And then there were none?
The individual health insurance marketplace is endangered, and policymakers need to start thinking about a fix right now, before we pass the point of no return.
Health plans aren’t officially withdrawing from the individual- and family-market segment, but actual formal withdrawals are rare. What we are witnessing, however, may be the start of a stampede of virtual exits.
From a carrier perspective, the individual and family health insurance market has never been easy. This market is far more susceptible to adverse selection than the group coverage market. The Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) guarantee of coverage only makes adverse selection more likely, although, to be fair, the individual mandate mitigates this risk to some extent. Then again, the penalty enforcing the individual mandate is simply inadequate to have the desired effect.
Then add in the higher costs of administering individual policies relative to group coverage and the greater volatility of the individual insured pool. Stability is a challenge, as people move in and out of the individual market as they find or lose jobs with employer-provided coverage. In short, competing in the individual market is not for the faint of heart, which is why many more carriers offer group coverage than individual policies. The carriers in the individual market tend to be very good ; they have to be to survive.
In 2014, when most of the ACA’s provisions took effect, carriers in the individual market suddenly found their expertise less helpful. The changes were so substantial that experience could give limited guidance. There were simply too many unanswered questions. How would guaranteed issue affect the risk profile of consumers buying their own coverage? Would the individual mandate be effective? How would competitors price their products? Would physicians and providers raise prices in light of increased demand for services? The list goes on.
Actuaries are great at forecasting results when given large amounts of data concerning long-term trends. Enter a horde of unknowns, however, and their science rapidly veers toward mere educated guesses. The drafters of the ACA anticipated this situation and established three critical mechanisms to help carriers get through the transition: the risk adjustment, reinsurance and risk corridor programs.
Risk corridors are especially important in this context as they limit carriers’ losses—and gains. Carriers experiencing claims less than 97% of a specified target pay into a fund administered by the Department of Health and Human Services; health plans with claims greater than 103% of this specific target receive refunds. Think of risk corridors as market-wide shock absorbers, helping carriers make it down an unknown, bumpy road without shaking themselves apart.
While you can think of them as shock absorbers, Sen. Marco Rubio apparently cannot. Instead, Sen. Rubio views risk corridors as “taxpayer-funded bailouts of insurance companies.”
In 2014, Sen. Rubio led a successful effort to insert a rider into the budget bill, preventing HHS from transferring money from other accounts to bolster the risk corridors program if the dollars paid in by profitable carriers were insufficient to meet the needs of unprofitable carriers. This provision was retained in the budget agreement Congress reached with the Obama administration late last year. Sen. Rubio, in effect, removed the springs from the shock absorber. The result is that HHS was only able to pay carriers seeking reimbursement under the risk corridors program 13% of what they were due based on their 2014 experience. This was a significant factor in the shuttering of half the health co-operatives set up under the ACA.
Meanwhile, individual health insurers have taken a financial beating. In 2015, United Healthcare lost $475 million on its individual policies. Anthem, Aetna, Humana and others have all reported substantial losses in this market segment. The carriers point to the ACA as a direct cause. Supporters of the healthcare reform law, however, push back. For example, Peter Lee, the executive director of California’s state-run exchange, argues that carriers’ faulty pricing and weak networks are to blame. Whatever the cause, the losses are real and substantial. The health plans are taking steps to stanch the bleeding.
One step several carriers are considering is leaving the health insurance exchanges. Another is exiting the individual market altogether—not formally, but virtually. Formal market withdrawals by health plans are rare. The regulatory burden is heavy, and insurers are usually barred from re-entering the market for a number of years (five in California, for example).
There’s more than one way to leave a market, however. One method carriers sometimes employ is to continue offering policies but to make it hard to buy them. Because so many consumers rely on the expertise of professional agents to find the right health plans, a carrier can prevent sales by making it difficult or unprofitable for agents to do their job. Slash commissions to zero, and agents lose money on each sale.
While I haven’t seen documentation yet, I’m hearing about an increasing number of carriers eliminating agent commissions as well as others removing agent support staff from the field. (Several carriers have eliminated field support in California. If you know of other insurers making a similar move or ending commissions, please respond in the comments section).
So, what can be done? In a presidential election year, there’s not much to be done legislatively. Republicans will want to use an imploding individual market to justify their calls for repealing the ACA altogether. Sen. Bernie Sanders will cite the situation as yet another reason we need “Medicare for all.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, has an incentive to raise the alarm. She wants to build on the ACA. Having it implode just before the November presidential election won’t help her campaign. She needs to get in front of this issue now to demonstrate she understands the issue and concerns, to begin mapping out the solution and to inoculate herself from whatever happens later this year.
Congress should get in front of the situation now, too. Hearings on the implosion of the individual market and discussions on how to deal with it would lay the groundwork for meaningful legislative action in 2017. State regulators must notice the endangered individual market, as well. They have a responsibility to ensure competitive markets. They need to examine the levers at their disposal to find creative approaches to keep existing carriers in the individual market and to attract new ones.
If the individual market is reduced to one or two carriers in a region, no one wins. Competition and choice are consumers’ friends; monopolies are not. And when consumers (also known as voters) lose, so do politicians. Which means smart lawmakers will start addressing this issue now.
The individual health insurance market may be an endangered species, but it’s not extinct … yet. There’s still time to act. There’s just not a lot of it.