Tagged Premiums

Running Short On Time, Covered California And Insurers Seek Obamacare Answers From GOP

With a deadline looming, California’s health exchange and a major insurer pressed Republican leaders in Washington to clear up confusion over their commitment to key provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Health insurers participating in the Covered California exchange for individuals and families must submit initial rates for 2018 on Monday. Peter Lee, the exchange’s executive director, warned in a conference call Thursday that rates could jump by more than 40 percent if the Trump administration and Republican-led Congress walk away from crucial elements of the health law.

In the meantime, House Republicans are looking to revive their Obamacare replacement bill and rally more support among moderate lawmakers in hopes of holding a vote soon.

In addition to Covered California, the chief executive of Molina Healthcare, a Long Beach-based insurer, implored Congress and the Trump administration on Thursday to act quickly to stabilize the exchange markets.

At issue are the continued federal funding of subsidies that reduce low-income consumers’ deductibles and copays and the enforcement of the individual mandate to purchase health coverage or pay a penalty.

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Premiums in Covered California plans could increase by 42 percent, on average, if those subsidies aren’t funded and the mandate isn’t enforced, according to an analysis released Thursday by the exchange. Covered California has about 1.3 million customers.

Lee said it is imperative for leaders in Washington to clear up the uncertainty to avoid damaging insurance markets nationwide and hurting consumers. He said statements this week by the Trump administration that it would continue funding the cost-sharing subsidies haven’t specifically addressed whether that applies to all of 2017 or 2018.

“Health plans need to know now what are the rules of the road,” Lee said. “Insurers are considering their participation in the face of unprecedented uncertainty.”

Much of the debate this week in Washington has centered on House Republicans amending their Obamacare replacement bill, the American Health Care Act. But Lee said addressing the current market rules should be a priority ahead of crafting broader legislation.

Lee declined to comment on the latest legislative proposal from House Republicans, but he noted it still faces a long road ahead in Congress before it would win approval. “Health plans need to submit bids for today’s reality. Policymakers need to address that reality,” Lee said.

In a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan and other congressional leaders, Molina Healthcare CEO J. Mario Molina said the cost-sharing reduction subsidies are essential for making coverage affordable for many consumers. Those subsidies cover out-of-pocket costs for exchange customers with incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level. They are separate from the tax credits that subsidize premium costs.

Without that federal funding, Molina wrote, “we will have no choice but to send a notice of default informing the government that we are dropping our contracts for their failure to pay premiums and seek to withdraw from the marketplace immediately.”

Molina said his company currently serves more than 1 million people through insurance exchanges in California and several other states. Molina had nearly 69,000 enrollees in Covered California as of December, state data show.

Anthem, California’s largest for-profit health insurer and a key player on exchanges nationally, issued a similar warning this week. During an earnings conference call on Wednesday, Anthem CEO Joseph Swedish said the insurer may exit some state exchanges or resubmit for higher rates if the fate of the cost-sharing subsidies isn’t resolved by early June.

Anthem has more than 310,000 customers in the California exchange, or nearly 25 percent of the market. Rival Blue Shield of California is the leader in state enrollment with 389,480, or 31 percent market share.

Republican leaders in Congress say they will address these concerns and move quickly to aid consumers by replacing the ACA with a plan that will reduce premiums and expand options for coverage.

The health law “is collapsing,” Ryan said at a news conference Thursday. “The American health care system in the individual market is in peril right now. We have a moral obligation to prevent people from getting hurt, to stop the damage from being continued.”

Many conservative Republicans oppose the Trump administration’s decision to continue to pay the cost-sharing subsidies, calling the subsidies unconstitutional because they lack congressional approval. House Republicans successfully sued to block the payments, but a judge put the ruling on hold while the Obama administration appealed the case. It’s not yet clear how President Donald Trump will handle that appeal.

Amid this political uncertainty, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones told insurers this week they could submit two sets of rate filings on Monday for their exchange business. One filing would reflect continued funding of cost-sharing subsidies and enforcement of the individual mandate. A separate filing could assume the opposite.

