet with every rate increase they undermine this argument by offering the broad excuse that premiums are rising due to increases in “medical inflation.” Well, now they have the forum and the reason to be specific about what — and who — is driving that inflation.

Who knows, some day regulators may decide to ask medical providers if their charges are reasonable. Until then, there’s no reason carriers can’t ask that question – publicly and loudly. As long as transparency is coming to rate setting, the bright light of disclosure may as well shine on as many parts of the system as possible.

NAIC Submits Standardized Benefit Summary Recommendations to HHS

Before I worked for a carrier I’d often wonder if the folks who write health plan benefit descriptions go to a special school that teaches them how to write these documents in as confusing and obtuse a manner as possible. After all, each carrier writes documents in their own way sometimes using the same or similar terms to mean something different. As a General Agent, my first job in the industry back in the early 80s, I spent considerable time trying to rewrite these benefit summaries into a somewhat standardized form to help brokers and their clients make more accurate and meaningful apples-to-apples comparisons.

Even today general agents and quoting systems devote a tremendous amount of time, money and resources to molding the various descriptions published by health plans into standard benefit summaries. In fact, one of the biggest barriers of entry for new software aimed at presenting rates and benefits is not the quoting engine itself, but the data entry and especially the benefit descriptions. Given the number of medical insurers and HMOs competing in today’s health care system and that even the offerings from the same carrier can vary significantly from state-to-state, we’re talking about literally thousands of benefit plans. The effort required to wrestle this tsunami of data into a standard format has required a Herculean effort.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is about to change that. Section 1001(5) of the PPACA requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to work with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners to develop standards for benefit summaries and coverage explanations for individual and group insurance products. Significantly, HHS and the NAIC is required to establish a working group of representatives from carriers, consumer groups and others with expertise in the area.

After over 25 meetings lasting over 120 cumulative hours with approximately 100 working group members or observers participating, the NAIC has sent to the Secretaries of HHS and the Labor Department their recommendations for both standard benefit descriptions and a glossary.  The recommendations are now available for public review and comment. The Secretary of HHS is required to finalize the standards by March 23, 2011 and carriers must provide the forms to consumers beginning March 23, 2012.

The glossary uses plain language to describe terms of art such as co-insurance, deductible, balance billing, primary care provider and the like. Some terms, such as “formulary” are missing, but the list is relatively complete and will no doubt be added to over time.

And these are terms of art. I once did a man-on-the-street interview asking random individuals what certain health insurance terms meant. One, a teacher, described “co-insurance” as referring to the situation where two people in the same household both have insurance. (Being me, I asked if the two people had to be married. He replied that was a local issue, but not in San Francisco).

For those unfamiliar with the term, the NAIC proposed glossary defines co-insurance as “Your share of the costs of a covered health care service, calculated as a percent (for example, 20%) of the allowed amount for the service. You pay co-insurance plus any deductibles you owe. For example, if the health insurance or plan’s allowed amount for an office visit is $100 and you’ve met your deductible, your co-insurance payment of 20% would be $20. The health insurance or plan pays the rest of the allowed amount.” (And. yes, “Allowed Amount” is also defined in the glossary).

The draft NAIC standardized benefit summary is also a remarkably document. (Remarkable in that most people don’t expect government committees to put forward clearly written work). One welcome feature: in addition to explaining the benefits, the NAIC benefit descriptions also includes a short “Why This Matters” statement which puts the information into a useful context.

The documents could be improved, but even as they stand, they’re much better than what is often provided by carriers and quoting systems. And by aggregating these descriptions in one place they will make it easier for entrepreneurs to find new and helpful ways to provide this kind of information to consumers.

Working at a carrier I discovered there was no school teaching brochure writers to be confusing. Lawyers and the general dynamics of “writing by committee” made such a school unnecessary. And the impact of these groups will continue to assure that each carrier presents information in a unique voice. Still the standardized formats will assure a lot more transparency and clarity across products than exists today.

The PPACA has many provisions that are counter-productive. Anything it does to bring intelligibility and understanding to plan descriptions, however, is a good thing.

California Hospital Charges Increase 150% in 10 Years

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act does a great deal to address insurance industry practices. The new health care reform law, however, has been rightly criticized as failing to directly and forcefully attack rising medical costs, the primary driver of insurance premiums. Yes, the new law establishes.

