Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Another Obamacare Delay Announced -- Day Before Thanksgiving!

I do feel angry when the government or companies announce important things either on Fridays or before a major holiday.  Where's the honesty in that?

Here's the latest example of such shenanigans.  The SHOP exchanges, one of the potentially better parts of Obamacare, will now be delayed for an entire year.  And when is this announced?  When most people are either traveling, shopping, or just daydreaming about eating turkey.

SHOP, in case you aren't aware, stands for Small Business Health Options Exchange.  The idea is to give employees of small business employers and employees a more efficient way to provide and shop for health care coverage.  This is the second setback for SHOP already.

I suspect that all available government resources are devoted to the consumer-facing health exchanges, as they are getting most of the bad publicity.  SHOP and the back-office programming for risk mitigation and insurer payments are no doubt on the back burner.  Too bad, as small business insurance was one of the problem areas of the old system.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

More on Risk Mitigation in Obamacare

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has an editorial in the WSJ noting some of the issues with risk mitigation.  As I said in my post below, stay tuned for action on this front.  Should be interesting.

A short quote from the article, which might be behind the WSJ paywall:

"Buried deep in the Department of Health and Human Services' press release that accompanied the president's Nov. 14 speech was this sentence: "Though this transitional policy was not anticipated by health insurance issuers when setting rates for 2014, the risk corridor program should help ameliorate unanticipated changes in premium revenue. We intend to explore ways to modify the risk corridor program final rules to provide additional assistance."
Risk corridors are generally used to mitigate an insurer's pricing risk. Under ObamaCare, risk corridors were established for the law's first three years as a safety-net for insurers who experience financial losses. While risk corridors can protect taxpayers when they are budget-neutral, ObamaCare's risk corridors are designed in such an open-ended manner that the president's action now exposes taxpayers to a bailout of the health-insurance industry if and when the law fails."

Monday, November 18, 2013

Risk Mitigation for Insurers on the Exchange

I have posted once before on the three risk mitigation mechanisms built into the ACA Health Exchanges:  Reinsurance (to compensate insurers who have high cost individuals); Risk Corridors (to compensate or penalize insurers who perform financially worse or better than they expected); and Risk Adjustment (to minimize adverse selection by paying or charging insurers who get less or more healthy consumers than the average.   See this presentation for a description.

I expect that there is a fair amount of consternation over these risk mitigation schemes right now, from insurers and from the folks in the US government.  We won't hear as much though because these things are not consumer-based.  But they could be even more important.

First, the risk mitigation schemes are going to take a fair amount of manpower and computing power to implement.  Is the system up for this?  Given what we have seen to date, I would be surprised it it were.  And if the risk mitigation systems aren't already ready to roll, I doubt there is sufficient spare capacity in HHS and CMS to help at this point -- everyone is working on the consumer-facing exchanges.   If the enrollment numbers continue on the low side, with mostly high cost individuals enrolling, there are going to be a ton of claims from insurers for risk adjustment payments -- from all three risk mitigation programs.  If I were an insurer, I wouldn't be expecting my accounts payable from CMS to be paid anytime soon.

Second, as Megan McArdle points out today, the government is already making noises about increasing the risk mitigation payments.  She doubts the law permits that to happen, but let's not think that mere rules will stand in the way!  The government is increasingly having to rely on those terrible insurers (remember all the rhetoric to get Obamacare passed) to make the whole damn thing work in any kind of way at all, so they might try real hard to create the necessary incentives.  I would not be surprised at all to hear of changes in the risk mitigation to compensate insurers for losses incurred from low and adverse enrollments.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Senseless Health Care Pricing or Efficiency?

This is an old subject, see Steve Brill's Steve Brill's Time article.

But having just received a bill from a physician's group practice and thought about it, I have come to think there might be more going on than meets the eye.

Take a look at this bill.  The "amount billed" is $986.06.  These are just lab tests ordered by the doctor and done at that facility, and these are the list prices.  Cigna, my employer's health care administrator (not insurer!) has negotiated with this facility for a discount from those list prices.  In this case the discount is a whopping $713.55, or 72%!!

My first reaction was that this is either stupid or greedy.  It would seem stupid if nobody actually pays those list prices, in which case they are meaningless and a waste of ink.  Come on, let's stop the charade and admit that real prices bear no resemblance to what is listed.

It would seem greedy if someone is actually paying those prices, because my first thought is that the only people paying the list prices would be the uninsured, and as Brill and others have pointed out, it is really sad to be making the uninsured pay the highest prices.

Stupidity and greed are still two good candidates to explain these billing practices but I think there is a third.

It is not only the uninsured who pay the list prices.  Suppose I am a Cigna customer and suppose this physician's group I went to see was not in Cigna's network.  I will still give them my Cigna card and they will bill Cigna first.  Cigna will get the bill and tell me that they will consider those services to be worth only $272.51.  In my case, since I had not yet met my yearly deductible, they would credit that amount toward my deductible.  But I would be responsible for paying this provider the full list price!

My point is that as cruel as this seems, it serves a purpose, which of course is to keep me within the Cigna network.  The higher those list prices, the more control Cigna has over its network.  That can be very efficient, letting Cigna work with a smaller set of providers to improve quality and value of care given to its customers.  Under this view, Cigna actually cares not only about the price they pay -- the discounted price -- but also the list price that they never will pay!

