Commissions, Medical Loss Ratio Targets, Brokers and Politics

Legislation to exempt broker commissions from the medical loss ratio provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is gaining bipartisan steam. Original sponsor Republican Representative Mike Rogers has been joined by Democratic Representative John Barrow. Other House Members from both sides of the aisle are expected to sign on before the legislation is formally introduced – perhaps as soon as next week.

Meanwhile, the National Association of Insurance Commissioner’s Professional Health Insurance Advisors Task Force has posted their draft of a bill to exempt broker commissions from the MLR (a copy of the proposed law is available at the end of this Employee Benefits Adviser’s BenefitNews article). The NAIC is seeking comments on the proposed legislation (which is very similar to that proposed by Representatives Rogers and Barrow) in that it simply removes compensation paid to independent brokers from the medical loss ratio calculation. A hearing on the draft bill will be held on March 27th during the NAIC’s quarterly meeting in Austin, Texas. (Those wishing to add their two cents to the conversation can submit an email to tmullen@naic.org by Monday, March 21st.

This legislation is a top priority of the National Association of Health Underwriters, the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, and the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America. Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty, president-elect of the NAIC, has led the organization’s effort to deal with the negative impacts the PPACA has had on brokers.

All this is pretty good news, right? In a few weeks there could bipartisan legislation backed by the NAIC as a whole and its leadership in particular and supported by the grassroots strength of agent organizations. There’s just two problems: opposition from Democratic liberals and political maneuvering from Republicans.

Senator Jay Rockefeller has sent a letter to the NAIC complaining that treating broker compensation as anything other than administrative costs “would allow agents, brokers, and health insurance companies to retain the estimated $1 billion in benefits that American consumers will receive next year thanks to the health care reform law.” Senator Rockefeller overstates his case ($1 billion just from the MLR provision?), but at least he attempts to marshal some arguments behind his concerns. However, in many of these arguments his reasoning is flawed.

He states, for example, that “the proposal would make it more difficult for consumers and small businesses to understand how their premium dollars are used ….” Why? The PPACA already exempts taxes from the MLR formula, yet no one has expressed concern that this will confuse anyone.

He also assumes that if broker compensation is removed from administrative costs that commissions will revert to what they were before the PPACA. He even quotes a statement from me published in Benefits Selling magazine to support this point. In that article I noted that brokers cost of doing business rises at closer to general inflation, not the rate that medical costs drive up insurance premiums. And I predict that commissions will eventually be decoupled from premiums. However, my belief that how broker compensation is calculated is unrelated to health care reform. I’ve been talking about this dynamic for years, long before the start of the Obama Administration. Even were the PPACA to be repealed I believe the method of determining commissions will change. It’s simply too hard to justify tying commissions to medical inflation.

And that’s what Senator Rockefeller is missing. Commissions are set by market dynamics. Carriers, consumers and business owners need independent producers and are willing to pay for the value brokers provide. In setting commissions carriers not only look at what competitors are offering, but at what brokers can earn selling other products like life or disability. In the end it comes down to an economic calculation: does the compensation justify the time and resources brokers commit to make sales and service their clients. Regardless of how it’s calculated, if the answer is yes, brokers will engage with the product; if the answer is no, they won’t.

The medical loss ratio provisions in the PPACA disrupts this formula. By imposing an arbitrary cap on administrative costs and including commissions within this cap, the law threatens to make remaining engaged in the sale of individual products uneconomical for too many brokers. The PPACA shifts the situation where compensation reflects the value brokers bring to consumers and carriers to a mathematical formula driven by the medical loss ratio calculation which ignores value, effort and resources.

Liberal Democrats, however, are not the only hurdle to making changes to the MLR formula. As noted in a thorough and illuminating examination of the issue by Sarah Kliff in Politico, political calculations by Republicans may doom the bill. Republicans, Ms. Kliff points out, “have little to no political incentive to improve” the PPACA. Improving the PPACA simply makes it more palatable and that, in turn, makes the law harder to repeal. Better to leave the legislation’s flaws in place, this reasoning goes, so as to strengthen calls to chuck the entire package. Or as one source cited in the Politico article says, “If it really became a bill with steam and the Republicans started hearing from all those brokers maybe the odds change.” But I can’t get myself past the ‘we aren’t fixing this bill’ hurdle.”

NAHU and its allies are pitching the MLR change as necessary to protect small businesses – specifically the many health insurance agencies around the country. They are gaining potent support. Yes, there is opposition, but still, if approached on the merits, I believe the Rogers/Barrow legislation could pass. The primary reason for this optimism is that exempting broker commissions from the MLR formula doesn’t undermine the purpose of the PPACA’s medical loss ratio provisions.

It would be a shame, but in today’s world not at all surprising, if this helpful fix were derailed because some lawmakers find a greater political advantage to preserving the flaws within the PPACA than fixing them.