The GOP is getting closer to passing its tax bill. Here’s what it could mean for health insurers

man counting money

The House and Senate have agreed upon a unified tax overhaul bill, putting Republicans on the fast track to pass legislation that has significant implications for the health insurance industry.

For one, the compromise tax bill will repeal the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate penalty, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement on Wednesday. To McConnell, axing the mandate will offer “relief to low- and middle-income Americans who have struggled under an unpopular and unworkable law.”

Health insurers and the healthcare industry at large have opposed removing the key ACA provision without a viable alternative to encourage healthy consumers to buy coverage, arguing that doing so will destabilize the individual markets. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that repealing the mandate would increase the number of uninsured people by 13 million over the next 10 years and hike individual market premiums by 10% during most years of that decade.

Yet while the individual mandate repeal is problematic for insurers that do business on the ACA exchanges, nearly all insurance companies stand to gain from the GOP tax bill overall, according to Leerink Partners analyst Ana Gupte, Ph.D. She estimates that insurers can capture about 10% to 15% of the potential 25% upside from the legislation, subject to regulatory constraints such as medical loss ratio rules and competitive pricing constraints.

Likely the biggest gain for insurers is the fact that, per the New York Times, the compromise bill sets the corporate tax rate at 21%—significantly lower than the current rate of 35%.

Though the House and Senate have ironed out the differences in their bills, the final version still must be approved by both chambers. GOP leaders have but two votes to spare in the Senate, and will likely have to include two bipartisan measures to shore up the ACA in Congress’ year-end spending bill to win the support of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Collins said on Wednesday that Vice President Mike Pence assured her that those measures would make it into the spending bill, according to The Hill. Yet some House conservatives have expressed opposition to the bills, which would provide funding for cost-sharing reduction payments and state-based reinsurance programs, among other provisions.

Meanwhile, the results of the headline-grabbing Senate race in Alabama have put a major crimp in Republicans’ plans to retry repealing the ACA. Once Democrat Doug Jones officially takes his seat, the GOP will have an even slimmer majority in the Senate, where the defection of a handful of moderate Republicans was already enough to kill several repeal bills earlier this year.


Study: ‘Big five’ insurers depend heavily on Medicare, Medicaid business

Rising Stocks

Even as they’ve retreated from the Affordable Care Act exchanges, the country’s biggest for-profit health insurers have become increasingly dependent on Medicare and Medicaid for both profits and growth.

In fact, Medicare and Medicaid accounted for 59% of the revenues of the “big five” U.S. commercial health insurers—UnitedHealthcare, Anthem, Aetna, Cigna and Humana—in 2016, according to a new Health Affairs study.

From 2010 to 2016, the combined Medicare and Medicaid revenue from those insurers ballooned from $92.5 billion to $213.1 billion. The companies’ Medicare and Medicaid business also grew faster than other segments, doubling from 12.8 million to 25.5 million members during that time.

All these positive trends, the study noted, helped offset the financial losses that drove the firms to reduce their presence in the individual marketplaces. Indeed, the big five insurers’ pretax profits either increased or held steady during the first three years of the ACA’s individual market reforms (2013-2016). Their profit margins did decline during those three years, but stabilized between 2014 and 2016.

Not only do these findings demonstrate the “growing mutual dependence between public programs and private insurers,” the study authors said, but they also suggest a useful policy lever. The authors argued that in order to help stabilize the ACA exchanges, federal and state laws could require any insurer participating in Medicare or state Medicaid programs to also offer individual market plans in those areas.

Nevada has already done something similar: It offered an advantage in Medicaid managed care contract billing for insurers that promised to participate in the state’s ACA exchange. The state credited that policy with its ability to coax Centene to step in and cover counties that otherwise would have lacked an exchange carrier in 2018.

It’s far less certain, though, whether such a concept will ever be embraced at the federal level during the Trump administration, since its focus has been on unwinding the ACA rather than propping it up.

Either way, recent events underscore the study’s findings about how lucrative government business has become for major insurers. One of the main goals of CVS’ proposed acquisition of Aetna is to improve care for Medicare patients, which would help the combined company “be more competitive in this fast-growing segment of the market,” CVS CEO Larry Merlo said on a call this week.

Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini added that the transaction has “incredible potential” for Medicare and Medicaid members, as the goal is to provide the type of high-touch interaction and care coordination they need to navigate the healthcare system.


Under ACA, largest health plans net lion’s share of underwriting gains while smaller players struggle

Financial market data. Image: Pixabay

The gap between the haves and have-nots has grown wider in the health insurance sector—and policy changes may be the culprit.