So maybe the high list prices are not stupid and not based on greed but are really to let the insurers use networks efficiently.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Health Insurance Premia, Competition, and Endogeneity

An interesting article ran in our local paper today; the original was from Vermont Digger which provides news for Vermont.

The article looks at health insurance premia in Vermont versus the rest of the country; Vermont turns out to have the 5th highest rates out of 48 states.  These rates are for 2014 plans, offered on the exchanges, and are pre-subsidy.

The article mentions the lack of competition as one reason for high rates in Vermont, and it correctly notes that competition is relevant at two levels:  that at the supplier (hospital) level and that at the insurer level.

Vermont turns out to have little competition at both levels.  There are only two insurers offering policies on the Vermont exchange, and there is only one large hospital system in the state, Fletcher Allen.  Dartmouth Hitchcock, based in NH, would be the second largest supplier, with many Green Mountain folks driving across the Connecticut River for their care.

The only problem with the article's analysis is the problem of endogeneity.  Why does Vermont have only two insurers offering policies?  No doubt it is to a great extent because of Vermont's low population.  States with large populations tend to have more insurers, states with small populations tend to have fewer insurers.  Larger populations allow for economies of scale in insurance operations, and by itself will lead to lower rates.  So is it just the low population of Vermont that drives up rates, or is there an independent effect of little competition?  I suspect it is both.

The same is true on the health care supplier side. Why only one (relatively small) hospital system in Vermont?  There is just not enough market for more than one supplier of even close-to-efficient size. Again, economies of scale are limited by the extent of the market.  This alone will drive up health costs and hence insurance rates.  But it also limits competition, and that has an independent effect on rates.

Is small really so beautiful?  If nothing else, it comes at a price.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Delaying the Individual Mandate is Difficult

There is still talk about delaying the individual mandate, and there are some reasonable arguments in favor of that position -- not the least of which are the ongoing difficulties with the Federal health exchanges.

But, the fact is that health insurers have already posted health insurance policies with prices, available to buy.  The prices (premia) of those policies reflect expectations about who will sign up (premia have to cover expected health costs of the enrollees).  Importantly, who signs up depends on whether or not the individual mandate is in force or not.

The tax for not signing up is $95 or 1% of income, whichever is greatest (with a cap equal to the average cost of  a bronze plan).  This is not insignificant.  Dropping the mandate/tax will definitely induce some individuals to go without insurance, and there will certainly be adverse selection in that choice -- the healthiest individuals will tend to not buy insurance, the least healthy will tend the other way.  This will distort the pool of insured people from what the insurers would have expected when they posted their premia for the 2014 year.

I do recognize per my earlier post that there is risk-sharing on the exchanges.

That said, delaying the individual mandate seems quite unfair and dare I say in violation of principles that libertarian-oriented folks would generally respect.  How can the government induce businesses to offer contracts at binding prices and then significantly change the rules so as to increase the cost of fulfilling the contracts?

I have not seen anyone offer the insurers the chance to re-price their policies if the individual mandate were delayed. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Why insurance premia on the new exchanges are not comparable to existing policies

Are prices for health insurance on the new insurance exchanges lower than what was available before? A number of articles have suggested that prices are at least lower than expected -- see for example here and here.

What I have not seen noted anywhere is that the Affordable Care Act creates extensive loss-protection subsidies for insurers on the exchanges.  Because of these loss-protection measures, it is extremely difficult if not impossible to compare prices on the exchanges to prices that existed before.  

Indeed, if prices were not lower, it would be very surprising.   

There are three loss-protection measures for insurers offering policies on the exchanges; two are temporary (two years) and one is permanent.

The one that I think is most significant in regard to pricing is known as Risk Corridors.  Insurers compare their premium income less administrative cost to their actual claims payments.  If that difference is negative (claims exceed premiums less admin costs) the government (aka you and me) bears up to 80% of the loss.  Symmetry prevails, so the government will also tax any "excess" profits.

With problems of adverse selection and with expected stickiness of consumer choices, this policy has to induce lowball pricing for the two years that it will be in force.  Why not price low and lock in consumers?

The second major risk reduction policy for the exchanges is known as Reinsurance.  Insurers that have high-claim individuals will be eligible for reimbursement of losses.  Who pays for this?  Self-funded plans (again, aka you and me) pay a tax to fund this reinsurance scheme.  This policy also obviously encourages low prices for insurance policies while the reinsurance scheme is in effect.

The third risk reduction scheme is permanent and is known as Risk Adjustment.  Insurers compare the risk of their insured populations; insurers with higher risk individuals receive payments from insurers with lower risk individuals.  The technical details of this are very important and I expect some good careers for previous bankers who can figure out how to game the risk-adjustment formulae.  I agree that in principle risk adjustment is good, as it reduces the problem of adverse selection on the exchanges.  Also, this policy does not have any net inflow of government funds, so if the policy reduces prices on average there can be little argument that the policy is efficient.

Where else has anyone read about the risk reduction policies built into ACA and how those policies invalidate the debate over whether prices are lower on the exchanges relative to prior individual health insurance policies?