Individual Mandate not necessary – But will you like the alternative?

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SUMMARY

Of all the issues in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA or PPACA), one that has drawn an extraordinary amount of attention is the Individual mandate. Looked at in isolation, it may seem like an overreach. However, a broader view indicates why this provision or similar was included at all.

It is included because another section of ACA prohibits Health Insurers from rejecting people with pre-existing conditions as they do now. Some medical conditions may be avoidable, but the vast majority of pre-existing conditions occur through no fault of the individual. Insurance of all types is to spread risk, and the more skewed the risk the greater the need for insurance. Health costs are extremely skewed making health insurance vital to a modern economy.

ACA mandated that everyone buy insurance and that makes sense. However, the objection is forcing people to buy from a private company. There are several options to resolve that. One is to create a government-run insurer. That would eliminate forcing people to buy from a private insurer. A second is to make payment for any service obtained by an uninsured person a loan similar to student loans that could not be discharged for any reason. They would carry interest and be payable in full no matter the circumstances.

DISCUSSION

The percent of people with pre-existing conditions is small and to the majority of folks without such a condition, it may seem like a trivial matter. However, the number of people with pre-existing conditions is in the millions, and the cost to them has been and can be horrific. Medical expenses for these people have led to thousands of bankruptcies as health care costs sapped all their savings and more.

Insurers soon will be required to insure ALL persons regardless of medical condition. There is the very real risk of some people will avoid buying insurance, and then when they have an injury, or find they have a chronic condition like asthma or diabetes, they would only buy health insurance AFTER they know they have a medical condition.

One would think that any notion of personal responsibility would have all persons get insurance in order to spread health costs risks over the greatest population. The more people that buy insurance, the lower the cost per person. However, experience has shown that some people will NOT buy insurance if they feel they will not get sick or injured.

Fortunately, many employers offer health insurance for their employees, and by law, health insurers covering insurance through work (group insurance) MAY NOT exclude people with pre-existing conditions after some limited period of time, usually less than a year. However, the same did not apply to individuals until health care reform.

Note that employed individuals usually have access to health insurance.  Full time employees, that is. With rising costs, what have many employers done including some of the largest?  They have reverted to greater use of part time employees who do not enjoy the same privilege and access to health insurance as do full time employees. This is putting more pressure on reforming individual insurance plans.

People do not just dream up laws in a vacuum. Most fall into two categories. One is responses to maintain clean food, air and water, or help disadvantaged people, often the result of some abuse (social laws). The second are financial laws, like taxes or efforts to reduce taxes via special treatment for some (loopholes). ACA addresses the former by adding a financial provision, the individual mandate.

Everyone who works pays into social security and Medicare. Since Medicare is health insurance, there already is a mandate for working individuals to buy health insurance from the government. The only distinction is that Medicare is government-run insurance, while the ACA mandate applies to buying insurance from private companies.

ALTERNATIVE ONE

In the state run insurance exchanges to which any health insurer can join, add a government-run health insurer. Then the individual mandate does not require buying from a private insurer. However, if an individual decided against all private insurers they would have to buy the government-run insurance plan, just like Medicare and clearly legal.

However, politics intervened. Draft legislation DID INCLUDE a government-run insurer. They called it the “Public option”. It would operate on the same level field as private insurers and not be subsidized in any way. Private and government insurers would compete for business. Still, critics objected, and politicians stripped this provision from the final bill.

Why the objections?  Perhaps it was fear of competition.  To understand the public option, all one has to do is look at Medicare. Different in that it would cover people under 65 years old. In addition, women over 65 do not get pregnant, so there would be some differences in coverage.

What few know is government manages Medicare entirely through private health insurers. Insurers use a term Medical Loss Ratio (MLR) do describe how much of a premium dollar goes to pay health care costs. For Medicare, the MLR is over 95% meaning over 95 cents per premium dollar goes for health benefits. For private insurers, not so much. Their average MLR is in the low 80% range, and for individual insurance, which Medicare is, the MLR is even lower. How can private insurers compete with someone whose costs are less than one quarter of their own?

The honest answer is they cannot, at least not as currently structured. However, where does the constitution guarantee private enterprise continued profitability or even existence? “Destructive renewal” is a term used by business to explain competition that virtually by definition requires companies to fail as other more efficient companies market their goods and services for less; or whose new goods and services make prior ones obsolete (think cassette tapes).