Most health plans are relatively small, posting an annual revenue of less than $2 billion, and are generally close to just breaking even financially. But the top three largest fully insured health plans by revenue—UnitedHealth Group, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Anthem—“exhibit performance that is dramatically differentiated from that of other market participants,” according to a new analysis from Deloitte.

For example, between 2011 and 2016, the top three saw their share of underwriting gains rise considerably even as their share of enrollment and revenue declined. By 2016, those three plans generated 84% of all underwriting gains in the fully insured market, while they accounted for just 55% in 2011. The top 10 plans, meanwhile, accounted for 92% of all underwriting gains in 2016.

What was behind that trend? Post-2014, one of the main reasons was the “number and magnitude of the losses suffered by many other health plans,” particularly in Affordable Care Act commercial individual products, the analysis said. Those losses were so large that they offset almost all the underwriting gains posted by the health plans not in the top three or top 10—thus magnifying the largest plans’ share.

For-profit insurers also grew faster and posted significantly higher margins than their nonprofit peers, the analysis found. While for-profit plans accounted for 66% of all underwriting gains in 2011, that share rose to 76% by 2016. Nonprofit plans, in comparison, saw their underwriting margins slip from 2.3% in 2011 to 0.8% in 2016.

The analysis also looked at health plan performance on the company and state levels. It found a significant increase in the number of plans with annual losses, a steep decline in average margins and widening variation among plans’ performance from 2011-2016. In addition, the number of states with health insurance market turbulence and unfavorable health plan financial performance increased.

Deloitte said its findings showed how large of a role public policy has played in driving change in the insurance markets in recent years. In addition, it highlighted the financial benefits associated with national scale.

Yet the firm also pointed out that it’s worth paying attention to how smaller-scale nonprofit plans are faring, given that they “play critical roles in their local communities and healthcare ecosystems.”

These plans, it noted, may lack the resources to withstand more disruption and “down years.” But with Republicans moving to unwind the ACA, that’s exactly what might lie ahead.



Are Payers the Leading Cause of Death in the United States?

Related image

Milton Packer wonders if people suffer and die because it is cost effective.

As everyone knows, we are in the midst of a horrific opioid addiction epidemic. Physicians are prescribing opiates for pain relief, and patients are becoming addicted to them. One-fifth of patients who receive an initial 10-day prescription for opioids will still be using opiates a year later. That is simply extraordinary.

Physicians are prescribing opiate formulations that are highly addictive. But they do not need to do that.

There are several newer formulations that relieve pain and are far less addictive than older agents. But they are prescribed uncommonly. Why is that?

It is not because physicians are uninformed.

It is because payers will not pay for the alternatives. The less-addictive opiates are more expensive, so payers have declined to support them. Patients get addicted because paying for highly addictive opiates saves the payers money.

The New York Times also noted that the treatment of opiate addiction is expensive. It is far cheaper for payers if physicians continue to prescribe opiates than if physicians enrolled a person into a drug addiction program.

What does that look like? Patients get more prescriptions for opiates instead of getting the help they need.

The Payers Are in Charge

If you are looking for someone to blame for the opioid epidemic, you can certainly blame physicians. You can blame pharmaceutical companies. But while you are at it, don’t forget to include payers.

This conclusion should not be surprising. We live in a world where payers — not physicians — determine what drugs and treatments patients receive.

If patients have a life-threatening condition, it is not unusual for a payer to demand that a physician first prescribe a cheaper and less effective alternative. Physicians know that the drugs they are allowed to use may not work very well, but frequently, payers demand that they be tried first anyway.

What happens if the patient doesn’t respond to the cheap drug?

Often, the physician continues to prescribe it, because — to gain access to the more effective drug — physicians need to go through a painful process of preauthorization. For many practitioners, it isn’t worth it.

Don’t patients eventually get the drugs that they need?

No. All too often, physicians stop trying. Or patients get frustrated and give up. Often, payers says “No!” no matter how many times they are asked. And if the drug is for a life-threatening illness and enough time passes by, then the patient may no longer be alive to demand that they get the right drug.

So we spend more for healthcare than any other country in the world, but Americans do not get the care they need. There is a simple reason. Treatment decisions are not being driven based on a physician’s knowledge or judgment. They are being driven by what payers are willing to pay for.

How many people are affected by all of this?


That includes me and my family. That includes everyone that I know.

Medicine has made incredible progress in the last 20-30 years. But you are not likely to benefit from it.

Do you want to blame the high cost of drugs? You can do that, but if you do, you will be missing the point. We should expect better drugs to be more expensive than less effective ones. But we do not expect to have a company decide that we will get the inferior drug simply because they want to make a profit.

Are payers the leading cause of death in the United States? If you think this is a crazy question, please think again.

