Health Insurance Markets Perform Better in States That Run Their Own Marketplaces

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In spite of actions by Congress and President Trump that undermine parts of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), reports of the law’s death are greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain might have said. Enrollment in the ACA’s subsidized marketplace exchanges remains strong, and coverage remains available throughout the country. Not all insurance markets have remained as resilient as others, however. It appears that attempts to undermine the ACA have had greater effects in some locations than in others. In particular, analysts have noted that insurance markets remain healthier in the 17 states that run their own insurance marketplaces than in those that rely on the federal marketplace. We use newly released federal data to explore this difference between states.

Lower ACA Individual Market Premiums, Claims, and Costs in States with State-Run Marketplaces

In the individual market, insurers projected premiums for ACA-compliant coverage in 2018 that averaged 21 percent higher ($633 per month vs. $526 per month) in states using the federal marketplace than in those running their own marketplaces. Comparing these numbers to those from last year, insurers’ premium projections increased 68 percent more on average in federal marketplace states than in states with their own marketplaces ($135 per month vs. $82 per month).

These greater projected premiums in federal marketplace states continue a trend that has existed since near the beginning of the marketplaces. During the second year of the ACA marketplaces (2015), rate increases between the two sets of states were similar, but thereafter they began to diverge. In 2016, 2017, and 2018, insurers had greater premium increases in states using the federal marketplace than in states operating their own, with differences averaging 6 percentage points a year . Notably, the differences in rate increases were substantially greater for 2018 (11 percentage points) than for the prior two years (3 percentage points), as the stability of health care markets was thrown into question in the wake of the Trump administration’s pronouncements and policies.

For 2018, the difference in premiums between the two sets of states is based in part on greater projected medical claims in federal marketplace states. Insurers in federal marketplace states projected claims for 2018 that were 14 percent greater ($478 per month vs. $419 per month) than in states with their own marketplaces. Insurers in the federal marketplace states also projected higher administrative costs and operating profits per member, resulting in a substantially higher proportion of premiums (24.7% vs. 20.2%) going to overhead rather than to medical claims.

States That Run Their Own Marketplaces Are Better Positioned for Negative Impacts of ACA Changes

As insurers were adjusting to recent changes in administrative policy as well as market conditions, insurance markets in states with their own marketplaces appear to be more resilient than those in states using the federal marketplace. Under state-based marketplaces, insurers were able to project lower claims costs and keep administrative and overhead costs lower than in other states.

This greater resilience to policy efforts to weaken or undermine the ACA could result from a combination of factors that these data do not illuminate, but which other analysts (noted above, and here) have suggested. Principally, states with their own marketplaces have a more proactive engagement with the ACA, which is likely to translate into a more balanced risk pool and a greater willingness of insurers to enter or remain in the market. For example, when the Trump administration shortened the open-enrollment period and reduced advertising for the federal marketplace, states with their own marketplaces extended their open-enrollment periods and supplemented federal funds for outreach and assistance.

Other factors may well be at play in this observed difference between states.1 But the consistently and increasingly lower premiums in state-based marketplace states suggest that, as additional changes are made to the ACA, these states may be better situated and more motivated to buffer the potential negative impacts. States that wish to avoid the worst effects of market destabilization flowing from the most recent set of federal health policy reversals might want to follow the lead set by states that operate their own marketplaces.2

Idaho Blue Cross Jumps Into Controversial Market For Plans That Bypass ACA Rules

Idaho Blue Cross Jumps Into Controversial Market For Plans That Bypass ACA Rules

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That didn’t take long.

It’s barely been two weeks since Idaho regulators said they would allow the sale of health insurance that does not meet all of the Affordable Care Act’s requirements — a controversial step some experts said would likely draw legal scrutiny and, potentially, federal fines for any insurer that jumped in.

On Wednesday, Blue Cross of Idaho unveiled a menu of new health plans that break with federal health law rules in several ways, including setting premiums based on applicants’ health.

“We’re trying to offer a choice that allows the middle class to get back into insurance coverage,” said Dave Jeppesen, the insurer’s executive vice president for consumer health care.

The firm filed five plans to the state for approval and hopes to start selling them as soon as next month.

The Blue Cross decision ups the ante for Alex Azar, the Trump administration’s new Health and Human Services secretary. Will he use his authority under federal law to compel Idaho to follow the ACA and reject the Blues plans? Or will he allow state regulators to move forward, perhaps prompting other states to take more sweeping actions?

At a congressional hearing Wednesday, even as Blue Cross rolled out its plans, Azar faced such questions.

