In a deep dark recess of the Federal Register this week, large corporations quietly received permission to “play doctor” with their employees. Corporations can now impose even more draconian and counterproductive wellness schemes on their workers. The hope of the corporations is to claw back a big chunk of the insurance premiums paid on the behalf of employees who refuse to submit to these programs or who can’t lose weight.
A Bit of Background on Wellness
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) allowed employers to force employees to submit to wellness programs under threat of fines. Specifically, the ACA’s “Safeway Amendment” — named after the supermarket chain whose wellness program was highlighted as a shining example of how corporations could help employees become healthier — encouraged corporations to tie 30% to 50% of the total health insurance premium to employee health behaviors and outcomes. (As was revealed while ACA was being debated, Safeway didn’t have a wellness program. The fictional Safeway success was a smokescreen for corporate lobbyists to shoehorn this withholding of money into the ACA.)
Once this 30% to 50% windfall became apparent, many corporations figured out what this vendor (Bravo Wellness) advertised: There is much more money to be made in clawing back large sums of money from employees who refuse to submit to these programs than in improving the health of employees enough to allegedly reduce spending many years from now. “Allegedly” because — unlike simply collecting fines or withholding incentive payments — improving employee health turns out to be remarkably hard and ridiculously expensive to do. It is so hard and expensive that:
The Federal Government Green Lights “Wellness-or-Else” Programs
There are no regulations, licensure requirements or oversight boards constraining the conduct of wellness vendors, and there is only one agency — the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — providing any recourse for employees. The Business Roundtable has taken on the latter at every opportunity. First, the Business Roundtable threatened President Obama with withdrawing its support for the ACA unless he declawed the EEOC. Then, the Business Roundtable arranged for sham Senate hearings titled “Employer Wellness Programs: Better Health Outcomes and Lower Costs.” Finally, it threatened to push the “Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act” to legislatively eviscerate the EEOC’s protections.
But it turns out the legislation was not necessary; the EEOC has now caved in. These programs are defined as “voluntary,” yet, as of now, employees can be forced to hand over genetic and family history information or pay penalties. So, as in 1984, where “war” means “peace,” employees can now be required to voluntarily hand over this information.
Knowing family history does have some predictive value, but it is unclear how employees are going to benefit from employers collecting it. Self-insured employers could either fire the employee or do nothing. Neither is useful for the employee. If the employer is fully insured, this information is akin to a “pre-existing condition” in the old days. The employer’s premiums will increase as long as employees with bad family histories remain on their payroll.
The Business Roundtable — and its friends at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — might want to connect their computers to the Internet. It turns out that many companies are finally realizing that compelling employees to submit to medical screens just to claw back some insurance money isn’t worth the morale hit.
Increasingly, employers are learning that what the national data shows is also true for themselves: These programs simply do not work. For example:
And the morale hit? A formerly obscure faculty member who led the successful employee revolt against the Penn State wellness program was just elected president of the Penn State Faculty Senate — largely because employees were so grateful for his leadership in that revolt.
The Good News, Part 2: Wellness for Employees
As a result, many companies are deciding that clawing back some insurance money is not worth the damage done to their workforces. They are replacing “wellness done to employees” with “wellness done for employees.” These companies are improving the work environment, upgrading their food service, encouraging fitness or simply adding features like paternal leave or financial counseling. They might still hold a “health fair” every now and then, but their medical tests are conducted infrequently (based on actual clinical guidelines) instead of allowing vendors to screen the stuffing out of employees to find diseases that do not exist.
Or, companies are actually focusing efforts where they can make a difference, such as steering employees to safer hospitals or educating employees on how to purchase healthcare services wisely. (Disclosure: My own company, Quizzify, is in the business of teaching employees how to do the latter.)
Notwithstanding this disruption and regardless of the harm it has caused, the $7 billion wellness industry has excelled in perpetuating its own existence. Industry thought leaders recently proposed a scheme to encourage companies to disclose how fat their employees are and have even managed to get a few large employers to sign on to it.