The PPACA has a number of pilot projects, demonstration programs, and studies buried in its provisions that could, in time, lower overall cost spending. And supporters of the bill will argue that the Medical Loss Ratio provision is aimed at keeping down the cost of coverage. (Ironically, the MLR limits may have the unintended consequence of raising insurance costs. Administrative costs are usually fixed and independent of the premium paid. The cost to have a claims representative process a claim is the same whether the coverage cost $1,000 or $3,000 per year. But the $1,000 policy makes only $200 available for administrative expenses under the medical loss ratio calculation; the $3,000 plan makes $600 available. In other words, because the MLR rules apply percentages, carriers have an incentive to eliminate low-cost plans).

Carriers need to educate lawmakers and the public about the elements that go into a premium rate. Yes, profit and overhead are a part of the cost. But the biggest driver of health insurance premiums is the underlying cost of medical care. And the carrier community may have begun this educational process.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry trade association, released a study showing that, in California, hospital charges increased 150 percent between 2000 and 2009. The Sacramento Bee, quotes AHIP spokesperson Robert Zirkelbach as observing “What this data shows is that there needs to be much greater focus on the underlying cost of medical care that is driving those premium increases. At some point, people will have to address these underlying cost drivers if health care costs are going to come down.” In other words, you’ve taken your shot at the insurers, now, if you’re serious about reducing costs, let’s look at the hospitals.

Interestingly the AHIP report acknowledges that hospitals and other providers of medical care need to make up for underpayments by government health programs. In California, between 2000 and 2009, hospitals charges to health plans rose by 159 percent. This is more than twice the rate of increase for Medicare and eight times the increase hospitals received for Medi-Cal – the state’s version of Medicaid.

Needless to say the hospitals didn’t appreciate AHIP pointing this out. “It’s really tough for a pot to call a kettle black,” the Sacramento Bee reports Scott Seamons, the regional vice president for the Hospital Council of Northern and Central California. I don’t know if Mr. Seamons intended to acknowledge that hospitals are at least as much at fault for rising insurance premiums as carriers, but if the insurance companies are the pot and the hospitals the kettle, that is what he’s saying. If so, that would be a refreshing dose of frankness to the dialogue. Meanwhile, consumer groups, not unexpectedly, accused the AHIP of trying to shift the blame for rising premiums. Apparently they can’t accept that anything other than insurer greed and profiteering drives insurance premiums. Any correlation with hospital charges or medical inflation are merely accidental.

All of this rhetoric and accusing is standard issue among advocacy groups and trade associations. And if all that comes out of the report are fingers among these usual suspects pointing at the usual places, then this report will have done little good. If, however, the study represents the beginning of a concerted effort to bring to the public’s attention what drives their insurance premiums; if it leads lawmakers to ask “why” hospitals needed a 159 percent rate increase over 10 years; if it gets people thinking about the monopoly position some hospital chains enjoy – and employ – in parts of the state, that’s something altogether different. Because if these possibilities become reality, the AHIP report may be seen as an important start to what will be a long, but critical, educational effort.

Health Care is Local

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously noted that “all politics is local.” And he’s right. He was not talking about the rules of the political game. Those are established by a national constitution and subject to state laws as well as local ones. He meant that the political dynamics of each district are what determines the ideological shading of a district.

Some examples are obvious: compare the voting record of legislators from Massachusetts and Utah. Others are less so: Republican Senator Charles Grassley had been a reasonable voice on health care reform until he remembered he was up for reelection in 2010 and saw how conservative Iowans were responding to unfounded claims of “death panels” and the like; he is now embracing aspects of the silliness.

Health care is local, too. The medical delivery system in Los Angeles looks far different from the one in Cheyenne. Even what’s considered standard treatment varies from community to community. And as Dr. Atul Gawande demonstrated in his New Yorker article, the cost of care varies greatly among localities based on medical provider’s approach to health care.

How the local nature of politics and health care interact underscores the complexity of health care reform. Because health care is local, what’s broken in the current system varies from place-to-place. Because politics and is local, acceptable solutions vary depending on locale. It may just be a coincidence, but it is worth noting that the initial advocate for community-based health insurance co-operatives, Senator Kent Conrad, hails from North Dakota where rural electricity co-operatives are common while many of those claiming only a government-run health plan will do represent urban areas.

