Geisinger reports net income increase despite issues with ACA health plan

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Dive Brief:

  • In a new financial report, Geisinger Health System reported a gain of nearly $200 million in net income to $324.9 million for the first half of fiscal year 2018 compared to the previous year, for an excess margin of 9%.
  • Operating income for the first six months was up from $51.9 million a year ago to $61.2 million in the current fiscal year and net revenue increased 8.1% to $3.3 billion. However, Geisinger’s operating margin dropped from 3% for the first three months of the fiscal year to 1.8% through half the year.
  • One area of concern for the integrated healthcare system was its Affordable Care Act (ACA) health plan. Geisinger Health Plan (GHP) struggled after the company didn’t get $11 million in cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments following President Donald Trump’s decision to stop payments in October.

Dive Insight:

Geisinger’s net revenue growth is connected to an increase in net patient service revenue after the provision for bad debts of nearly 5% and an increase in premium revenue of 11%.

“Net patient service revenue benefited from the realization of growth plans centered on market share growth and the opportunistic capture of high-acuity, clinical service volumes. Premium revenue benefited primarily from rate increases,” Geisinger said in the report.

ACA marketplace volatility, namely the end of CSR payments, as well as higher utilization affected GHP. The company believes the higher utilization is connected to GHP members concerned they would lose coverage if Congress repealed the ACA. Despite Congress’ and the president’s threats and a few close votes, the repeal didn’t happen. But before that effort stalled, Geisinger said many members got healthcare services just in case.

“Similarly, provider tiering in benefit plan changes for self-insured employees were announced in the fall of 2017. These benefit changes caused certain employees to accelerate medical services through providers that fall under higher out-of-pocket tiers beginning Jan. 1, 2018. These one-time impacts, while negatively affecting second-quarter results, are expected to improve operating profits beginning in the third fiscal quarter,” Geisinger said in the report.

Geisinger expects to resolve the CSR non-payment issue this year after raising the average premium rate by 31% to help offset the loss of payments. GHP also gained more than 20,000 members in its exchange plans, a 39% increase, for 2018, which should help offset losses.

GHP had 559,643 members in its health plans through the first half, which was a 0.4% increase compared to a year ago.

Concerning utilization, Geisinger had an increase of 3.5% in discharges and 2.6% in discharges and observations/23-hour stays compared to a year ago. “This growth was attributable to success in expanding clinical programs. Based solely upon hospitals controlled for two years or more, Geisinger experienced a 2.9% increase in discharges when compared to the year-earlier period,” the report states.

However, percent of occupancy based on physically available beds dipped from 60.2% to 59.9%.

Meanwhile, outpatient visits were on the rise. Outpatient emergency room visits increased from nearly 174,000 the previous year to almost 181,000 in fiscal 2018. Clinic outpatient visits increased from 1.65 million to 1.77 million.

Geisinger is the latest nonprofit to offer updates about finances. Over the past week, other major nonprofits have released financial information, including:

All had positive notes in their reports. Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic said operating income and revenue bounced back in 2017 after rough numbers in the previous year. UPMC said its clinical and insurance sides had strong performances as net income hit $1.3 billion. Profits for these companies have been scrutinized as critics question whether they are giving enough back to their communities as nonprofit organizations.

UPDATE: CMS seeks expansion of short-term plans to sidestep ACA

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Dive Brief:

  • HHS issued a proposed rule on Tuesday that expands the availability of short-term health insurance by allowing the purchase of plans providing coverage for up to 12 months, the latest in the Trump administration’s plans to weaken the Affordable Care Act. The action builds off a request for information by HHS last June on ways to increase affordability of health insurance.
  • The current maximum period for such plans is less than three months, a change made by the Obama administration in 2016. The proposed rule would mark a return to the pre-2016 era, but CMS noted that it is seeking comment on offering short-term plans for periods longer than 12 months.
  • Short-term plans are not required to comply with federal rules for individual health insurance under the ACA, so the plans could charge more for those with preexisting conditions and not provide what the ACA deemed essential health benefits like maternity care.

Dive Insight:

The proposed rule builds off of an executive order President Donald Trump signed in October, which instructed the federal government to explore more access to association health plans, expanding short-term limited duration plans and changes to health reimbursement arrangements or HRAs.

Consumers buying these short-terms plans could lose access to certain healthcare services and providers and experience an increase in out-of-pocket expenditures for some patients, according to the proposal.

The short-term plans “would be unlikely to include all the elements of ACA-compliant plans, such as the preexisting condition exclusion prohibition, coverage of essential health benefits without annual or lifetime dollar limits, preventive care, maternity and prescription drug coverage, rating restrictions and guaranteed renewability,” according to the proposed rule.