The sheer audacity of that scheme and the complete disregard for its consequences on overweight employees means the war on “voluntary” wellness-or-else programs is by no means over. Like every other industry threatened by reality but supported by deep-pocketed allies such as the Business Roundtable, the wellness industry can rely on the government to delay the inevitable.
Consequently, it might be quite some time before the inevitable course of reality overcomes the wellness-or-else pox on the healthcare system.
Transparent reinsurance programs could emerge as significant opportunities for healthcare providers, issuers, reinsurers, technology innovators and regulators to address health insurance.
The message is clear. Having to factor in higher costs associated with new entrants to the healthcare system gives insurance firms license to charge higher rates. If these new people were put into a reinsurance pot for three to five years with costs spread over all insurers, no one insurer would be unnecessarily burdened. After this period, costs for these entrants could be reexamined and a decision could be made on how to proceed with them, depending upon the deviation from the remaining population.
Several factors are coming into play.
United Health Group indicates it will be leaving all but a few of the 34 states where it is offering health insurance under Obamacare.
A fresh Blue Cross Blue Shield study finds recent Obamacare entrants have higher rates of specific illnesses and used more medical services than early entrants. “Medical costs of care for the new individual market members were, on average, 19% higher than employer-based group members in 2014 and 22% higher in 2015. For example, the average monthly medical spending per member was $559 for individual enrollees versus $457 for group members in 2015,” the study found.
What emerges in conversations with economists, regulators and healthcare actuaries is a sense that properly designed, fair and transparent reinsurance could—and would—advance industry and public policy goals to continue insurance for all at affordable prices. This approach would represent tangible improvements over inefficient, incumbent systems. Information would be used by insurers and reinsurers, providers and regulators and, crucially, insureds to establish best performances for healthcare outcomes and expenses. Virtually everyone knows that state or regional reinsurance would have to be mandated, as voluntary systems could be gamed.
“The implementation of new policies, the availability of research funding, payment reform and consumer- and patient-led efforts to improve healthcare together have created an environment suitable for the successful implementation of patient-reported outcome measures in clinical practice,” fresh research in Health Affairs also indicates.
Risk analysis technologies could help issuers, reinsurers, healthcare institutions and citizens rein in the healthcare system’s enormous costs. Earlier this year, the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation projected that, “in 2016, the federal subsidies, taxes and penalties associated with health insurance coverage will result in a net subsidy from the federal government of $660 billion, or 3.6% of gross domestic product (GDP). That amount is projected to rise at an average annual rate of 5.4%, reaching $1.1 trillion (or 4.1% of GDP) in 2026. For the entire 2017–2026 period, the projected net subsidy is $8.9 trillion.”
CBO/JCT published this stunning projection amid consensus that $750 billion to $1 trillion of wasted spending occurs in healthcare in the U.S. “Approximately one in three health care dollars is waste,” Consumer Reports says.
Key metrics should focus on estimates of risk using demographics and diagnoses; risk model descriptions; calculation of plan average actuarial risk; user-specified risk revealing and detailing information; drill-down capabilities clarifying research; monitoring and control; and calculation and comparison measures to address reinsurance validation.
Several major refinements yielding and relying upon granular, risk-revealing data and metrics would support more efficient reinsurance. All would, and could, update reinsurance information and address customer experience, trust and privacy concerns.
“Advanced analytics are the key,” remarked John Wisniewski, associate vice president of actuary services at UPMC Health Plan. “Predictive capability that looks at the likelihood a patient admission may be coming is the information that we can give to doctors to deal with the matter. … Whoever develops algorithms for people who will be at risk—so providers can develop plans to mitigate risk—will create value for issuers, providers and members alike.”
Available technologies support the connecting of risk assessments with incentives for risk information.