Recognizing this dynamic, the the House Energy and Commerce Committee has described HR 3200’s impact on each Congressional District. (My thanks to Dwight Mazzone for bringing these documents to my attention). Reading through these is a glimpse of the richness and variety of America.

For example, in Wyoming (which has one Representative for the entire state) up to 19,000 businesses would be eligible for tax credits to pay for health insurance, 7,400 seniors would benefit from reducing brand name drug costs, much of the $23 million in uncompensated care hospitals and health providers face would be eliminated, and the tax surcharge to pay for reform would impact 3,120 households.

Compare this to the Los Angeles area district represented by Henry Waxman, the Chair of the Energy and Commerce. In California’s 30th District up to 14,300 businesses would be eligible for the subsidy, 5,200 seniors would see lower prescription costs, hospitals and other providers would be relieved of much of the $85 million in uncompensated care they deal with today, while 22,100 households would pay the tax surcharge.

The statistics cited come from legitimate sources, but are presented in order to muster support for HR 3200. Were the same information to be presented by House Republicans it would no doubt have a different spin. Nonetheless, the information is a treasure trove of insight into the local politics and health care that drives the health care reform debate.

These statistics should also give lawmakers demanding a single, one-size-fits-all solution to health care reform pause. As I’ve argued before, state health care reform efforts usually fail. America’s health care system is too large, too interrelated and too complex to be reformed on a state-by-state basis. States lack the tools needed to make meaningful changes work; the national government has those tools. However, the reforms themselves could benefit from local implementation. For instance, instead of creating one, national government-run health plan to compete with private carriers, enabling the creation of local health insurance co-operatives to generate competition where it is needed is more appropriate.

Finding the balance between federal and local management of health care is critical to a well-functioning medical system. It is also good politics.

A Hybrid Health Care System: Good Politics; Unrealistic Policy

When it comes to topics as complex as health care reform, the legislative dance generally involves two steps.  The first focuses on educating decision makers. It’s a sincere effort to learn the facts, understand the options and identify the trade-offs. Yes, there’s a political element to this phase, but there’s more often a genuine desire to learn about the issue.

The second step in the dance is when the actual language is drafted. This is the phase in which partisanship dominates, where the goal is to win, not educate. Yes, compromises will emerge, and hopefully they’ll be informed by the educational phase that went before, but this is when decisions get made. Which means it’s when political muscle matters more than the ability to educate.

We’re still in the educational step — for now. But the step is coming soon and outlines of the political phase are becoming clear. As I’ve written before, one of the key issues will be whether there should be a government-run health plan competing with private carriers for consumer’s premium.   Proponents see this hybrid approach as a way to drive down costs while keeping private health plans honest. Opponents see it as a big step to government takeover of the health insurance industry.

The Lewin Group published a study today that bolsters the argument of opponents. Entitled “The Cost and Coverage Impacts of a Public Plan: Alternative Design Options” the report attempts to quantify the impact a federal offering would have on private competitors (and on the income of providers). And that impact is substantial. The study assumes health plan offers coverage comparable to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Standard Option within the Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan (meeting President Barack Obama’s promise to offer all American’s access to the same coverage as members of Congress).  If this government competitor sets doctor and hospital reimbursement at the same level as is used by Medicare, the Lewin Group predicts over 131 million Americans would enroll — approximately 119 million of them shifting from private plans.

If the government alternative is made available only to individuals, the self-employed and small businesses the impact is significantly less, but still substantial.  The study estimates 42.9 million Americans would enroll in the government offering — 32 million of them moving from private plans.

While several factors were taken into account by the study’s authors, John Sheils and Randy Haught, the most impactful driver was cost. The theory is that the federal-plan would impose Medicare reimbursement rates on doctors, hospitals and other medical care providers. This gives the public plan a 30-to-40 percent premium advantage over comparable coverage offered by private carriers. The reason: as noted by in the study “payment levels for hospital services under Medicare are equal to only about 71 percent of what is paid by private health plans for the same service.” Indeed, this reimbursement rate covers “only between 92 percent and 95 percent of the cost of the services provided by the hospitals.” 

