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Saturday, 11 June 2011

Health Insurance Premiums and Government Oversight: Consumer Implications from the Affordable Care Act Implications

Government Oversight of Private Insurance: What it Means for the Cost of Your Health Insurance
The plethora of health care laws passed in 2010 under the Affordable Care Act,include provisions for “rate setting” and monitoring of private sector insurance plans on a federal level. The ruling applies to all insurance plans which participate in any government funded health care program, including Medicare, Medicaid, and the soon-to-be-deployed regional insurance exchanges. This article explains how this differs from present rate monitoring and premium-setting and the ultimate impact on the consumer.
The Rules
Health & Human Services is charged with establishing a health insurance rate oversight committee, to assess the reasonableness of proposed health insurance rate increases starting in 2014. Since health insurance premiums have continued to grow at a rate in excess of inflation and increased 41% between 2003 and 2009, according to a Commonwealth Fund study , affordability is a concern. The federal PPACA law mandates health insurance as a means to providing national health care, so the viability of the national health care program depends on manageable health insurance premiums for the private sector.
Current State
Insurance premiums are determined based on each state’s rate authorization standards with the Insurance Commissioner, who is an elected official. Some states have a “use and file” policy which means the insurance company can decide to make plan changes, adjust the rates, and start implementing before the state approves them. Other states have a “file and preapproval” policy, which means you have to get the state office to approve of your math, the reasons for your plan increase first. The insurance company then has the opportunity to comment and either accept the commissioners regulations or withdraw the product. In the case of Principal Financial Group, when a previous Washington State Insurance Commissioner mandated that all individual medical plans provide maternity coverage and other provisions, they pulled their product from the state. In economic terms this is referred to as an unintended consequent of a regulatory action. The federal government does not have the authority to control state insurance premiums for the private sector. Medicare and Medicaid plans are of course, a different story as they are government plans.
Altered State
Through the process of gathering data, analyzing cost impacts, discerning patterns, and revealing information to health care purchasers, both individual and corporate, Health and Human Services, which oversees the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, is charged with creating a more transparent process for what you actually end up paying for medical insurance. The intent is good, but there is no regulatory authority to enforce rate fairness by state and a regulation without enforcement can be problematic. Finally, the cost of the regulation will be borne by the private sector rate payers, which will add a nominal cost to individual premiums, spread over the entire population.
Economic Impact
I spoke briefly of unintended consequences above, but let me restate, if an additional regulation means more insurance companies will cease to offer insurance plans to the small group and individual markets, this may not be a good thing for consumers. Of course, the insurance industry is already seeing a reduction in the number of companies offering medical insurance and this trend has been going on since I was in the benefits business in the 80’s and 90’s. In short, private sector companies, both for-profit and not-for-profit will make market decisions based on where their strengths lie and act accordingly. And one could argue that as long as the companies which remain are of quality and offer good consumer products and services, this change is not untenable. The Netherlands and Switzerland both have private sector insurance programs financing their public health plans and only a hand full of companies provide the coverage, which seems to work fine. Also, they pay much less per-capita for health care than the United States does, but the healthpolicymaven has told you that before.
What it Means to the Health Insurance Premium Payer
OK, here is the “skinny” on this one, since the federal government Does Not have rate setting authority for insurance, which is controlled by each state’s elected insurance commissioner and those state administrators, this change will not have a direct impact on the rates you pay for medical insurance. What is more, since it is highly unlikely the government will be able to overturn ERISA or the McCarran Ferguson Act; don’t expect to see any rate relief. ERISA is the Employee Retirement Income Security Act which created the exemption for self-funded or self-insured plans, which most major employers have used to exempt themselves from many state and federal mandates. I do not see the government succeeding in overturning this act either. The McCarran Ferguson Act is a federal law which gives states the authority to regulate insurance. It should also be noted that insurance premiums taxes are a major source of funding for the states and they will never give up that revenue. Indirectly the fact the government is requiring the disclosure of the rate factors and will publish the information is a good thing for consumers. You will no longer have to be an insider in the insurance business, which you know I was for a couple of decades, to understand this process. In conclusion, will this make your insurance cheaper, no, because that depends on many complex factors that have to do with underfunding of government programs which the private sector has to support with cost transfers, market supply factors, and the degree to which primary health care is deployed in this country. Finally, people will still have to care enough to read about the provisions and many people don’t. The healthpolicymaven’s book, Unraveling U.S. Health Care should come out later this year and it is a guidebook to our health system, in lay person’s terms, which I am hoping will facilitate more outreach in this area.


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