It is worth noting that private health insurers used to have MLR’s in the mid 90%, but that was 30 years ago when nearly all insurers were non-profit.  Over time, for-profit insurers became more prevalent, and as they did, they had to show a profit for their investors. Some admin efforts were devoted to marketing. Some to reducing costs. Some to profits. The net effect, however, is that far fewer dollars went for health care costs and more went for overhead and profits. Yet some of these same companies administer Medicare contracts for less than 5 cents on the dollar. What is apparent is that insurers could cut back on what it now costs them to weed out people with pre-existing conditions, but more efficiency are needed to compete.

ALTERNATIVE TWO

Set the ground rules for individual insurance similar to that of group insurance obtained through work. If a person elects not to purchase insurance, and gets sick or injured, a person could still buy insurance but the law would allow pre-existing exclusions to extend for one year. Also like group insurance, if a person previously had health coverage, and not more than 60 days elapsed without coverage, then the person could buy health insurance with no waiting period.

This alternative needs to have a bit more teeth to be effective. This is because there is a law that hospitals have to treat EVERYONE, regardless of ability to pay, and a healthy person could delay for years purchase of health insurance. They would only buy insurance when they get sick.

The current Medicare drug program provides a template for solving this issue. If a senior fails to purchase drug insurance, the premium continues to rise for as long as one remained uninsured. One can apply a similar index to health insurance. But how does one provide assurance of payment? Since the person required services, it should be legal to require the person to purchase insurance to pay for those services, and if the person is unable or unwilling to pay, the government could advance a loan similar to student loans.

That loan would bear interest, need to be paid over time (though shorter than for student loans), and could not be discharged by bankruptcy. If not paid by retirement, payments would be deducted from that person’s social security, just like student loans.  Gone is the mandatory requirement. Replacing it is an automatic loan that the individual must repay in full with no exits.

Since the government would initially pay the hospital, it also could determine the ability to pay of the person getting treatment. If that person was indigent, they could be put on Medicaid, and no medical loan would be created.  If the person’s income were within the subsidized amount, they would have been eligible for had they carried insurance, the loan would be reduced by the amount of the subsidy. Since the hospital is paid in full, there would be no cost shifting to those who bought insurance.

ALTERNATIVE THREE

As noted above, a law requires hospitals to treat EVERYONE, regardless of ability to pay. One could rescind that law and force everyone to either have insurance, pay for service, or be denied service. But few would be willing to take that backward step. From a practical standpoint, this is not a viable option.

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Insurers’ Efforts to Shift Admin Costs to Medical Costs

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Senator Rockefeller recently came out with a report cautioning about health insurers efforts to shift Selling, General and Administrative (SGA) expenses to medical costs.  A shift would increase medical loss ratios (MLR) allowing insurers to keep more earnings. Two uncertainties affect predictions.  First is how plans are grouped and second is how one computes “medical costs” and “premiums”.  Below are reasonable interpretations of the new law that favor consumers, not insurers.

HOW ENROLLEES ARE GROUPED

The first order is to define “group.”  The more groups are combined, the greater the opportunity for balancing out gains and losses, which is the whole idea of insurance.  Continue reading

Medical Loss Ratio

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Medical Loss Ratio or MLR is a ratio used to measure what percent of Premium revenue for health insurance is paid out in medical claims.  The remainder of premium is used to cover selling, general and administrative (SG&A) expenses as well as operating margin or profit.

In the early 1990’s, the average MLR was over 90% and in 1992-1993 the MLR approached 95%.  Though that may have been a high water mark for MLR, it was not unusual for MLRs in the 1980’s and earlier to be above 90%.  Health insurance companies ran the business with leaner overhead than is seen in more current times.

Wall Street frequently uses the Medical Loss Ratio measure to determine profitability for health Insurers.  For Wall Street, a lower MLR is considered good as it indicates that the insurer has control over its medical claims.  Higher MLR’s may
suggest that the insurer either has a bad book of business or is not so well managed, either or both which could adversely affect profitability.

MLR’s dropped fairly rapidly in the 1990’s and continued a more gradual decline to the low 80% levels in recent years.

Health care reformers have focused on increasing MLR’s as a way to control health care costs. Since MLR by definition is a ratio of two numbers, one can increase the MLR by either reducing premium revenue, or by paying more claims from the same revenue.  Since no one arbitrarily pays claims, forcing an increase in the MLR should put downward pressure on premiums. In that case, what expenses need to be cut.

For them to focus on reducing claims does them little good as lowering claims does nothing to increase the MLR.  For insurers to retain some measure of profitability, they have to look at cutting their general and administrative expenses.

Medical Loss Ratio declining over time

The graph below shows MLR trends from 1992 to 2007.  In the early 1990’s, the average MLR was over 90% and in 1992-1993 the MLR approached 95%.  Though that may have been a high water mark for MLR, it was not unusual for MLRs before 1990 to be above 90%.  Then again, as one goes back in time, more health insurers were non-profit than there are now.  These companies ran the business with leaner overhead than is seen in more current times.

