Health Care Reform Odds & Ends

When it comes to health care reform, to maul Dickens: It is the busiest of times. It is the calmest of times. Or as general agent Michael Traynor put it, “These are interesting times when talk of exchanges and pre-existing exclusions have bumped Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan from the news.”

This coming week it will be even harder on E! News and the like. Sure, Hollywood has the Emmys, but Washington has the debate in the Senate Finance Committee over America’s Healthy Future Act of 2009. Not a contest. Add to the mix President Barack Obama’s five appearances on Sunday morning television shows (plus his stint Monday night as David Letterman’s guest) and these are strange days, indeed. 

There’s several items in the mix I wanted to comment upon, but none of them really warranted their own post. So here they are, mashed together into a single article. Think of it as clearing the deck in anticipation of all the fun news coming out of Washington in the next few days. 

1. Excluding Pre-Existing Conditions

Yes, it’s true, health insurance companies exclude individuals with pre-existing conditions. When they can carriers refuse to offer coverage to those likely to use that coverage. According to some politicians and pundits of all political stripes, instead of being a legitimate business practice, this process (called “underwriting”) is evidence of the evil nature of health insurance carriers and their executives. 

Under today’s rules, however, underwriting is necessary to keep the cost of coverage from going even higher than it is today. Imagine permitting people to buy auto insurance from the tow truck driver at the scene of an accident. Or picture homeowners buying fire insurance after the flood waters recede. The cost of these policies would be astronomical. Why would anyone buy auto or homeowners coverage before they need it if they can buy the same policy after an accident or disaster? The cost of insurance in this environment would be the cost of the claim (plus administrative expenses). Have $1,000 in damage after that wreck? The cost of the policy sold by the tow truck driver would need to be more than $1,000 because no one else’s premium would be available to cover any of the cost.

The same applies to health insurance.  Allow individuals to purchase coverage on their way to the hospital and costs will skyrocket. (Don’t laugh, one of the GOP proposals would allow consumers to buy coverage in the emergency room). In New York and New Jersey, where there’s a mandate to sell individual health insurance but no mandate to buy it, premiums are three-times higher than in California.

Which illustrates the only way to resolve this situation: require everyone to obtain medical coverage. Without this balance (both a mandate for carriers to sell and for consumers to buy coverage) premiums quickly become unaffordable. Lawmakers who propose guarantee issue without a mandate to buy – and they exist on both sides of the aisle – are either grandstanding, mathematically challenged or ill-informed.

2. Losing Coverage When You Need It

The other popular market reform concerns carriers cancelling coverage after claims are incurred by policy holders, a practice called “rescission.” Much of the furor over rescissions in Washington and elsewhere are legitimate, the result of carrier’s tone deaf, heavy-handed, and inept approach to a reasonable concern: preventing fraud. So long as health insurance is voluntary, carriers need to protect their members from being gamed by those who would intentionally abuse the system. To hear some talk about the problem, however, you’d think every claim submission is answered by a termination notice. Estimating the total number of rescissions is difficult due to disparate reporting requirements around the country. Yet in testimony before Congress three of the largest carriers claimed to have canceled about 20,000 health insurance policies over five years. Four thousand annual rescissions sounds like a lot, but it’s a small fraction of the millions of policies sold and maintained by those carriers each year.

Because the number of terminations is small does not excuse the health plans from abusing their rescission power. Change in this area is needed to restrict rescissions to only intentional misrepresentation of medical conditions. In the meantime, overstating the severity of the problem may be good politics, but it is misleading. (Of course, if underwriting is eliminated, this problem goes away: if carriers cannot charge premiums based on pre-existing conditions there’s no reason to even ask about prior medical conditions.)