“There are rules. There is a rule of law that we need to enforce,” Azar said. Observers noted, however, he did not specifically indicate whether the federal government would step in.

Robert Laszewski, a consultant and former insurance industry executive, thinks it should.

“If Idaho is able to do this, it will mean other … states will do the same thing,” he said. “If a state can ignore federal law on this, it can ignore federal law on everything.”

Idaho’s move stirs up more issues about individual insurance market stability.

Policy experts say that allowing lower-cost plans that don’t meet the ACA’s standards to become more widespread will pull younger and healthier people out of Obamacare, raising prices for those who remain. Supporters say that is already happening, so this simply provides more choices for people who earn too much to qualify for subsidies to help them purchase ACA coverage.

The state’s move to allow such plans, announced in January, drew harsh and swift criticism.

“Crazypants illegal,” tweeted Nicholas Bagley, a law professor at the University of Michigan and former attorney with the civil division of the U.S. Department of Justice, who said that states can’t pick and choose which parts of federal law to follow. Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms, pointed out that health insurers could be liable for sharp fines if they are found to be in violation of the ACA.

But both Idaho regulators and Blue Cross officials say they are not worried.

Jeppesen said the ACA gives states regulatory authority “to make sure the market works and is stable,” and the insurer is simply “following what the state has given us guidance” to do.

Other insurers in Idaho are taking a much more cautious approach, telling The Wall Street Journal they are not stepping up immediately to offer their own plans.

Laszewski said they are likely waiting to see what legal challenges develop.

“If I were running an insurance company, there’s no way I would stick my neck out until the high court has ruled in favor of this — and they’re not going to,” he said.

Jeppesen said his company has consulted with legal experts and is moving ahead with confidence. The aim is to bring people back into the market, particularly the young, the healthy and those who don’t get a tax credit subsidy and can’t afford an ACA plan.

For some people — especially younger or healthier applicants — the new plans, which the insurer has named Freedom Blue, cost less per month than policies that meet all ACA rules.

They accomplish that by limiting coverage. If they are allowed to be sold, consumers will need to weigh the lower premiums against some of the coverage restrictions and variable premiums and deductibles, policy experts say.

The plans, for example, will include a “waiting period” of up to 12 months for any preexisting conditions if the applicant has been without coverage for more than 63 days, Jeppesen said.

Additionally, they cap total medical care coverage at $1 million annually. And premiums are based, in part, on a person’s health: The healthiest consumers get rates 50 percent below standard levels, while those deemed unhealthy would be charged 50 percent more.

All those caveats violate ACA rules, which forbid insurers from rejecting coverage of preexisting conditions or setting dollar caps on benefits or higher premiums for people with health problems.

But the rates may prove attractive to some.

Premiums for a healthy 45-year-old, for example, could be as low as $195 a month, according to a comparison issued by the insurer, while a 45-year-old with health problems could be charged $526. In that case, the 45-year old would find a lower price tag — $343 a month — for an ACA-compliant bronze plan.

While Freedom Blues plans cover many of the “essential health benefits” required under the ACA, such as hospitalization, emergency care and mental health treatment, they do not include pediatric dental or vision coverage. One of the five plans does not include maternity coverage.

When compared with one of the Blues’ ACA-compliant plans — called the Bronze 5500 — the new standard Freedom Blue plan’s annual deductibles are a mixed bag.

That’s because they have two separate deductibles — one for medical care and one for drugs. If a consumer took only generic drugs, the new plan would be less expensive, according to details provided by the plan. But with a $4,000 deductible for brand-name drugs, the Freedom Blue plan requires more upfront money before full coverage kicks in than the ACA-compliant plan it was compared with.

Jeppesen said the insurer hopes to attract many of the “110,000 uninsured state residents who cannot afford [ACA] coverage.”

That’s the total number of uninsured people who earn more than 100 percent of the federal poverty level in the state, he said.

Sarah Lueck, senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, cautioned that some of those residents might actually be eligible for subsidies under the ACA, which are available to people earning up to four times as much.

“Many … could be getting subsidies for more comprehensive coverage through the [ACA-compliant state exchange] and would be better off,” Lueck said.


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.


Health insurer Oscar nears $1 billion in revenue

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Oscar, the healthcare insurance upstart co-founded by Joshua Kushner, tells Axios that it is expecting to generate nearly $1 billion in premium revenue for 2018. That’s up from “more than $300 million” in 2017 premium revenue. It also says that its insurance underwriting business is profitable for the first time, although the overall company remains in the red.