A critical question for health care reform is how fast and how far can these trends be reversed so that more of the premium dollar goes to medical claims instead of overhead expenses and profits.

 Source: Price Waterhouse Coopers Medical Loss Ratio Annual

 MLR includes multiple variables to control

The graph below shows three cases, each with three bars.  The base case is typical of today, the second assumes lower claims, and the third assumes higher claims. 

 The first bar in each case represents claims, SG&A expense  and profit margin. The second bar represents premiums and a small investment income (green). By definition, profit plus expenses must equal revenue so those two bars are always equal length.  The third bar of each case is the MLR. 

In the second case, claims are lower. But unless premiums are reduced, the MLR will go down. Further the premium reduction will eat into profits to maintain the MLR. If claims rise as in the third case, and if the market will bear, higher premiums will generate added profits without incurring a reduction in MLR.

Effect on MLR if profits & expenses held constant

The graph below shows the same three case format as the prior graph. The base case is the same as above.  In the second case, however, both claims and premiums are reduced by 5%.  It also assumes no change in profit or expense.  In an environment of falling costs and claims, the MLR will decline by nearly one %.

But the health care prices have been in an ever increasing trend.  If overhead and profits are held constant, a 5% increase in both claims and premiums will raise the MLR by almost 1%.  But as was shown above, the MLR continues to decline. Unless there is competitive downward pressure on premiums, the profits will tend to rise and MLR’s decline.

A key unanswered question is whether there exists enough competition to drive prices down or at least keep them from rising faster than general inflation. 

Raise the minimum MLR as a step to Cost Control

California is one state that is considering raising the MLR to a minimum of 85%, and increase from about 82%.  The graph below shows two ways this can occur. 

The first is to hold premiums constant as claims rise to 85%.  This will result in significantly lower profits unless overhead is sharply reduced, from around 16% to 13%.

The second method is to reduce premiums to more quickly reach 85% MLR with no changes in claims. If insurers want to maintain current levels of profits, this method will require even steeper cuts in overhead expenses than in the prior case.  Insurers can be expected to resist these moves.

Still, one does not have to go back that many years to find total overhead and profit to be less than 10%.

 

Sensitivity in MLR to changes in overhead and profit

The graph below shows 5 bars representing decreasing levels of overhead and profit and their effect on MLR.  Or conversely, how much do overhead and profit need to be reduced to reach higher MLR levels.

For insurers to reach an 85% MLR without increasing premiums, they will need to reduce overhead and profits by some 20%. An 88% minimum MLR would require reductions of 33%.  Health care reform should allow for significant cuts in general and administrative expenses. With insurance exchanges, selling expenses may be reduced. But it is hard to imagine the levels of cuts needed to help bring about cost control without some reduction in profits as well.

If this nation is serious about reform, it is optimistic to think that insurers’ profits will remain relatively unaffected by these changes. But the high tech industry had a nice ride to new highs, before it was brought back to reasonable levels.

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Cost and Access to Healthcare

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Summary

Health care reform is one of the most serious issues facing the United States today.  Past efforts at reform have been met with opposition from insurers, hospitals, doctors, business groups and political parties, and that opposition has stymied reform while the problems continued to worsen.

Today, there is more general acceptance of the need for reform but the level has not occurred uniformly across all stakeholders.  Insurers are recognizing the need to drop the most onerous “pre-condition exclusions” and providers are recognizing the need to get more efficient themselves.  Consumers of healthcare are a more divided lot.

Those who have health insurance coverage through work and who have never suffered a significant illness or injury may think this problem applies more to other people.

Conversely, those who have experienced medical problems or have lost jobs and health insurance are more aware of what has gone wrong with the system and are looking for better access to health care and better control of costs.

What the following shows is that health care problems cut across virtually all characteristics with adverse trends occurring in all areas except Medicare Prescription Drugs.

Insurance through the workplace is down, premiums as a percent of compensation are up, out-of-pocket costs are rising, insurance coverage by age group, marital status, race and region are all declining, and more people are not getting needed medical care or drugs because of costs. Finally, all this is aggravated by the rise in unemployment that has put at risk health insurance coverage for millions more Americans.

Health insurance through work is declining

The graph below shows the percent of employees obtaining insurance through their workplace by 4 regions and the USA as a whole.  The trend is almost consistently downward beginning around the year 2000.  The Midwest which once had the highest percent of employees insured, has dropped some 8% in just 6 years.

The Northeast and Midwest do, however, continue to lead the South and West in terms of percent of employees covered, and all regions experienced a coverage downturn in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, a period of both slow growth and a recession.