3. Non-Profit Doesn’t Mean Cheaper

Liberals demanding that reform legislation include a government-run health plan usually claim it will reduce the cost of coverage by introducing a non-profit health plan into the market. Here’s how Senator Jay Rockefeller put it on MSNBC, “There’s got to be some discipline to other insurance companies, that make them take seriously, not just competing with each other, but competing with somebody who because they are non-profit … and don’t have to please their shareholders because they don’t have any, that they can offer premiums at lower prices” (this sound bite begins at about the 2:35 mark). Yet there are already non-profits operating in most states. In California, for example, Kaiser Permanente and Blue Shield of California are two. In some parts of the state, these plans do offer the most affordable plans; in other regions the lowest cost plans are available from their for-profit competitors. Experience indicates little correlation between a carrier having shareholders and their premiums. Claiming it does may sound good, but anyone taking the time to see what’s happening in the real world will realize this is a false argument.

4. Ugly Language is Dangerous.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi raised the possibility that the angry rhetoric prominent in the health care reform debate could turn violent, comparing it to the situation in San Francisco over gay rights in the 1970s. The link between the anti-gay rhetoric and the murder of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk is legitimate. So is the Speaker’s concern. Words can motivate. Passions can lead to horrendous acts – from terrorist bombings to the murder of doctors who perform abortions.

What’s hypocritical about Speaker Pelosi’s comment, however, is that she has contributed to tenor of the debate. When Speaker Pelosi, the individual third-in-line to the presidency calls opponents “immoral” and describes them as”the villains” in America’s health care reform system she loses the ability to complain when others claim her policies are socialist. The fact that Speaker Pelosi is guilty of what she rails against should not mean her warning is ignored. America’s health care system will be reformed by thoughtful deliberation. Depicting President Obama as Hitler, painting swastikas on the offices of lawmakers, pastors praying for the death of President Obama, or calling opponents “traitors” inspires ugly emotions and provides cover for crazies who take the law (both governmental and ecclesiastic) into their own hands.

Speaker Pelosi hopes for a more responsible tone in the health care reform debate. Her greatest contribution to achieving this goal would be to moderate her own rhetoric.

Reinventing the Individual Health Insurance Market

The health insurance industry has been under attack for years. There are those who would like to do away with it completely. While those voices have grown louder in recent years their political success has been limited at best. For evidence, just look at the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination: no major candidate called for a government-run, single-payer system. The two remaining contenders have both explicitly taken such an approach off the table.

Yet there is one aspect of the industry that is under intense attack: the individual market. Again, this isn’t new. In the past, however, most of the attacks have been unfocused or ill-informed. Critics tended to ignore unique aspects of the coverage targeted at individuals and families buying insurance outside of work: it’s a voluntary decision. To maintain affordable premiums carriers must weed out potential buyers who are certain to incur substantial claims.

For example, carriers will often reject an applicant who is a regular user of a particular prescription drug. This strikes many as wrong, if not immoral. Just because someone needs a certain medication is no reason to deny them insurance.

Yet, when the monthly prescription costs exceeds the monthly premium, what else can the carrier do? Insurance is about spreading risk. In a voluntary market where people can choose when to purchase coverage, it means they need to buy insurance before their known risks exceeds the premium. Otherwise, they are simply asking other consumers to subsidize them. This dynamic, known as adverse selection, is at the root of much of the problems facing the individual market.

It’s not the only cause, however. Carriers exacerbated the problem by mishandling their approach to managing adverse selection. The most obvious mistakes involved how rescissions were handled. Even the industry’s most ardent foes admit carriers need to protect themselves from fraud. If an applicant knowingly and intentionally lies about material information on an application for coverage, the carrier should have the right to revoke the coverage.

It’s identifying when the misstatements are knowingly and intentionally that creates a gray area. Carriers chose to be aggressive in applying their right to rescind coverage. Now they’re paying a huge cost for this posture in the form of large fines, law suits and horrendous publicity.

The rescission issue is the hammer being used by lawmakers, regulators and pundits interested in reshaping the individual health insurance market. That their proposals would be more likely to do more harm (in the form of higher prices and less consumer choice) than good seems almost beside the point. They want change. They want it now.

While their changes are often off target their goal may not be. Perhaps the attack on the this market segment is what’s needed to prod the industry to reform itself. Perhaps it’s the motivation needed to reinvent the individual health insurance market, to make it stronger, more valuable and more respected than in the past.