“In light of all the actions taken by the Trump administration and House leadership to undermine the ACA, I expect that health insurers will consider filing significant rate increases for 2018,” Jones wrote in a bulletin to insurers this week.

For 2017, rates in Covered California rose by 13.2 percent, on average, statewide. The state exchange is one of the few that actively negotiates rates with insurers. Premiums for the next year usually are announced in July.

Categories: California Healthline, Cost and Quality, The Health Law

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HHS, States Move To Help Insurers Defray Costs Of Sickest Patients

As congressional Republicans’ efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act remain in limbo, the Trump administration and some states are taking steps to help insurers cover the cost of their sickest patients, a move that industry analysts say is critical to keeping premiums affordable for plans sold on the law’s online marketplaces in 2018.

This fix is a well-known insurance industry practice called reinsurance. Claims above a certain amount would be paid by the government, reducing insurers’ financial exposure and allowing them to set lower premiums.

Two states — Alaska and Minnesota — that have seen double-digit increases in ACA plan premiums this year have already moved to implement reinsurance policies, and Oklahoma is making plans to seek federal approval to set up a program. The Idaho legislature also recently passed a health care reinsurance law, and Maine is considering taking similar action.

The Trump administration has told other states they should consider doing the same. On March 13, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price sent a letter to all 50 governors soliciting proposals for reinsurance and other options to help cover the costs of consumers with expensive medical conditions.

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Long an advocate for more state control of health insurance, Price said the administration is “seeking to empower states with new opportunities that will strengthen their health insurance markets.”

“This is one practical way the administration and states can work together to reduce premiums,” said Matthew Fiedler, a health policy specialist at the Brookings Institution. “While it’s the insurers who get the [support] directly, reductions in insurers’ claims costs ultimately translate into lower premiums for consumers.”

The focus on reinsurance comes as insurers must tell state and federal regulators no later than June 21 whether they will participate in the ACA’s marketplaces in 2018, and what plans they will offer at what price. This issue is separate from other highly publicized efforts underway to preserve federal payments to insurers to cover the costs of deductibles and copayments for low-income enrollees.

The federal law offered the security of a reinsurance program to insurers during its first three years. It helped reduce premiums among insurers by 10 percent in 2014, the last year the impact was analyzed, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

But the ACA reinsurance program ended this year. That helped drive premiums up by an average 22 percent across the country, raising concerns about the stability of the state-based marketplaces — also called exchanges — that provide insurance for people who don’t get it through work or public programs such as Medicare or Medicaid.

Now officials from both political parties are eyeing another part of the health law to help reprise and finance reinsurance programs.

In his letter, Price encouraged states to consider a special provision — known as a Section 1332 waiver — that went into effect this year and opens an avenue for them to pursue exemptions from ACA rules as long as the state plan maintains equivalent or better coverage levels for residents and doesn’t raise federal spending.

The Trump administration is betting that some states can set up reinsurance programs with federal funding. Federal spending on the program would be kept in check because the move will reduce government spending on tax credits that the law gives some low-income exchange customers to help defray the cost of premiums.

Need To ‘Stabilize Things Fast’ 

Consider deep-red Oklahoma. State officials have always held the ACA at arm’s length, leaving the insurance marketplace’s management and details to federal officials. But after rate increases averaging 76 percent this year — second only to Arizona — state officials set up a task force to explore how to put a brake on insurance premiums. The group last month published a multifaceted, 60-page plan for a waiver request. State officials say they will submit the plan to HHS later this year. Among the proposed first steps: reinsurance.

“We are in critical condition,” said Buffy Heater, chief strategy officer at the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. “Reinsurance is a way to stabilize things fast and attract additional insurers and more enrollees.”