Michael Erlanger, the founder and managing principal of Marketcore, said,“We cannot know what we cannot see. We cannot see what we cannot measure. These available technologies provide clarity for more efficient health insurance and reinsurance.”
Context: Three Rs: Reinsurance, Risk Corridors and Risk Adjustment
When Congress enacted the ACA, the legislation created reinsurance and risk corridors through 2016 and established risk adjustment transfer as a permanent element of health insurance. These three Rs—reinsurance, risk corridors and risk adjustment—were designed to moderate insurance industry risks, making the transition to ACA coverage and responsibilities. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) administers the programs. All address adverse selection—that is, instances when insurers experience higher probabilities of losses due to risks not factored in at the times policies are issued. All also address risk selection, or industry preferences to insure healthier individuals and to avoid less healthy ones.
With the expiration of ACA reinsurance and risk corridors, along with mandatory reporting requirements this December, healthcare providers, issuers, reinsurers, technology innovators and regulators can now evaluate their futures, separate from CMS reporting.
Virtually all sources commend reinsurance and risk adjustment transfer as consistently as they deride risk corridors. Reinsurance has paid out well, while risk corridors have not. Risk adjustment transfer remains squarely with CMS.
While House Republican initiatives try and fail to repeal the ACA, and some news programs and pundits say it is unsustainable, approximately 20 million subscribers are enrolled in Obamacare: with 12.7 million as marketplace insureds, with others through Medicaid and as young adults on parent plans. President Obama, in March, remarked: “Last summer we learned that, for the first time ever, America’s uninsured rate has fallen below 10%. This is the lowest rate of uninsured that we’ve seen since we started keeping these records.” Subscription ratios are off the charts. Premium increases have been modest, approximately 6% for 2016, experts find. “I see no risk to the fundamental stability of the exchanges,” MIT economist Jonathan Gruber observed, noting “a big enough market for many insurers to remain in the fold.”
Transitional Reinsurance 2014-16: Vehicle for Innovation
One of the great benefits of the ACA is eliminating pre-existing conditions and premium or coverage variables based on individual underwriting across the board. Citizens are no longer excluded from receiving adequate healthcare, whether directly or indirectly through high premiums. Prices for various plan designs go up as coverage benefits increase and as co-pays and deductibles decrease, but the relative prices of the various plans are calculated to be actuarially equivalent.
To help issuers make the transition from an era when they prided themselves on reducing or eliminating less healthy lives from the insureds they covered, to an era where all insureds are offered similar ratings, the ACA introduced reinsurance and risk corridors to cover the first three years (2014 through 2016), in addition to risk adjustment transfer, which will remain in force.
The concept is relatively simple: Require all issuers to charge a flat per-dollar, per-month, per-“qualified” insured and create a pot of money with these “reinsurance premiums” that reimburses issuers for excess claims on unhealthy lives. Issuers would be reimbursed based on established terms outlined in the ACA.
Reinsurance reimburses issuers for individual claims in excess of the attachment point, up to a limit where existing reinsurance coverage would kick in. Individuals involved with these large claims may or may not be identified in advance as high-risk. The reimbursed claim may be an acute (non-chronic) condition or an accident. The individual may otherwise be low-risk.
The important aspect is that all health insurance issuers and self-insured plans contribute. By spreading the cost over a large number of individuals, the cost per individual of this reinsurance program is small to negligible. Non-grandfathered individual market plans are eligible for payments. A state can operate a reinsurance program, or CMS does on its behalf through this year.
As a backstop, the federal government put some money in the pot through 2016—just in case the pot proved inadequate to provide full reimbursement to the issuers. In a worst-case scenario, the sum of the reinsurance premiums and the federal contribution could still be inadequate, in which case the coinsurance refund rate would be set at less than 100%.
As it turned out, 2014 reinsurance premiums proved to be more than adequate, so the refund rate was 100%, and the excess funds in the pot after reimbursement were set aside and added to the pot for 2015, just in case that proves inadequate.