CVS considers acquiring Aetna

 Image result for CVS considers acquiring Aetna
Related image

CVS has reportedly put in an offer to buy Aetna.

CVS Health has proposed buying Aetna for $200 per share, the Wall Street Journal reports. That would value the transaction at more than $66 billion.

Why it matters: This would be a gigantic buyout offer, one of the biggest of the year, if it goes through. CVS and Aetna, which already have a pharmacy contract together, would create a behemoth health care company with roughly $240 billion in annual revenue and substantial bargaining power over hospitals, drug makers and employers. The deal also would displace UnitedHealth Group as the largest health insurer and pharmacy benefits manager.

Health insurers working the system to pad their profits

Image result for Health insurers working the system to pad their profits

Commentary: taking advantage of Medicare Advantage

One of the reasons the health insurance industry worked behind the scenes in 2009 and 2010 to derail Obamacare was the fear that changes mandated by the law would cut their Medicare Advantage profits. Medicare Advantage plans are federally funded but privately run alternatives to traditional fee-for-service Medicare.

Although the industry’s biggest trade group, America’s Health Insurance Plans, said repeatedly that insurers supported Obamacare, the group was secretly financing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s TV campaign against reform. Among the companies most concerned about the law were those benefiting from overpayments the federal government had been making to their Medicare Advantage plans since George W. Bush was in the White House.

Bush and other Republicans saw the Medicare Advantage program as a way to incrementally privatize Medicare. To entice insurers to participate in the program, the federal government devised a payment scheme that resulted in taxpayers paying far more for people enrolled in the Medicare Advantage plans than those who remained in the traditional program. The extra cash enables insurers to offer benefits traditional Medicare doesn’t, like coverage for glasses and hearing aids, and to cap enrollees’ out-of-pocket expenses.

When the Affordable Care Act became law in 2010, the payments to Medicare Advantage plans exceeded traditional Medicare payments by 14 percent. To end what they considered an unfair advantage for private insurers, and to reduce overall spending on Medicare, Democrats who wrote the reform law included language to gradually eliminate the over-payments.  So far, the 14 percent disparity has been reduced to 2 percent.  The final reductions are scheduled to be made next year.

Despite that decrease, the fears by Republicans and insurance company executives that the reductions would lead to a steady decline in Medicare Advantage enrollees have proved to be completely unfounded. In fact, the plans have continued to grow at a fast clip.

In March 2010, the month Obamacare became law, 11.1 million people were enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans—one of every four people eligible for Medicare. That was an increase from the 10.5 million Medicare Advantage enrollees in March 2009. Since then, Medicare Advantage membership has grown by more than 8 percent annually. Now 17.3 million—one in three people eligible for Medicare—are enrolled in private plans.

As Center for Public Integrity senior reporter Fred Schulte has written over the past year, many insurers have discovered that even though the overpayments are being reduced, they can boost profits another way: by manipulating a provision of a 2003 law that allows them to get additional cash for enrollees deemed to be sicker than average.

A risk-coding program was put in place by the government primarily because insurers were targeting their marketing efforts to attract younger and healthier—and thus cheaper— beneficiaries. Under the risk-coding program, insurers are paid more to cover patients who are older and sicker; the idea was to encourage the firms to cover those folks by offering a financial incentive. They get more money, for example, to cover someone with a history of heart disease than they do for someone with no such risk.  Last week Schulte uncovered whistleblower accusations that a medical consulting firm and more than two dozen Medicare Advantage plans have been ripping taxpayers off by conducting in-home patient exams that allegedly overstated how much the plans should be paid.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has refused to provide information that would enable taxpayers to know just how widespread fraud and abuse in the Medicare Advantage program might be. But CMS announced earlier this year that it will implement plans designed to make it harder for insurers to manipulate the risk scores. As you can imagine, insurers have howled and have put on a full court press to get CMS to scuttle those plans, but so far the agency says it intends to go forward. We’ll see.

This all matters to insurers because more and more of their revenue and profits are coming from the Medicare and Medicaid programs. When Aetna announced a few weeks ago that it planned to buy Humana, which has more than three million Medicare Advantage members—second only to UnitedHealthcare—Aetna and Humana executives said 56 percent of revenues from the combined company would come from the government programs.

Indeed, some of the firms would not be growing at all if it weren’t for their government business. When Aetna announced second quarter earnings earlier this month, the company noted that its membership in Medicare and Medicaid programs was up 8 percent over the same period last year. By contrast, its commercial membership was down from last year.

Despite that dip in commercial membership, Aetna surprised Wall Street with stronger profits than financial analysts had expected.

So don’t expect the Medicare Advantage program to wither on the vine because of Obamacare. If anything, it will continue to grow—as will the profits of the private insurers that participate in the program.