If coverage declines in the current recession anything like that of 1991, there may be continued steep declines in workplace provided health insurance beyond the scope of this graph.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Table 138

Health insurance is taking a bigger bite of income

The graph below shows the percent of total compensation going towards health insurance.  Since 2000, the trend in all regions is uniformly upward.  What the graph does not show is the percent of total compensation going towards co-pay and deductibles which are also rising.

The Midwest pays the highest percent of compensation, both currently and in the past.  The West and South, which at one time lagged behind the Northeast, are now tied.

With insurance a percent of compensation, the average compensation for these regions affects insurance. The South continues to lag due to low average compensation.  The Midwest insurance cost is mitigated somewhat as its compensation is lower versus the Northeast or the West.

From any viewpoint, health care costs are rising faster than compensation and putting a heavier burden on all.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Table 135

More costly claims are becoming more common

Not only are insurance premiums taking a growing percent of compensation, but out-of-pocket costs are compounding the problem.  The graph below shows the percent of those having medical and drug claims whose out-of-pocket cost exceeded $2,000.

The trend is upward for all but children under the age of 18, and it is climbing most steeply for seniors 65 and older.  These steep increases for seniors has been mitigated by the Medicare Part D drug program whose effects are not yet evident in the time periods shown.

The message is that having insurance does not fully protect persons who are struck by illness or injury.  There are still risks of significant expenses.  And those who have never incurred serious illness or injury tend to be less aware of the out-of-pocket costs that they may incur.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Table 133

Declining private health insurance favors no group

A graph above showed the decline in insurance coverage obtained through the workplace.  Although that is where most get their health insurance, the graphs below are for all persons under 65 and for all sources of insurance. Those with health insurance coverage have been on a downward trend for all classifications.

As expected, when a person gets older, health insurance becomes more important and that is born out in the upper right graph. Possibly a more disturbing trend is the lower graph where single, divorced or widowed people lag significantly behind married people. One conclusion is that families are very conscious of their children’s health care and covering them nearly always includes covering themselves … because that is how most insurance is sold.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Table 137

People not getting needed costly medical care

The graph below shows the percent of people under the age of 65 who did not get needed medical care due to costs. More importantly, it only includes persons whose income exceeds 200 % of poverty level or about $44,000/year income for a family of four.

It is understandable that people with no medical insurance are less likely to get medical care due to costs. However, even some with insurance do not get that care because of co-pay and other out of pocket expense.  And roughly the same trend exists for those who lose health insurance for less than a year as for those who lose insurance for more than a year.

The graph shows an upward trend of 20% over a 10 year period and suggests little sign of change.  The decline in insurance coverage is aggravating the situation even more.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Table 80

Those not getting needed medical care varies by age

The graph below is similar to prior but includes people over 65. As above, it only includes persons whose income is greater than 200 % of poverty level.

Those not getting needed medical care also varies by age, whether or not insured.  Both older people and children are less likely to skip needed medical care due to costs while the two middle age groups appear willing to risk skipping needed care.  Still, the trend for middle age groups is up.

Not getting needed medical attention can lead to more serious consequences if not treated promptly.  This is a risk that affects all people, not just the less well off.

Since these graphs end in 2006, they do not reflect the 2009 increase in unemployment that often leads to short periods of no health insurance for those who lost jobs.  And for many, those job losses extend for more than a year

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Table 80

People not getting needed costly medicines

The graph below shows the percent of people under the age of 65 who did not get prescription drugs due to costs. This graph also only includes persons whose income exceeds 200 % of poverty level or about $44,000/year income for a family of four.

Similar to the medical care graph, the trend is upward with more people forgoing needed drugs over the last 10 years.  However, there is a recent and measurable change in access by longer term uninsured as they appear to be getting some form of help with their prescriptions.

For those uninsured less than a year, the graph shows more skipping drugs, and the upward trend is worse than appears for basic medical care.

And like medical care, the steady decline in insurance coverage is aggravating the access to drugs even more.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Table 80

Those not getting needed medicines varies by age

The graph below is similar to above but includes people over 65. As above, it only includes persons whose income is greater than 200 % of poverty level.

Those not getting prescription drugs also vary by age, whether or not insured.  A significant drop in not getting drugs among those over 65 was significantly affected by the introduction of Medicare Part D prescription drug program that lowered costs for seniors.

Though that program is not inexpensive, costs are lower, and so more are able to stay current on their medications.

Children are being adversely affected as drug costs continue to eat away at parents’ ability to buy drugs for them. Fortunately, this lack of access is at low overall levels but a potentially serious problem for those who are affected.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Table 80

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