Reinsurance functions on this timetable through this year:
CMS transferred approximately $7.9 billion among 437 issuers—or 100% of filed claims for 2014, as claims were lower than expected— and it has yet to release 2015 payments. The results for 2015 are coming this summer.
From the outset, states could, and would, elect to continue reinsurance, the CMS contemplated. In 2012, the CMS indicated that “states are not prohibited from continuing a reinsurance program but may not use reinsurance contribution funds collected under the reinsurance program in calendar years 2014 through 2016 to fund the program in years after 2018.”
Subsequent clarification in 2013 did not disturb state discretion. Current regulation specifies that “a state must ensure that the applicable reinsurance entity completes all reinsurance-related activities for benefit years 2014 through 2016 and any activities required to be undertaken in subsequent periods.”
One course of action going forward from 2017 and varying from state-to-state could be mandatory reinsurance enacted through state laws. Healthcare providers, issuers, reinsurers, regulators and legislators could define the health reinsurance best suited to each state’s citizens.
Reinsurers could design and manage administration of these programs possibly at a percentage of premium cost that is less than what is charged by the federal government today. While these reinsurance programs would be mandated, they could include a component of private reinsurance. For example, reinsurers could guarantee the adequacy of per-month reinsurance premiums with provisos that if these actuarially calculated rates turned out to be inadequate in any given year or month, there will be an adjustment to account for the loss in the following year. Conversely, if those rates turn out to be too high, 90% or more is set aside in an account for use in the following year. This way, reinsurers could participate by providing a private sourced solution to adverse claims.
Risk corridors apply to issuers with Qualified Health Plans (exchange certified plans) and facilitate transfer payments. The CMS noted: “Issuers whose premiums exceed claims and other costs by more than a certain amount pay into the program, and insurers whose claims exceed premiums by a certain amount receive payments for their shortfall.” Technically, “risk corridors mean any payment adjustment system based on the ratio of allowable costs of a plan to the plan’s target amount,” as the CMS designated.
Risk corridors are politically contentious. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) likened risk corridors to bailouts. The HHS acknowledged it will “explore other sources of funding for risk corridors payments, subject to the availability of appropriations… includ[ing] working with Congress on the necessary funding for outstanding risk corridors payments.” And, a knowledgeable analyst, Dr. David Blumenthal, noted that risk corridors are not bailouts.
Going forward, evaluations of risk corridors will demand due diligence. Several health exchanges failed from any number of factors—from too little capital for growth experienced, inadequate pricing, mismanagement or risk corridor payments.
Whether innovation can yield effective risk corridors or whether risk corridors will simply fade out as transitional 2014-2016 regulation will depend on institutional and industry participants. Risk corridors did not score unalloyed approbation among sources.
Risk Adjustment: Permanent Element of ACA
Risk adjustment remains in force and impels issuers with healthier enrollees to offset some costs of issuers with sicker ones in specific states and markets and of markets as a means toward promoting affordable health care choices by discouraging cherry picking healthier enrollees.
The HHS transferred approximately $4.6 billion for risk adjustment among issuers for 2014.
At first blush, one might postulate that risk adjustment does the job and that reinsurance and risk corridors could just as reasonably fade out. There is some logic to that argument.
On the other hand, state or regional level reinsurance could make up for risk adjustment shortfalls. In some instances, risk adjustment seems to be less friendly to issuers that take on higher-risk individuals, rather than rewarding high tech issuers and providers with back office capabilities coding claims in such a way as to tactically game risk adjustment.
Evaluating and cultivating these opportunities are timely amid the uncertainties of the presidential and congressional elections that may yield executive and legislative lawmakers intent on undoing ACA provisions, starting with risk corridors. Such legislation could produce losses for issuers and reinsurers.