When it comes to doctors, the Medicare reimbursement rates are about 81 percent of that paid by private carriers.  The study assumes the public plan would have a further pricing advantage due to lower administrative costs resulting from there being no need to earn “insurer profit and insurance agent and broker commissions and fees.” But the big savings comes from the reduced claims costs.

Today, hospitals and other providers make up for the shortfall in revenue received for services to Medicare patients by increasing the fees charged to their insured patients. While this hidden tax raises the costs of premiums, it impacts on private carriers is somewhat equal. Since the Medicare population is distinct from the commercial market, the playing field remains level.

If the government were to step onto the field as a player, however, the dynamic changes. Now a competitor gains the pricing advantage — and that advantage would grow over time. As the public plan attracts more members, providers will see an increasingly negative impact on their income. The severity of the impact depends greatly on whether the public plan is open to all employers or only small businesses, the self-employed and individuals. If everyone has access to the public plan, the ability to shift costs to privately insured patients is greatly reduced. Under the latter scenario, providers could more than make up for the government’s underpayment by charging higher rates to large group insureds while also benefiting from a reduction in the number of uninsureds.

The likelihood, however, is that all Americans will have access to the public plan. President Obama has clearly linked health care reform to his economic recovery efforts. Large companies (think the auto firms) need the relief offered by the availability of a public plan — especially a public plan offering a 30-to-40 percent premium advantage.

The spiral would kick in rather quickly. As the public plan attracts more members, rates charged by private plans would go higher driving even more insureds to the government offering. Eventually, the only health plan standing would be the government’s.

Some might claim that the public plan would be unable — or unwilling — to use Medicare reimbursement rates. But why? The entire purpose of the government coverage is to drive down costs. Voluntarily paying providers more than Medicare would run counter to the governing agency’s mission.

There’s some caveats to this bleak scenario. It’s a good idea to be skeptical of all studies that estimate the future impact of unknown legislation. I’m not questioning the authors motivation or scientific rigor, but studies like this are, ultimately, educated guesses based on assumptions that may not come to pass and whose unintended consequences cannot, by definition, be anticipated.

Nonetheless, the study does raise the likelihood that the coming debate over whether there should be a public alternative available in the private market is the wrong topic. The Lewin Group Study underscores how difficult it will be for the government to maintain a level playing field while it competes on that field. And once the playing field begins to tilt in its favor, the result is inevitable: eventually the public plan will be the only player on the field.

So the debate is really whether Americans want a private health care system or a public system for all. There is no middle ground. The hybrid approach won’t last — eventually it will become a public system. So while the hybrid approach is attractive politically, it’s a false choice from a policy perspective.

There’s a legitimate debate to be had over whether the government should replace private carriers. That’s the debate lawmakers should have — especially while we’re still in the educational phase of the legislative dance. Calling for a mixed system sounds nice, but it’s not really an option. And health care reform is too important to debate fantasies.

Out-of-Network Scandal is a Good Thing

As they said in the 60s, “you’re either on the bus or off the bus.” Were Ken Kesey talking in a more modern medical context he might have said “you’re either in the network or out of the network.” And being out of the network can be costly.

Unlike HMOs, which are closed systems — your health plan covers treatment within their network or, with few exceptions,  doesn’t cover the service at all — PPOs are more open. You get a higher reimbursement for seeing providers within the health plan’s network or you get reduced coverage for services from non-network physicians. The benefits to all concerned are rather straightforward: the physicians and other providers offer the health plan lower rates in exchange for the health plan encouraging patients to see those providers. The health plan pays less so can offer their coverage at a lower cost, increasing their market share. Consumers pay less out-of-pocket when they use one of these preferred providers. Yet, if the consumer does seek medical care from a provider outside the network, the health plan pays a significant portion of the bill.

In theory, what the carrier pays for out-of-network services is a percentage of the usual, reasonable and customary (“UCR”) charges imposed by most providers in that community. That sounds fair: if a consumer chooses to engage a doctor who is more expensive than the norm, the consumer should pay for excess cost.

The problem is that few people know what the UCR cost is for any given treatment. Heck, physicians rarely know what the UCR is for their community for a particular service. When the carrier notifies the patient that their doctor charged more than what is typical it’s too late for the patient to do much about it. The result: angry patients, frustrated doctors and another deposit of ill-will in the industry’s karma account.