The Trump administration argues that expanding access to short-term plans is increasingly important due to rising premiums in the individual markets.

But if young and healthy people leave the individual market for short-term plans, it could contribute to an unbalanced risk pool. HHS itself states that the exodus of young and healthy exchange members could contribute to rising premiums within the ACA exchange markets.

“If individual market single risk pools change as a result, it would result in an increase in premiums for the individuals remaining in those risk pools,” the proposed rule stated.

But when asked about concerns that the idea might hurt the stability of the ACA marketplaces by siphoning healthy people away, CMS Administrator Seema Verma argued there would be little impact.

“No, we don’t think there’s any validity to that — based on our projections only a very small number of healthy people will shift from the individual market to these short-term limited duration plans. Specifically, we estimate that only 100,000 to 200,000 people will shift. And this shift will have will have virtually no impact on the individual market premiums,” Verma said on a press call.

But the insurance lobby cautioned that the action could increase insurance prices for the most vulnerable.

The American Hospital Association and Association for Community Affiliated Plans also slammed the short-term plans, saying they would increase the cost of comprehensive coverage.

“Short-term, limited-duration health plans have a role for consumers who experience gaps in coverage. They are not unlike the small spare tire in a car: they get the job done for short periods of time, but they have severe limitations and you’ll get in trouble if you drive too fast on them,” ACAP CEO Margaret Murray said in a statement.

“While we are reviewing the proposed rule to understand its impact on the people we serve, we remain concerned that expanded use of short-term policies could further fragment the individual market, which would lead to higher premiums for many consumers, particularly those with pre-existing conditions,” said Kristine Grow, SVP of communications at America’s Health Insurance Plans.

HHS anticipates most individuals switching from individual market plans to short-term coverage plans would be relatively young or healthy and not eligible to receive ACA’s premium tax credits.

CMS said the proposal is one to help the 28 million Americans without health insurance, pointing to the 6.7 million who chose to pay the individual mandate penalty in 2015 as evidence that ACA-compliant plans are too expensive.

“In a market that is experiencing double-digit rate increases, allowing short-term, limited-duration insurance to cover longer periods gives Americans options and could be the difference between someone getting coverage or going without coverage at all,” Verma said in a statement.

Senate HELP Committee Chair Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., praised the action, but cautioned that states still have a responsibility to protect consumers.

“Millions of Americans who are between jobs and who pay for their own insurance will welcome this extended option for lower-cost, short-term policies. States will have the responsibility for making sure these policies benefit consumers,” Alexander said in a statement.

Democrats largely oppose the move, arguing it will further destabilize the market for millions of Americans in the ACA exchanges. “Widespread marketing of these bare bones, junk plans will further destabilize health insurance markets, and will lead to higher premiums for everyone,” a group of House Democrats said in a joint statement.

As Republicans are not likely to take up ACA repeal again any time soon, the Trump administration has been working to pare back the law in the past several months. It halved the enrollment period and stopped paying cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers. Also, the recent tax overhaul included a repeal of the law’s requirement that most people have coverage.

House GOP warming to ObamaCare fix

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Key House Republicans are warming to a proposal aimed at bringing down ObamaCare premiums, raising the chances of legislative action this year to stabilize the health-care law.

House GOP aides and lobbyists say that top House Republicans are interested in funding what is known as reinsurance. The money could be included in a coming bipartisan government funding deal or in another legislative vehicle.

Any action from Republicans to stabilize ObamaCare would be a major departure from the party’s long crusade against the law, but after having failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year, the discussion is shifting.

Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) is one of the leaders of the push in the House and is sponsoring a bill to provide ObamaCare stability funding in 2019 and 2020. He notes the relatively short-term nature of his measure.

“That reflects the political reality that we are not going to be doing some large, sweeping health-care bill in the next year,” said Costello, who faces a competitive reelection race this year.

“I am optimistic that it would be under serious consideration for inclusion in the omnibus,” he added.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) noted the possibility of action on an ObamaCare stability measure, particularly funding for reinsurance, at an event in Wisconsin in January, saying he thought there could be a “bipartisan opportunity” on the issue.

Action on the reinsurance payments is far from certain; conservative opposition to what some view as a bailout of ObamaCare insurers could stop the proposal in its tracks. But there is growing momentum for the idea, and Republicans said the proposal would likely be discussed more at the GOP retreat this week in West Virginia.