Nelson A. Rockefeller Precedent
In 1954, then-Undersecretary of Health Education and Welfare Nelson A. Rockefeller proposed reinsurance as an incentive for insurers to offer more health insurance. S 3114, A Bill to Improve the Public Health by Encouraging More Extensive Use of the Voluntary Prepayment Method in the Provision of Personal Health Services, emerged in the first Eisenhower administration to enact a federally funded health reinsurance pool. Rockefeller intended the reinsurance as a means toward an end, what would eventually be dubbed a “third way” among proponents of national health insurance. President Truman and organized labor championed the approach into the mid-’50s. So did the Chamber of Commerce and congressional Republican adversaries of the New Deal and Fair Deal, who were chaffing to undo Social Security as quickly as they could. The American Medical Association also supported this third way because it opposed federal healthcare reinsurance as an opening wedge for socialized medicine. Despite limiting risk and offering new products, insurers demurred because of comfort zones with state regulators and trepidation about a federal role.
Nelson A. Rockefeller, then-undersecretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, presenting a federally funded health reinsurance plan, 1954.
Source: Department of Health Education and Welfare—now Health and Human Services
Rockefeller’s health reinsurance plan would “achieve a better understanding of the nation’s medical care problem, of the techniques for meeting it through voluntary means, and of the actuarial risks involved,” HEW Secretary Oveta Culp Hobby testified to a Senate subcommittee in 1954.
Rockefeller’s health reinsurance plan did not make it through the House. Organized labor decried it as too little, the AMA said it was too intrusive. Upon hearing news of the House vote, a frustrated Dwight Eisenhower blistered to reporters, “The people that voted against this bill just don’t understand what are the facts of American life,” according to Cary Reich in The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller 1908-1958. “Ingenuity was no match for inertia,” Rockefeller biographer Richard Norton Smith remarked of industry and labor interests in those hard-wired, central-switched, mainframe times.
“’It’s déjà vu all over again’ like Yogi Berra,” said one insurance commissioner immersed in the ACA on hearing Ike’s quote.
The idea of national health insurance went nowhere despite initiatives by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) in the late ’70s and President Bill and First Lady Hillary Clinton roughly 20 years ago, until Congress legislated Obamacare.
Innovative, Transparent Technologies Can Deliver Results
Nowadays, more than 60 years after Rockefeller’s attempt, innovative information technologies can get beyond these legislative and regulatory hurdles. Much of the data and networking is at hand. Enrollee actuarial risks, coverage actuarial values, utilization, local area costs of business and cost-sharing impacts on utilization are knowable in current systems. Broadband deployment and information technology innovations drive customer acquisition and information management costs ever lower each succeeding day. Long-term efficiencies for reinsurers, insurers, carriers, regulators, technology innovators and state regulators await evaluation and development.
Reinsurance Going Forward From 2017
So, if state reinsurance programs can provide benefits, what should they look like, and how should they be delivered?
For issuers, state-of-the-art transparent solutions improve the current system by enabling issuers to offer more products and services and becalm more ferocious industry adversaries while lowering risks and extending markets. Smaller, nimbler issuers may provide more innovative solutions and gain market share by providing the dual objectives of better health outcomes with lower costs.
For regulators, innovative, timely information sustains the indispensability of state regulators ensuring financial soundness and legal compliance—while allowing innovators to upgrade marketplace and regulatory systems, key regulatory goals that Iowa’s insurance commissioner, Nick Gerhart, pointed out recently. Commissioner Gerhart envisions regulators as orchestra conductors, acknowledging that most insurance regulatory entities are woefully understaffed to design or operate such reinsurance programs themselves, but they will, and they can lead if the participants can provide turnkey capabilities.
Think of health insurance and reinsurance as generational opportunities for significant innovation rather like the Internet and email. When the Department of Defense permitted the Internet and email to evolve to civilian markets from military capabilities in the 1980s, the DOD initially approached the U.S. Postal Service. Senior Post Office management said it welcomed the opportunity to support email: All users need do is email correspondence to recipients’ local post offices by nine p.m. for printing, enveloping, sorting and letter-carrier delivery the following day.