At the heart of the problem is defining “usual, reasonable and customary.” In the end, despite all the surveys and actuarial work, a high level of subjectivity is involved. How is it measured? Who determines if the costs are “reasonable” even if they are usual and customary. There’s a lot of wiggle room in the data base.

For years, the “decider,” as a past president would put it, for the nation’s largest health plans has been a company called Ingenix. Ingenix is owned by UnitedHealth Group, Inc., which also owns the health plan United HealthCare. Even though Ingenix is owned by a competitor, most of the major health plans in the country relied on its billing information for determining what out-of-network charges they would pay.

Not for long. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo went after Ingenix and UnitedHealth for manipulating reimbursement rates and defrauding consumers. As a result of Attorney General Cuomo’s actions, Ingenix will exit the billing database business and UnitedHealth will pay $50 million to help create a non-profit assigned to maintain a new, independent database.

While the New York legal action is no doubt painful to some carriers, most notably UnitedHealth, it could work to the industry’s benefit. It replaces a point of intense friction with an objective, common definition. It’s not that the definition of UCR put out by the non-profit won’t still be significantly subjective — it will be. But it will be the definition of the non-profit.  And it’s not that consumers won’t blame the health plans when they disagree with the non-profit’s definition of UCR — they will. But the carriers will be able to refer their members to the non-profit.

Given the low regard the industry is held in by the public, any action which stems that flow of ill will deposits is a good thing.

Of course, this being America, the path to better karma is not an easy one. The industry will first need to go through the political gauntlet of law suits and public hearings. Next in line: The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.  It’s Chair, Senator Jay Rockefeller, is holding a hearing Tuesday in which executives from United HealthGroup and Ingenix will be the star witnesses. As reported by the Associated Press, Senator Rockefeller claims, UnitedHealth and Ingenix are “lowballing deliberately. They deliberately cut the numbers so the consumer as to pay more of the cost. … It’s scamming. It’s fraud.”

In that UnitedHealth has already paid $350 million to settle a suit on the matter brought by the American Medical Association, albeit without admitting guilt, the accusations are hardly surprising. And while UnitedHealth would like to put the UCR scandal behind them, there’s a script to these things and they tend to run through Washington. So this is just something they need to do. And it’s something they should do.

Because the UCR situation wasn’t fair to consumers. And if the industry needs to pay a price as part of fixing it, so be it. At the end of the day, there will be a more fair way of defining what out-of-network charges should be. And that’s a good thing for consumers, providers and health plans.

2009 versus 1993 Health Care Reform: The Difference is Consensus

Politically, 2009 and 1993 will share some similarities.  A new Democratic President takes over after years of a Republican White House. The new president will be able to work with a Congress firmly in Democratic control. Both soon-to-be President Barack Obama and then President Bill Clinton entered office during difficult economic times. And as candidates both made health care reform a top issue in their successful campaigns.

But 2009 is far different from 1993 in many ways. Concerning health care reform the political environment are strikingly different.  In 1993 President Clinton asked First Lady Hillary Clinton to take the lead. As I’ve noted previously, her insular and heavy handed approach helped doom that effort. But she had lots of help. There was broad disagreement about the nature of the problem, let alone the solution. Interest groups fought the Clinton Administration reforms vigorously and effectively. Given the lack of consensus and clumsy politics, it’s eventual defeat, in retrospect, seems inevitable. 

In 2009, the political environment will be far different. That there is a crisis in America’s health care system is broadly accepted. Out-of-control medical costs, and the ever increasing health insurance premiums they cause, are harming the financial security of families and the economic viability of companies. Tolerance for the large number of uninsured in the country is near an end.

There’s not only wide agreement that there is a problem, there’s a growing consensus on what the solution might be. The several proposals already circulating in Washington overlap with one another and the approach advocated by Candidate Obama. Interest groups and academics who waged pitched battles in 1983 are finding common ground as 2009 approaches.

This was strikingly clear in a recent broadcast of NPR’s To The Point. Host Warren Olney interviewed representatives from Families USA (generally considered a liberal health care reform advocacy group, America’s Health Insurance Plans (the carrier’s trade association),  the United States Chamber of Commerce and an academic from UC Berkeley. Their perspectives differed, but what was striking was the amount of agreement they expressed. True, there were no representatives of medical care providers on the show, but the common ground expressed by these four may not have been possible in 1993. And, as is usual when Mr. Olney is conducting the interviews, the show was very informative. (I recommend making the time to listen to this episode, entitled “Barack Obama and ‘Universal’ Healthcare Reform“).