The push on reinsurance matches up with one of the ObamaCare bills that Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has been pushing in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) gave Collins a commitment to support a reinsurance bill as well as another stability measure from Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in exchange for Collins’s support for tax reform in December.

Opposition in the House has always been the major impediment to those measures moving forward. But it now appears some of that resistance is softening, at least on the reinsurance measure, now that Republicans have repealed ObamaCare’s individual mandate through the tax bill.

Importantly, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), whose panel has jurisdiction, is supporting the ObamaCare stabilization efforts and backs Costello’s bill.

“Chairman Walden is supportive of Rep. Costello’s efforts to help states repair their insurance markets that have been damaged by Obamacare,” an Energy and Commerce spokesperson wrote in an email. “Rep. Costello’s bill is a fair approach to granting states greater flexibility to help patients and lower costs.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the fourth-ranking Republican in House leadership, is also a co-sponsor of Costello’s stabilization bill.

While House conservatives have opposed propping up ObamaCare, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) did not dismiss the payments out of hand on Tuesday.

“If it lowers premiums, I’m willing to listen to any ideas,” said Meadows, who is chairman of the House Freedom Caucus.

He warned that he did not want a proposal to be an “insurance bailout,” but noted that he has been talking to colleagues in the House and Senate about the issue.

Another obstacle for an ObamaCare fix is a dispute over abortion. Republicans are adamant that a stabilization measure must include restrictions on the new funding being used to cover abortion services, a notion that is problematic for Democrats.

Reinsurance funding is used to help insurers cover the costs of especially sick patients, which helps relieve pressure on premiums for the broader group of enrollees.

The other main stabilization measure, from Alexander and Murray, would fund ObamaCare payments that reimburse insurers for giving discounts to low-income enrollees, known as cost-sharing reductions (CSRs).

Republican sources say there is less momentum in the House for funding CSRs than there is for the reinsurance measure. But even some Democrats are now questioning whether funding CSRs still makes sense, given that through a quirk in the law, President Trump’s cancellation of the payments last year actually led to increased subsidies and lower premiums for many enrollees.

Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), for example, a leading House Republican on health-care issues as co-chairman of the GOP Doctors Caucus, said Tuesday that he feels negatively about the idea of funding CSRs but likes the idea of reinsurance.

Roe pushed back on the idea that the funding would be propping up ObamaCare, saying that the repeal of the individual mandate had changed the discussion because people no longer were forced to buy coverage.

Roe said he runs into people in his district paying more than $1,000 per month in premium costs.

“We’re going to have to do something,” he said.

Podcast: ‘What The Health?’ While You Were Celebrating …

Podcast: ‘What The Health?’ While You Were Celebrating …

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The year in health policy has already begun: The Trump administration Thursday released a long-awaited regulation aimed at making it easier for small businesses and others to form “association health plans.” Now advocates and opponents will be able to weigh in with more specific recommendations.

Meanwhile, in December, the health policy focus was on the tax bill and its repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s “individual mandate” penalty for most people who don’t have health insurance. But some recent key court decisions could reshape the benefits millions of people receive as part of their health coverage.

This week’s “What the Health?” guests are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Paige Winfield Cunningham of The Washington Post, Alice Ollstein of Talking Points Memo and Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times.

They discuss these topics, as well as the prospects for pending health legislation on Capitol Hill.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The Trump administration’s decision to expand association health plans faces a number of obstacles, including the lack of good oversight in many states and the poor track record of many past plans.
  • Consumer advocates fear that growth of association plans could leave many consumers without adequate benefits because some plans will not cover the same essential benefits that Obamacare plans guarantee. They also are concerned that healthy customers will migrate to the new plans and leave the ACA’s marketplace plans with an abundance of enrollees who are ill.
  • The prospects of the bill to stabilize the individual insurance market sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) appear to be dimming.
  • Two federal judges have ruled against the Trump administration rule to change the ACA’s contraception mandate. The decisions, though, are not based on the policy but on faulty rule-making.
  • In another highly watched court case, a federal judge has ruled that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has until 2019 to set new rules on what employers can require of workers in their wellness programs.

Credit rating agency, researchers give vote of confidence to health insurance sector

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Two new reports offer evidence that policy uncertainty aside, the health insurance industry is doing just fine.

In one report, A.M. Best explains why it decided to change its outlook for the health insurance sector from negative to stable. The credit rating agency said the change “reflects a variety of factors that have led to improvement in earnings and risk-adjusted capitalization.”

While insurers have experienced losses in the individual exchange business, this market segment has improved in 2016 and 2017—in part due to consecutive years of high rate increases, a narrowing of provider networks and a stabilizing exchange population, the report said.