Why it matters: Oscar continues to grow, despite having originally launched to provide health insurance to individuals under an Affordable Care Act that the Trump Administration has been slowly dismantling.

  • More numbers: The company expects around 250,000 members in the individual markets, including in New York and California where open enrollment continues, representing around a 2.5x increase over last year, and doesn’t include Oscar’s recent expansion into employer plans.

Oscar CEO Mario Schlosser tells Axios that he isn’t too concerned about how the new tax bill repeals the ACA’s individual mandate, saying that much of the early instability has dissipated:

“It took a while to figure out how things work, but a lot of people now just have come around to thinking it’s smart to have health insurance. The loss of the mandate will have some impact on some states around country, but it won’t affect the overall stability of the individual markets.”

Oscar’s big marketing pitch is that it leverages technology to provide a more efficient healthcare experience, through such techniques as tele-medicine (25% of Oscar members have used it) and concierge teams that include both nurses and “care guides” (70% have used). It has taken steps to apply this tech-centric approach to the Medicare Advantage market, but tells Axios that it has slowed down those efforts a bit (i.e., no 2018 launch).


No, Trump Hasn’t ‘Essentially Repealed Obamacare’

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Killing the mandate doesn’t gut the health care law. Most likely, it will muddle along, because the rest of it is broadly popular.

In July and again in September, Republicans narrowly failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But their newly passed tax legislation included a provision getting rid of Obamacare’s mandate requiring Americans to buy insurance, and President Donald Trump immediately declared victory in the partisan health care wars. “When the individual mandate is being repealed, that means Obamacare is being repealed,” he crowed at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday. “We have essentially repealed Obamacare.”

Well, no. The individual mandate is only part of Obamacare. It wasn’t even included in the original health care plan that Barack Obama unveiled during the 2008 campaign. The mandate did become an important element of Obamacare, and the only specific element that a majority of the public opposed. But the more generous elements of the program—like a major expansion of Medicaid, significant government subsidies for private insurance premiums, and strict protections for pre-existing conditions—are still popular, and still the law of the land.

“The death of Obamacare has been exaggerated,” says Larry Levitt, who oversees health reform studies at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Eliminating the mandate creates uncertainty, but all the benefits for people remain in place.”

The Republican ecstasy and Democratic gloom over the death of the mandate reflects the most consistent misperception over the seven-plus years of Affordable Care Act debates, the incorrect assumption that the “Obamacare exchanges,” where Americans can buy private insurance, are synonymous with Obamacare. The vast majority of Americans who get their coverage through Medicare, Medicaid or their employers shouldn’t be affected. Yes, killing the mandate could cause problems for the remaining 6 percent of Americans who have to buy insurance on the open market, but nearly half will remain eligible for subsidies that would insulate them from any premium hikes.

Repealing the tax penalties for Americans who don’t buy insurance would not repeal Obamacare’s perks for Americans who do—like the ban on annual and lifetime caps that insurers previously used to cut off coverage for their sickest customers, or the provision allowing parents to keep their children on their plans until they turn 26. And it would not repeal Obamacare’s “delivery reforms” that are quietly transforming the financial incentives in the medical system, gradually shifting reimbursements to reward the quality rather than quantity of care. The growth of U.S. health care costs has slowed dramatically since the launch of Obamacare, and the elimination of the mandate should not significantly affect that trend.

In fact, during the 2008 campaign, Obama was the only Democratic candidate whose health plan did not include a mandate, because he was the only Democratic candidate who thought the main problem with health care was its cost. “It’s just too expensive,” he explained at an Iowa event in May 2007. Insurance premiums had almost doubled during the George W. Bush era, and Obama believed that was the reason so many Americans were uninsured. He doubted it would be worth the political heartburn to try to force people to buy insurance they couldn’t afford.

But Obama eventually embraced the argument that a mandate was necessary to ensure that young and healthy Americans bought insurance. The fear was that otherwise, insurance markets dominated by the old and sick (who would enjoy the law’s new protections for pre-existing conditions) would have produced even higher premiums, and might scare insurers away from serving Americans who don’t get coverage through their jobs or the government. Killing the mandate will be a step in that direction, boosting Trump’s heighten-the-contradictions effort to sabotage the functioning of Obamacare to build support for a more sweeping repeal.

That effort has already produced some damaging results for the exchanges. Insurers have increased their premiums for 2018, repeatedly citing uncertainty over Trump’s efforts to blow up Obamacare as well as his decision to cut off promised payments to insurers who cover lower-income families. Several insurers left the exchanges even before the elimination of the mandate, and others could follow.