Consensus in December 2008 does not guarantee a smooth and easy process to enacting comprehensive health care reform in 2009. The debate will be vigorous and heated. There will be winners and losers — and the losers will not take their lumps quietly. But unlike in 1993, when the top priority of many stakeholders was to stop health care reform, in 2009 their approach will be to help develop the right reform. Now that is a big difference.

Individual Health Insurance to Get Federal Scrutiny

Over 17 million Americans purchase health insurance for themselves and their families. Of the 47 million Americans uninsured during any year, academics project that six-to-twelve million could afford coverage, but either cannot obtain it due to their health conditions or choose not to purchase insurance. For argument’s sake, let’s say the market for self-purchased policies — generally referred to as individual coverage or, sometimes individual and family coverage — is around 20 million Americans.

That’s a substantial market. For years, however, it was mostly ignored. To be sure, consumer affairs and financial writers would publish their annual article on how to buy health insurance you’re self-employed. And health insurance agents certainly talk about the product. But for most people, the difference between individual and group coverage was of no interest. It was all “health insurance.”

That’s changing. First, because Senator John McCain and others, mostly Republican lawmakers, want to shift the nation’s health care system from one built around employers to one centered on individuals. Senator McCain’s health care reform plan calls for allowing “individuals to get insurance through any organization or association that they choose: employers, individual purchases, churches, professional association, and so forth.”

The second reason for greater attention being focused on individual insurance is the result of how some insurance companies have reacted to current market realities.  Since purchasing health insurance is voluntary, insurance companies need to protect themselves from those waiting until they’ve got claims in hand before buying. This means they require a health history from all applicants and accept only those posing an “acceptable risk.” In other contexts this behavior is understandable. No one expects auto insurance companies to sell coverage after an accident. No one expects insurers to sell a fire insurance policy after the house has burned down. Yet, surprisingly, many consumers — and policy makers — seem to believe that requiring insurers to sell medical coverage to individuals who have already scheduled their surgery is both financially and morally sound.

Some states, such as New York and New Jersey, require insurers to guarantee issue coverage to all applicants regardless of their health condition. Consumers in New York and New Jersey also pay premiums costing on average twice as much as those in Californians. But some carriers went beyond screening out high risks at the time they applied for coverage and instead sought to terminate the coverage when they used their insurance. The aggressive rescission practices of these carriers earned insurers tremendous criticism and ill-will.

The convergence of these two factors: the presumptive Republican presidential nominee seeking to expand the individual market and abusive rescissions by some carriers can have but one result: a Congressional inquiry. Democratic House Committee Chairmen John Dingell, Henry Waxman, and Frank Pallone have asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the state of the individual health insurance market. They have also asked the GAO to look into the operation of state high risk pools which offer coverage to those unable to obtain private insurance.

In making their request, the Congressmen stated “The individual market for health insurance coverage is seriously flawed. Many people who need insurance and apply for it are denied coverage in the individual market or are offered insurance coverage that turns out to be inadequate or it is too expensive or both.” If this sounds like they already know what the GAO investigation will uncover, well, they do.

This makes the results from this Congressional involvement relatively easy to predict. Insurance company CEOs will be required to testify under oath concerning their rescission practices. The Committees will determine that the current individual marketplace underserves consumers by excluding those with existing medical conditions. And while the high risk pools are serving an important purpose, the committees will determine their coverage is too barebones and too expensive.

Next will come a call for guarantee issue in the individual marketplace and, if Congress is serious about real reform, that will mean a call for requiring that all Americans obtain coverage. And that, in turn, means a health care reform package similar to what’s being put forward by Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — and it might even be acceptable to a President McCain.

Of course, just because what’s coming is predictable doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It just means change is coming, regardless of who is elected president.

Senator Invites Carriers to Help with Health Care Reform

A coalition of Senators is waiting to help the next president forge a bi-partisan coalition on health care reform. A leader of the group, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, spoke before the America’s Health Insurance Plans 2008 National Policy Forum on March 5th and urged health plans to join the effort, not to fight it.