A.M. Best also predicted that Congress won’t make repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act a high priority in 2018. And even if it does, health insurers will have time to make adjustments, since legislative changes won’t take effect for two or more years.

The rating agency’s findings about the individual market echo those of a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which examined insurers’ financial data from the third quarter of 2017.

It found that insurers saw significant improvement in their medical loss ratios, which averaged 81% through the third quarter. Gross margins per member per month in the individual market segment followed a similar pattern, jumping up to $79 per enrollee in the third quarter of 2017 from a recent third-quarter low of $10 in 2015.

One caveat is that KFF’s findings reflect insurer performance only through September—before the Trump administration stopped reimbursing insurers for cost-sharing subsidies. “The loss of these payments during the fourth quarter of 2017 will diminish insurer profits, but nonetheless, insurers are likely to see better financial results in 2017 than they did in earlier years of the ACA marketplaces,” KFF said.

As promising as these observations about the individual market are, A.M. Best pointed out that this market segment is just a small portion of most health insurers’ earnings and revenues. In fact, health plans largely owe their overall profitability to the combined operating results of the employer group, Medicaid and Medicare Advantage lines of business.

Looking ahead, the agency predicted that Medicare and Medicaid business lines will remain profitable for insurers—though margins will likely compress for both. It said the employer group segment will also remain profitable, but noted that membership will continue to be flat.


Push for return to ACA repeal

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While lawmakers’ most pressing priority right now is to prevent a government shutdown, it’s not too early to start asking: Is the push to repeal the Affordable Care Act over?

The answer to that question, however, depends upon which Republican you ask.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that while he wants to unwind more of the healthcare law, he’s doubtful that Republicans will have enough votes to do so now that their majority has gotten even slimmer.

But others on the right are pushing to keep the repeal effort alive. Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said Tuesday that one of the GOP’s major goals this year is to tackle welfare reform, but “then we’re going to have to work on healthcare again.”

“Look, I’m for repealing and replacing Obamacare,” he said during an interview with Fox & Friends, later adding, “So let’s get back to work on some of those things—like what we passed in the House, that almost passed in the Senate—so that we can get our healthcare system working again [and] rebuild the private marketplace.”

The GOP is also facing external pressure. A collection of conservative groups known as the “Repeal Coalition” sent a letter Tuesday to President Donald Trump, saying that now that he’s reformed the tax code, he now must “deliver on the rest of the promises made to the American people to free them from the shackles of Obamacare.”

Thus, the letter said, healthcare reform must be the focus of lawmakers’ budget reconciliation instructions for 2019. The Trump administration must also help the Senate and the House “design a bill that can muster the votes needed for passage of true health reform,” it added.

Whichever path that Republicans choose to take regarding the ACA this year, however, they will do so without a veteran senator who has played a major role in healthcare policymaking. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, announced Tuesday that he will not run for an eighth term.

Hatch, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, has opposed the ACA and criticized a bill drafted by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray that was designed to stabilize the law. In fact, he floated an alternative to the Alexander-Murray bill that would both temporarily fund cost-sharing reduction payments and ax the individual and employer mandates. Ultimately, he helped repeal the individual mandate via the GOP’s tax reform package.

Hatch also has a history of bipartisanship, however. He was often forced to work with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy when they led what is now known as the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. One of their biggest achievements was creating the Children’s Health Insurance Program—though that program is now on shaky ground since Congress let federal funding for it lapse last fall and has since failed to reauthorize it.



From premiums to politics: 5 predictions for the health insurance industry in 2018

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After the demise of two major insurer mergers and multiple Affordable Care Act repeal attempts, few could argue that 2017 wasn’t an eventful year for the health insurance industry.

But 2018 is shaping up to be just as interesting—complete with more political wrangling, M&A intrigue and evidence that, despite all this uncertainty, insurers are pushing ahead and embracing innovation.

Read on for our predictions about what’s in store for the industry in the coming months.

1. The CVS-Aetna deal will have a domino effect in the healthcare industry

While the lines between payer, provider and pharmacy benefits manager have been blurring for a while now, CVS’ $69 billion deal to purchase Aetna is undoubtedly a game-changer.

The move was likely motivated by a desire to compete with UnitedHealth’s thriving Optum subsidiary, which has its own PBM and an increasing presence in care delivery. So it stands to reason that other major insurers will try to strike deals of their own that mimic that scale and level of diversification.

Already, Humana has made a bid to purchase part of hospice- and home-health giant Kindred Healthcare. There’s also been speculation that it is preparing to be acquired—possibly by Cigna, or in a deal that would mimic CVS-Aetna, Walmart or Walgreens.