Enrollment in the Oklahoma marketplace plan grew just 1 percent in 2017, to 146,300, after fairly robust growth in 2014 and 2015. Still, only about 30 percent of eligible Oklahomans are enrolled, and the number of uninsured in the state grew by 20,000 people in 2017.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma, the only carrier now selling on the state’s insurance marketplace, concurs with Heater’s assessment. The company declined through a spokesman to address state officials’ concern that the insurer was poised to exit the market in 2018. But Kurt Kossen, senior vice president at the Illinois-based Health Care Service Corp., which owns the Oklahoma Blues plan, said in a statement: “We agree reinsurance and well-designed high-risk pools help lower premiums and encourage greater competition.”

The two main health insurance lobbying groups in Washington — America’s Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association — also support efforts to offer reinsurance.

“We are very much in favor of using reinsurance to help insurers pay for the most expensive claims and to stabilize the marketplaces,” said Kristine Grow, senior vice president for communications at America’s Health Insurance Plans.  

Alaska And Minnesota Spurred To Act

Building on its state-funded reinsurance program for 2017, Alaska has asked the federal government to set aside $51.6 million for a reinsurance pool there for 2018. Lori Wing-Heier, director of the state’s division of insurance, said the state’s $55 million fund this year enabled Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield, the sole insurer left on the exchange, to reduce an expected premium increase of 40 percent to just 7.3 percent.  But the state said it cannot keep up the effort alone and needs federal funding.

In Minnesota, where premiums for marketplace plans spiked by around 50 percent this year, the Legislature enacted a law this month that establishes a $271 million reinsurance pool for that state’s troubled ACA marketplace for 2018 and 2019. The funds are contingent on getting the same waiver from the federal government that Alaska seeks and that Oklahoma plans to pursue.

Consumer complaints about the price hikes for 2017 pushed Minnesota to set up a $326 million fund to bail out insurers and help consumers who didn’t qualify for federal premium subsidies. That state-based reinsurance fund reduced premiums by about 25 percent, said Eileen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Council of Health Plans. The state’s Department of Commerce has estimated that the 2018 reinsurance fund will reduce premiums by about 20 percent.

About 4 percent of Minnesotans — 235,000 people — get coverage in that state’s individual marketplace.

Back in Washington, D.C., some lawmakers have newfound fervor for insurance market stability and tools such as reinsurance. In their proposed bill to repeal and replace portions of the ACA, House Republicans included a 10-year, $100 billion fund to offset the burden of high-cost patients.

States would be allowed to establish reinsurance pools or set up separate high-risk insurance pools for patients with expensive medical conditions.

And even as the fate of the legislation to repeal the ACA remains uncertain, a group of Republicans in the House of Representatives this month sought to sweeten the pot with an additional $15 billion fund over nine years to help reimburse insurers for high-cost patients with certain preexisting conditions, such as cancer.

Democrats and health policy analysts immediately criticized this latest proposal.

“It’s not enough money to make a serious dent,” said Tim Jost, a professor of health law at Virginia’s Washington and Lee University and an expert on the health law. While the concept is sound, he said that the proposal is flawed because the House Republicans’ bill creates the need for it with “the other damaging changes it makes to the market.”

Jost, other policy analysts and consumer advocates also take issue with Republican proposals that appear to create equivalency between reinsurance and separate high-risk pools for people with preexisting conditions and high claims. In most states that have tried them, said Lynn Quincy, a health insurance specialist and senior policy analyst at Consumer Union, high-risk pools have failed to offer affordable coverage to people who need care the most.

“Reinsurance is the much preferred option,” Quincy said. “It doesn’t segregate sick people into a separate pool, and reinsurance has proved far more efficient and effective over the years.”

Categories: Insurance, States, The Health Law

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Conservatives’ Goal To Relax Mandatory Health Benefits Unlikely To Tame Premiums

As House Republicans try to find common cause on a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, they may be ready to let states make the ultimate decision about whether to keep a key consumer provision in the federal health law that conservatives say is raising insurance costs.