The 12 Senators, six Democrats and six Republicans, have their own health care reform proposal before Congress, the Healthy Americans Act. None of the Senators support every element of the package. But the mere existence of a bi-partisan coalition surrounding health care reform will give the next president a boost in developing a compromise plan.

In Senator Wyden’s address to AHIP, he said the “success of health care reform hinges to a great extent on how your profession responds to the efforts of a new president and a new Congress.” He warned, however, that if medical carriers spend “millions of dollars fighting to preserve the status quo, you may delay reform for awhile but you will increase the likelihood of a government run health system with no role for the private sector.”

In urging the insurance industry to become a part of fashioning a solution, Senator Wyden noted that in a market in which 20 percent of Americans are uninsured, carriers need to be good avoiding risk. As Senator Wyden put it, “If you don’t excel at shedding risk, you are going to enroll too many people who need too much care.  Enrolling too many people who need too much care means that your costs are going to go through the roof.  When your costs soar this way, the healthy people that you do business with are going to start looking for another insurer whose costs aren’t going through the stratosphere.  In other words they’re going to look for another insurer who does a better job of shedding risk.”

This, according to Senator Wyden, is part of the reason the current health care system is broken. Another reason is that health care in the United States is tied to the employer/employee relationship, which the Senator noted hasn’t changed much since 1948. “But economic challenges for business and workers today are very different then they were in 1948,” he noted.  “Sixty years ago employers weren’t operating in a global marketplace and employees who went to work at twenty stuck around long enough to get a gold watch and a steak dinner for retirement.  Employers need cost-containment and workers need quality health care within a system that is portable – where they can truly take their insurance from job to job.”

As an alternative, Senator Wyden suggested carriers consider a new approach in which “everyone who’s not in the military or on Medicare, has a basic private health insurance policy. Private insurance companies are on the same footing – each must take all comers. Competition would be based on price, benefit and quality.”

This is the underlying approach established by the Healthy Americans Act. In asking his audience to consider supporting the legislation, he cited six reasons why health plans would benefit from this alternative system:

  1. Bringing the 47 million uninsured into the system would greatly expand the private insurance market.
  2. There would be “no competitive disadvantage for carriers doing the right thing” and, with a risk sharing mechanism as part of the package, there would be no need to specialize in risk avoidance.
  3. The legislation supports increased information and transparency in the health marketplace.
  4. By focusing on wellness and preventive programs, carriers would be selling a product people want more of.
  5. Carriers “wouldn’t be the political football any longer.”
  6. More attention could be given to cost containment issues such as reducing needless medical errors.

He concluded his speech with a plea to carriers to be a part of the solution. “I want to ask you to become a part of the Senate’s bipartisan effort to fix American health care. Both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate want to work with you to get health care right in 2009.”

My take on all this is that the stars may be aligning for a health care reform effort that is more consultative than adversarial. Senator Barack Obama has certainly spoken of the need to have everyone, including carriers at the table. Senator Hillary Clinton has also spoken of leading a more open process than she did during her husband’s Administration. Significantly, Senator John Edwards, who promised to exclude the health insurance industry from participating in the health care reform debate, is out of the race.

I also think a move away from employer-provided coverage is likely to be a strong current in future health care reform discussions. Senator John McCain favors this approach as does the bi-partisan coalition of Senators backing the Healthy Americans Act. The business community would love to be relieved of the burden of shouldering the nation’s health care system. In speeches I began giving in 2006 I predicted that health care coverage might follow the path of pensions. Instead of companies running pension plans they moved to simply administering — and contributing to — their employee’s individual retirement plans. Similarly, employers could administer — and contribute to — employee’s individual health plans. Even though the Democratic presidential candidates still embrace an employer-centric system, the support fora more individual-centric model is gaining momentum..

For health plans this could be good news. They would remain a core part of the nation’s health care system. While the nature of their competition would change, it would still likely be a vibrant, primarily private, market.

The role of health insurance agents could change far more dramatically. If consumers are pushed into exchanges, connectors or purchasing pools, the system administrators might assume they can play the role of agents. It will be important for agents to make sure Americans continue to have access to independent advocates and consultants — in other words, to professional insurance agents. That won’t be easy. Many lawmakers — and even more of their staffs — have never worked with an agent and don’t understand the value we bring to the system.