I’ll be writing about the opportunities for reinvigorating the individual market over the next several days. I hope you’ll share your ideas, too. Please post your thoughts on ways to reinvent individual health insurance products, the way they’re sold, administered and used. By the end of this dialogue we’ll at the very least have built a list of alternatives to some of the misguided proposals currently being considered in Sacramento, Washington D.C. and elsewhere. At best, someone who can actually implement the changes may be inspired by your thoughts and meaningful change will follow.

Stay tuned.  

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.

Recissions, the LA City Attorney, and the Three Laws of Politics

The debate over health care plans cancelling policies for members who incur significant claims on the grounds that they omitted or misstated information on their original applications for coverage (a practice called “rescission”) is instructive. Few defend the right of consumers to lie on their applications. In addition, few maintain the carriers haven’t overreached in defending themselves from fraudulent applications. And no one claims the carriers have done a good job of presenting their case to the public on this issue.

In some of my speeches I talk about the three laws of politics I’ve developed over (too many) years dealing with campaigns, the press and politics in general:

  • Law #1: The Law of Political Reality: Political Reality trumps Real Reality for all political parties at all times.
  • Law #2: The Law of Political Activity: Politicians are paid to address perceptions and that’s what they do
  • Law #3: The Law of Political Reporting: The media is paid to report on what politicians do and that’s what they do

The application of these three laws can lead to an echo chamber of surreal proportions. It often begins with the press reporting on a study or action by a company — let’s say questionable rescission practices by a major carrier. That’s what the press is supposed to do. Politicians read the article, perceive a problem and hold a press conference promising to address the problem. That’s what politicians are supposed to do. The press then reports on the press conference held in response to the press’ earlier article. Other politicians see that story, hold their own press conference and so on and so forth. After awhile it doesn’t matter what the original problem was, how widespread it is, or how nuanced it might be. The Laws of Politics do not suffer nuances.

This is the way issues become a part of the public’s consciousness. When real problem (and the problems surrounding abusive rescissions are real) and addressed by sincere politicians (there are more of them than you’d think), the process works great.

Some politicians, however, are more adept at applying the laws than others. Few would suggest that Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo is in the running for most adroit politician of the decade. He’s had several self-inflicted political mishaps that have shaken his credibility and weakened his future electoral prospects.

The City Attorney is astute enough to know the rescission issue has hit a chord with the public. And he’s clever enough to get his office engaged in the battle. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt: he’s seen a problem, is sincerely concerned, and is seeking to address it.

Last week he sued Health Net for “engaging in unlawful and deceptive business practices” according to his office’s press release announcing the civil action (He is also initiating a criminal investigation against certain individuals at Health Net). The suit alleges health Net engaged in “unlawful, unfair and fraudulent business practices and unfair, deceptive , untrue and misleading advertising.” City Attorney Delgadillo claims he brought this action against Health Net because “[c]ountless Californians who believe they have insurance actually have policies that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.” I’m not sure what the legal definition of countless is, but it’s a lot. Never mind that less than one percent of health insurance policies are ever rescinded.

Using the unfair advertising laws in this context is an interesting legal theory. It’s awfully broad and, taken to extremes, could be abused. But there’s nothing wrong with a prosecutor — elected or otherwise — testing out a theory like this.

And testing it he is. Now City Attorney Delgadillo is turning his attention to Blue Cross of California. This time it’s not for the carrier’s rescission practices, but because the company issued a press release describing changes to its rescission practices. The City Attorney doesn’t believe Blue Cross, apparently because press releases are tools for burnishing a company’s public image and because, well, Blue Cross is an insurance company.