Similarly, considerable opportunities chart innovative pathways for state and regional health reinsurance for 2017 and beyond.
One path, emulating the post office in the ’80s, keeps on coding and bemoans a zero sum; it would allow the existing programs to fade away and will respond to whatever the president and Congress might do.
Another path lumps issuer health reinsurance as an incumbent reinsurer service without addressing the sustainability of state health exchanges or, indeed, any private health insurers in the absences of risk spreading with readily available information technologies.
The approach suggested here—mandated state health reinsurance—innovates to build sustainable futures. Enabling technologies empower all stakeholders to advance private and public interests through industry solutions advancing affordable healthcare.
Massachusetts has been on the forefront of American history since the days of Paul Revere and the Boston Tea Party. It is also the state that inspired the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, by its groundbreaking universal coverage law implemented under former Gov. Mitt Romney. What has received very little, if any, national media coverage is that the heavily Democratic-controlled state of Massachusetts quietly filed for and was granted a three-year waiver on how premiums are calculated under the ACA for small employers.
The waiver request was so quiet that the Boston Globe reported that Gov. Deval Patrick, a friend and supporter of the president, signed the legislation on the Friday afternoon before the July 4th weekend last year “in private when the statehouse was empty and the majority of voters were on vacation.”
One of the major negative consequences of Obamacare for small employers in Massachusetts and throughout the country is that the ACA destroys the entire concept of “experience rating.” Experience rating has been the cornerstone of how workers’ compensation insurance premiums are calculated since time immemorial. In simple terms, employers’ workers’ comp premiums are based on the type of industry in which they operate, the number and type of employees they have and their historical safety record. Employers with great safety records pay less for insurance, and employers with poor safety records pay more. This approach is not only fair but gives employers a strong financial incentive to provide a safe workplace.
After enactment of the Massachusetts universal coverage law, (which I am told was only 70 pages long, compared with the ACA's 2,000-plus pages and growing) employers’ health insurance premiums were 15% above the national average and the most expensive in the nation. Now, under the ACA, Massachusetts health insurance premiums are projected to go up 50% for the majority of small employers.
The basic issue is that the Massachusetts universal coverage law used nine rating factors to calculate premiums for small employers. These include discounts for using healthcare insurance purchasing cooperatives and for providing a safe workplace. Those nine factors are now preempted under the ACA and have been replaced by only four: age, family size, location and smoking habits.
The Chamber of Commerce and other small-business groups protested the changes vehemently. Gov. Patrick said he privately asked for a waiver and was told “no” by the president and the Department of Health and Human Services. Obviously, it would be a political embarrassment to the president if the place where his healthcare reform began, and one of the “bluest” states in the nation, publicly requested a waiver. However, the state legislature overwhelmingly voted to require the governor to do so.
Massachusetts was, in fact, granted a three-year waiver on the ACA's requirements on rating factors. The request for a permanent waiver was denied last September by Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at HHS.
Of course, “progressive” healthcare reform advocates opposed the waiver, stating that it would be “unfair” to other employers. How is it unfair that employers who promote wellness and a safe workplace are rewarded for their efforts with reduced premiums?
A study by the Pioneer Institute predicts that Massachusetts employers will now have to cut back on employment and the number of insured. Tell me, how is that “progressive”?
The Massachusetts Department of Insurance has reported that a study by the state’s health insurers predict that 60% of small employers will see a 50% or greater rate increase after the waiver expires in 2016, on top of the normal yearly increases.
The president, during his State of the Union address, challenged anyone to identify changes needed to the ACA. Maybe it’s time to dump the ACA premium rating factors in the Boston harbor like the British tea and restore full-blown experience rating for small employers in Massachusetts and in the rest of the nation.