Politics Aside, We Know How to Fix Obamacare

President Obama’s Affordable Care Act marketplaces were supposed to give consumers choices of health plans from insurers that compete to keep premiums down. But fewer insurers are participating, and premiums are increasing sharply.

Fixing this problem will obviously be politically difficult with a Republican-controlled Congress that has vowed to “repeal and replace.” President-elect Donald J. Trump has also said he wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, although he amended that recently by saying he’d like to keep some elements. Replacing the law, without a Senate supermajority, would also be politically difficult.

From a policy standpoint, however, some solutions to problems facing the marketplaces are ones that Republicans have endorsed before: for Medicare.

The number of insurers participating in the Obamacare marketplaces is falling. This year, 182 counties had only one insurer offering plans. Next year, that will be true of nearly 1,000 counties, or almost one-third of the total. An average marketplace will offer 17 fewer plans in this fall’s open-enrollment period than last year’s. Fewer choices make it harder for consumers to find plans that meet their needs, like including doctors and hospitals they prefer and covering the drugs they take.

Shrinking choice isn’t the only problem facing the marketplaces. On average, the most popular type of plan will cost 22 percent more next year than this year. However, in some regions, premium increases are much larger; residents of Phoenix will see a 145 percent rise. (In some regions, increases are low; Columbus, Ohio, is facing only a 3 percent increase.)

Insurers’ exits and rising premiums are related. Both are happening because the number of enrollees and their health care needs are not what insurers expected. One piece of evidence that this occurred is that the Obamacare marketplace plans attracted more older people than the administration’s initial projection. Another factor: In states that did not expand their Medicaid programs, some sicker, higher-cost consumers that would otherwise be Medicaid-eligible are in marketplace plans.

If insurers attract too few consumers with little or modest health needs and, instead, attract a larger proportion of sicker ones, health care costs outstrip premium revenue. In the worst case, an insurance company throws up its hands and exits the market. Some insurers that have left Obamacare markets stated they did so because they could not earn enough money to keep up with costs.

Increasing premiums might close the revenue-cost gap. However, premium increases can further discourage consumers, particularly healthier ones, from enrolling, worsening the problem.

As competition decreases, the remaining insurers have greater market power to increase premiums. States with the fewest insurers have the largest premium increases while those with more insurers have more modest premium growth. These facts are consistent with findings from both government and non-government organizations.

A study done in part by Leemore Dafny, a health economist now with the Harvard Business School, also illuminates the competition-premium connection. She and co-authors found that premiums in the first year of the marketplaces were 5.4 percent higher just because one national insurer opted out. Another study, published in Health Affairs, found that premiums fall by 3.5 percent with the addition of another insurer.

“Marketplaces will only succeed if enough insurers participate, and many are running away from what they perceive as a high-risk, low-reward market opportunity,” she said.

All of this — insurer withdrawals and sharply escalating premiums — was avoidable and is fixable. We know how to draw insurers into markets, keep them there, and limit premium growth. We can do so by subsidizing plans more and by limiting their risk of loss. We’ve done both before.

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