Other insurers may also seek to build PBM capabilities, following in the footsteps of UnitedHealth, a combined CVS-Aetna and Anthem, which announced in October that it would team up with CVS to create an in-house PBM called IngenioRx.

It’s certainly possible, however, that CVS’ purchase of Aetna will not pass regulatory muster. While it would require less divestment than the ill-fated Anthem-Cigna and Aetna-Humana deals, the DOJ’s decision to block another vertical deal—between AT&T and Time Warner—doesn’t bode well for its chances.

2. Republicans and Democrats will be forced to work together on ACA fixes

With one less Republican senator—thanks to Alabama’s election of Democrat Doug Jones—the GOP likely won’t have the votes to pass a repeal bill without bipartisan support. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged as much before Congress’ holiday recess, though he clarified the next day that he would be happy to pass an ACA repeal bill if there are enough votes for it.

McConnell also owes Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, as he had promised her he’d pass her reinsurance bill and a bill that would fund cost-sharing reduction payments this year. While Collins held up her end of the bargain—voting for the GOP tax bill—the ACA fixes didn’t make it into the stopgap spending bill Congress passed on Dec. 21.

Democrats, meanwhile, will also be motivated to reach across the aisle. The repeal of the individual mandate will likely put the ACA on more unstable footing, lending more urgency than ever to the task of shoring up the exchanges.

Both parties will also likely face pressure from the healthcare industry’s biggest lobbying groups to get some sort of ACA fix passed. The push to do so, however, will be complicated by the full slate of legislative priorities Congress is facing in the new year, including reauthorizing funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

3. There will be more premium hikes and insurer exits in the individual market

The individual mandate is now gone, and arguments about its effectiveness aside, that was one of the mechanisms that encouraged healthy people to buy insurance and stay covered. Even if the effect on coverage levels is minimal, the move is probably going to be enough to push risk-averse insurers to raise rates and even exit more rating areas in 2019.

There is also little indication that large insurers that have exited will come back anytime soon. After all, why invest resources in an unstable market when there are far more steady and lucrative markets like Medicare Advantage?

Adding to the policy uncertainty for the remaining insurers, there is no guarantee that Congress will authorize short-term funding for cost-sharing reduction payments. Many insurers raised their 2018 rates to account for the possibility of them disappearing—which turned out to be a wise move—so it stands to reason they’d have to do the same for 2019.

Perhaps the best harbinger of what’s to come came from a study conducted in November, which noted that the actions insurers and state regulators took to fill in “bare counties” on the ACA exchanges are “temporary and unsustainable without long-term federal action.” And with Republicans in charge, federal action to patch up the exchanges is unlikely.

4. Federal agencies will start to carry out Trump’s executive order—and states will push back

Although it was overshadowed by all the repeal-and-replace drama, Trump’s healthcare-focused executive order has huge implications for the industry. Put simply, it paves the way for expanded use of association health plans, short-term health plans and employer-based health reimbursement arrangements.

In 2018, we’re likely to see the relevant agencies start issuing rules to implement the order, which could dramatically change the individual market as we know it—and not for the better. Such rulemaking would also set the stage for a power struggle between the federal government and left-leaning states.

In fact, a coalition of healthcare organizations have urged state insurance commissioners to take steps to override any rules resulting from the executive order. For example, states could restore the three-month limit on short-term health plans if agencies unwind that Obama-era rule on the federal level.

Since only certain states are likely to heed these suggestions, the upshot of Trump’s executive order will be to create a patchwork of individual market rules across the country. If that sounds strangely like what the individual insurance markets were like before the ACA, well, that’s precisely the point.

5. Payers’ move to value-based payment models will continue, with or without the feds leading the way

On the one hand, the Trump administration clearly wants to scale back the federal government’s role in pushing payers and providers away from fee-for-service payment models. The surest sign was CMS’ announcement late last year that it would endmandatory bundled payment models for hip fractures and cardiac care.

Some have worried that moving away from those mandatory programs would be a setback for the move to value-based payments, given that the feds play a powerful role in galvanizing the industry to change. In addition, the administration wants to take the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation in a “new direction”—one that CMS Administrator Seema Verma said would “move away from the assumption that Washington can engineer a more efficient healthcare system from afar.”

But even if the federal government will take a lighter touch in the move from volume to value, it’s not likely that the private sector will take that as a cue to reverse course. On the payer side, especially, too many industry-leading companies have invested heavily in alternative payment models to turn back now. And they have compelling business reasons to keep investing in those models, given their potential to lower costs and improve care quality.