But the widespread warnings that wide swaths of America would have no insurers on the exchanges were wrong; there are zero “bare counties” with no insurers for 2018. And a Kaiser review found the exchanges have gotten more profitable for insurers this year,despite Trump’s efforts to damage them. This year’s enrollment period appears to have gone fairly well even though the Trump administration shortened it by half and slashed its promotional budget.

The fear is that eliminating the mandate could produce a “death spiral” for the exchanges, where higher premiums scare away healthier customers, leading to even higher premiums and even sicker customers—until eventually,the insurers decide to bail. It could also encourage insurers to try to lure healthier customers with cheaper but skimpier plans that don’t provide protections for pre-existing conditions, since those customers would no longer have to pay a tax penalty.

But it is also possible that younger and healthier customers who initially bought insurance because they were required to do so will now buy insurance because they want to; surveys show that more than 75 five percent of Americans covered on the exchanges are happy with their coverage. And as a political matter, repealing the unpopular mandate could make it even harder for Republicans to pass legislation repealing insurance protections, Medicaid expansions and the rest of Obamacare, because the rest of Obamacare is popular. It’s not surprising that Republicans managed to kill the law’s vegetables, but it won’t be as easy to kill dessert.

Trump thinks congressional Democrats will soon be begging him to come up with a replacement for Obamacare, and even many Republicans who don’t embrace that fantasy believe the demise of the mandate will ratchet up pressure for a permanent solution to a seven-year political war. It could happen. But there hasn’t been a lot of bipartisanship in Washington lately, and after the Doug Jones upset in Alabama, it seems unlikely that a Senate with one fewer Republican will be more amenable to a Republican-only repeal bill.

The most likely outcome seems to be at least a few more years of Obamacare muddling through, and at least a few more years of Obamacare political warfare.


Actuaries warn of premium increases from repealing ObamaCare mandate

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A group of insurance experts is warning Congress against repealing ObamaCare’s individual mandate, saying the move would raise premiums and could cause insurers to drop out of the market.

The American Academy of Actuaries wrote to congressional leaders on Tuesday saying that “eliminating the individual mandate would lead to premium increases.”

The Republican tax-reform bill which is nearing completion in Congress would repeal the ObamaCare mandate that people have health insurance or pay a fine.

Republicans argue the measure included in the Senate-passed bill is tax relief by removing a penalty for low-income people who choose not to buy insurance.

The actuaries warn that repealing the mandate would harm the health insurance market by removing an incentive for healthy people to enroll and balance out the costs of the sick.

The insurance experts also say that a measure pushed by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), intended to help offset the premium increases from repealing the mandate, would not be enough to make up the difference.

That bill, sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray(D-Wash.), would fund key ObamaCare payments known as cost-sharing reductions. The actuaries say the payments “would not offset premium increases due to an elimination of the mandate.”

The letter says additional measures — such as funding to bring down premiums known as “reinsurance,” which Collins has also proposed — could help, though. Some experts say more funding than is currently proposed would be needed.

The instability from repealing the mandate also could lead some insurers to drop out of markets altogether, the actuaries warn, potentially leaving some people with no insurance options.

“Insurers would likely reconsider their future participation in the market,” the actuaries write. “This could lead to severe market disruption and loss of coverage among individual market enrollees.”



Actuaries: Alexander-Murray won’t offset mandate repeal

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The American Academy of Actuaries is throwing some cold water on Republicans’ claims that they’ll offset the damage from repealing the ACA’s individual mandate by restoring funding for the law’s cost-sharing subsidies.

  • “While making cost-sharing reduction reimbursements to insurers … would offset premium increases due to the prior termination of those payments, it would not offset premium increases due to an elimination of the mandate,” the actuaries wrote in a letter yesterday.
  • This should not come as a surprise. This is hardly the first time nonpartisan experts have said the move to restore cost-sharing payments — a bill sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray — would not make up for the effects of repealing the mandate. They are separate things.

The big question: Does Collins believe this analysis, and does she care? Collins has made two ACA-related demands — a vote on Alexander-Murray, and a vote to establish a new reinsurance fund — in return for her vote to repeal the individual mandate.

  • Plenty of experts have said Alexander-Murray wouldn’t do much.
  • Reinsurance would.
  • But it’s not clear either proposal can pass the House. If one of them can, it’s probably Alexander-Murray.
  • That leaves a distinct possibility that insurance markets will not actually see the stabilizing effects Collins is bargaining for.

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