Senator Wyden and others, however, have expressed a willingness to listen to others. That’s an opportunity agents need to seize. Fortunately agents have a compelling story to tell. 

Hospital Cost Disparity Study: Implications for ABX1-1

The press is abuzz with the news that there’s a wide disparity in what different California hospitals charge for providing the same services. The study found that hospitals sometimes charge more than they need to in order to maximize their profits (or, for the non-profits, retained earnings). It seems hospitals charge what they can get away with. Amazing! (For examples of the coverage the report is receiving, take a look at what the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Kaiser Family Foundation’s KaiserNetwork.org web site have to say about it.) Not to fan the flames further, but there are also studies out there that show there’s no correlation between the cost of services and the quality of the outcomes.

The new hospital cost study was sponsored by the California Public Employees Retirement System (Cal-PERS) and the Pacific Business Group on Health (PBGH). Pardon my lack of surprise at the findings, but the findings are kind of old news. Health plans have been making this point since at least the late-90’s. Their claims were generally dismissed as mere justifications for rate hikes, but the facts have been out there for a long time.

There’s a host of reasons for these disparities. For example, there’s the impact of consolidation among hospitals. Community-based hospitals got tired of having their pricing requests ground down by carriers representing substantial numbers of potential patients. They realized the need for some heft of their own and consolidation was a way to get it fast. When the M&A activity settled, some hospitals were the only game in town — literally. This not only helped those hospitals negotiate higher reimbursements, it helped their chain as well. If a carrier wants a contract with the only hospital in City A, it might have to offer a sweeter deal to that hospital’s sister facility in City B. The result: higher hospital costs and, consequently, higher premiums.

Cal-PERS and the PBGH have done a public service by recognizing this market dynamic and having the credibility to draw attention to it. And anything that reminds policy makers that the key driver of health insurance premiums is the underlying cost of care is a very good thing.

What the study does not do, in my mind, is validate the need for a state-run purchasing pool as is called for by Assembly Bill X1-1, the compromise health care reform bill promoted by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez. Yet some see the study as confirming the need for the state to gin up its own activities as a health insurance buyer to negotiate with carriers. This is the public policy equivalent of 1950s Japanese monster movie. When Mantra invades, the government calls in Godzilla to fend him off. Of course, the city gets trampled in the process (or at least a cardboard facsimile of the city gets trampled), but in the end, these citizens who survive are assumed to be winners.

I have a great deal of respect for the folks at Health Access. I appreciate the thought they put into their positions even when I disagree with their conclusions. Yet I was surprised to see them play the Godzilla card concerning the purchasing pool. A recent post on the Health Access blog claims the hospital cost study underscores “why AB x1 1 has a purchasing pool–bigger than CALPERS–to negotiate the best possible deal with insurers and drug companies.” But the ABX1-1 purchasing pool won’t be negotiating directly with hospitals. They can hang tough with carriers all they want, but it won’t begin to touch the problems cited in the study.

In fact, several California carriers already have roughly as much, if not more, purchasing power than the state-run pool is likely to have and have long used it to try to negotiate lower prices for their members. (As noted in an earlier post, another study estimates the government-run pool ABX1-1 seeks to create would provide coverage to about 2.5 million Californians.) Ironically, when carriers leverage their purchasing power in this way, they’re sometimes condemned for it. The reality is, however, that in a seller’s market — where there are monopolies or near monopolies, for example — purchasing power isn’t very, well, powerful.

Nor is it clear how successful a purchasing pool will be in negotiating down insurance premiums. The California HealthCare Foundation has studied the performance of several such arrangements around the country. They conclude that “a voluntary purchasing pool will not automatically reduce premiums.”   

The last time the state created a government-managed pool was as part of the small group health care reform package passed in 1992 known as AB 1672. That legislation created the Health Insurance Plan of California (HIPC). The HIPC was later transferred to  … wait for it … the Pacific Business Group on Health which renamed it PacAdvantage. It failed to reduce costs or to remain competitive in the marketplace and is out-of-business.

The hospital cost study is an important contribution to the health care reform debate. It underscores the need to rationalize spending with outcomes. To claim it justifies the creation of a state-run purchasing pool is too far a stretch.