“In all of our dealings with the health insurance industry, our experience would lead me to have little or no confidence that the claims made by Blue Cross … are accurate,” he’s quoted as saying in an interview with the Associated Press

Leave aside the irony of an elected official whose official home page is not much more than a listing of the numerous press releases put out by his office publicly criticizing a company for issuing a press release. What’s more disturbing is that in the City Attorney’s mind, insurance company’s are incapable of telling the truth. City Attorney Delgadillo doesn’t claim his office has received complaints about Blue Cross not living up to the promises it made in the press release. It’s that, as an insurance company, the presumption is they’re lying.

That’s a sad statement about both, the low public standing the insurance industry has brought upon itself and the standards of fairness in the City Attorney’s office.

None of this should be taken as a call for the City Attorney to stop investigating insurance companies. But it does underscore that by adhering too closely — and inartfully — to the Law of Politics, the Los Angeles City Attorney is undermining the credibility of the office’s legitimate legal undertakings.

2008 To Be A Busy Health Care Reform Year in California

With the demise of comprehensive health care reform and the arrival of a horrendous budget deficit, California lawmakers are busy looking for ways to fix what they perceive to be the state’s broken health care system on the cheap. After all, the concerns are still there: too many uninsured, ever increasing health care costs, bad behavior by carriers. And lawmakers can’t spend all their time haggling over budget cuts. So health care reform will be an important part of this legislative session. The issue will no longer be front and center, but it’s still on stage.

Several health care reform bills were passed before the legislative deadline. They focus on specific aspects of health care. Indeed, several are repackaged nuggets from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez’s comprehensive health care reform package, Assembly Bill x1-1.

One issue the legislature will no doubt act upon this year deal with how carriers cancel the coverage of customers who failed to honestly or completely complete their original applications. Because these rescissions are retroactive to the original date of coverage, the customer and health providers are often left with substantial financial exposure. This is an area that cries out for legislative attention. Carriers have been fined millions of dollars for the practice by state regulators. Consumers are terrified that the coverage they’ve been paying for won’t be there when they need it most. Everyone realizes there needs to be a balance between protecting those who make innocent errors in their applications without rewarding those who purposefully game the system. If there is to be an imbalance, however, most lawmakers understandably would rather err on the side of protecting their constituents rather than insurance company profits.

AB 1945, by Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, would require state regulators to sign off on such rescissions before they take effect. AB 1150 by Assemblyman Ted Lieu aims to prevent carriers from setting targets for cancelling policies or awarding bonuses to their employees based on the number of policies they rescind. It’s unclear whether state regulators want or can handle the responsibilities imposed on them by AB 1945. The bill may simply be impractical. AB 1150, on the other hand, is likely to pass without much controversy.

One of the key features of ABX1-1 was its requirement that carriers spend 85 percent of the premiums they receive on medical care. According to the San Jose Mercury News, this Medical Loss Ratio requirement is reappearing in legislation sponsored by Senate Health Committee Chair Shiela Kuehl. I haven’t been able to find the legislative language advocated by Senator Kuehl. The compromise approach contained in ABX1-1 was widely supported, including by many carriers. It’s unclear whether the new legislation will simply accept that language, in which case it is highly likely to pass, or veer off into new, more controversial directions.

Senate President Pro Tem To-Be Darrell Steinberg is pushing another element of ABX1-1. His bill, SB 1522, would require the Department of Managed Health Care and Department of Insurance to establish five categories of individual plans. Carriers participating in that market would be required to offer at least one health plan in each of those categories. As currently drafted, it appears insurers could offer additional plans, too. This flexibility would preserve consumer choice and allow carriers to continue to innovate new plan designs. If, however, this flexibility is diminished, the results could be harsh for California consumers. 

These are just some of the bills introduced prior to the legislature’s submission deadline. Keep in mind, however, that any bill can be amended in virtually any way, so the filing deadline doesn’t have a lot of teeth. The number of bills seeking to reform the health care system is likely to increase before the weeding out process begins. This could be a good thing. It would be nice to see, for example, more focus on controlling health care costs, which is the real root of problems in the health care system.

In any event, 2008 is going to be a busy year for health care reform advocates. It won’t make as many headlines as 2007’s efforts, but that doesn’t mean this year won’t be even more significant than last year.