Those conservatives, known as the House Freedom Caucus, and members of a more moderate group of House Republicans, the Tuesday Group, are hammering out changes to the GOP bill that was pulled unceremoniously by party leaders last month when they couldn’t get enough votes to pass it. At the heart of those changes reportedly is the law’s requirement for most insurance plans to offer 10 specific categories of “essential health benefits.” Those include hospital care, doctor and outpatient visits and prescription drug coverage, along with things like maternity care, mental health and preventive care services.

The Freedom Caucus had been pushing for those benefits to be removed, arguing that coverage guarantees were driving up premium prices.

“We ultimately will be judged by only one factor: if insurance premiums come down,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) told The Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal.

But moderates, bolstered by complaints from patients groups and consumer activists, fought back. And a brief synopsis leaked from the intraparty negotiations suggests that the compromise could be letting states decide whether to seek a federal waiver to change the essential health benefits.

“The insurance mandates are a primary driver of [premium] spikes,” wrote Meadows and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in an op-ed in March.

But do those benefits drive increases in premiums? And would eliminating the requirement really bring premiums down? Health analysts and economists say probably not — at least not in the way conservatives are hoping.

“I don’t know what they’re thinking they’re going to pull out of this pie,” said Rebekah Bayram, a principal consulting actuary at the benefits consulting firm Milliman. She is the lead author of a recent study on the cost of various health benefits.

Opponents of the required benefits point to coverage for maternity care and mental health and substance abuse treatment as driving up premiums for people who will never use such services.

But Bayram said eliminating those wouldn’t have much of an impact. Hospital care, doctor visits and prescription drugs “are the three big ones,” she said. “Unless they were talking about ditching those, the other ones only have a marginal impact.”

John Bertko, an actuary who worked in the Obama administration and served on the board of Massachusetts’ health exchange, agreed: “You would either have very crappy benefits without drugs or physicians or hospitalization, or you would have roughly the same costs.”

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Maternity care and mental health and substance abuse, he said, “are probably less than 5 percent” of premium costs.

Of course, requiring specific coverage does push up premiums to some extent. James Bailey, who teaches at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., has studied the issue at the state level. He estimates that the average state health insurance mandate “raises premiums by about one-half of 1 percent.”

Those who want to get rid of the required benefits point to the fact that premiums in the individual market jumped dramatically from 2013 to 2014, the first year the benefits were required.

“The ACA requires more benefits that every consumer is required to purchase regardless of whether they want them, need them or can afford them,” Ohio Insurance Commissioner Mary Taylor said in 2013, when the state’s rates were announced.

But Bayram noted most of that jump was not due to the broader benefits, but to the fact that, for the first time, sicker patients were allowed to buy coverage. “The premiums would go down a lot if only very healthy people were covered and people who were higher risk were pulled out of the risk pool,” she said. (Some conservatives want to change that requirement, too, and let insurers charge sick people higher premiums.)

Meanwhile, most of the research that has been done on required benefits has looked at plans offered to workers by their employers, not policies available to individuals who buy their own coverage because they don’t get it through work or the government. That individual market is the focus of the current debate.

Analysts warn that individual-market dynamics differ greatly from those of the employer insurance market.

Bailey said he “saw this debate coming and wanted to write a paper” about the ACA’s essential health benefits. But “I very quickly realized there are all these complicated details that are going to make it very hard to figure out,” he said, particularly the way the required benefits work in tandem with other requirements in the law.

For example, said Bertko, prescription drugs can represent 20 percent of costs in the individual market. That’s far more than in the employer market.

Bayram said another big complication is that the required benefits do double duty. They not only ensure that consumers have a comprehensive package of benefits but enable other parts of the health law to work by ensuring that everyone’s benefits are comparable.

For example, the law adjusts payments to insurers to help compensate plans that enroll sicker-than-average patients. But in order to do that “risk adjustment,” she said, “all of the plans have to agree on some kind of package. So if you think of essential health benefits as an agreed-upon benchmark, I don’t know how they can get rid of that and still have risk adjustment.”

Categories: Cost and Quality, Insurance, Repeal And Replace Watch, The Health Law

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