Monday, December 29, 2014

The Letter You Never Want to Get on Christmas Eve

I was reading the December 18th issue of Inside Health Insurance Exchanges and came across an article entitled, "New Kids on the Block Come Out Swinging; Co-Ops Lower Rates for Many Health Plans."

The gist of the article had to do with the success a number of Obamacare insurance co-ops have had in charging lower rates and getting lots of market share by "[underpricing] more established players inside and outside of the public insurance exchanges."

The article went on to point out that some traditional competitors are beginning to complain that the co-ops have unfair advantages.

This quote from the CEO of CoOpportunity––the market leading Iowa and Nebraska Obamacare funded co-op that enrolled 120,000 people in 2014––stood out:
For Blues plans and other carriers "with deep reserves, booming stock prices and market entrenchment to plead for relief from these nimble, undercapitalized start-ups is ludicrous and insulting," counters CoOpportunity Health CEO Cliff Gold. He says his company has been successful in attracting customers in two states despite not having the lowest cost products anywhere in Iowa or the most populous part of Nebraska. "At the end of the day, in the long term, success is determined by a company's ability to create value for customers, he tells HEX. "That critical but elusive combination of price, product features, provider network, and customer service is what separates competitors."
Here's the letter that Mr. Gold received a week later on Christmas Eve:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

How Many People Have Enrolled So Far in Obamacare's Second Open Enrollment?

Undoubtedly I will hear that question many times in the coming weeks.

The answer is that this enrollment process is so screwed up we will have no earthly idea how many new people have enrolled and how many 2014 enrollees remained on the program until at least April 2015.

Let me try to illustrate.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Is the Administration Low-Balling Their 2015 Obamacare Enrollment Estimate?

Well, with an estimate of only 9 million to 9.9 million, apparently they are. But I will suggest the focus should not be on anybody's estimate for 2015 but rather on how many people need to enroll in Obamacare to make it sustainable.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Supreme Court Takes the Obamacare Subsidy Case--Justices Will Rule Before July 1

In a Wow moment, the Supreme Court announced Friday that they will take one of the four pending "Halbig" cases––specifically King v. Burwell.

The issue is over whether the new health law actually authorizes the payment of premium subsidies in the 37 states that will rely upon the federal government to run their exchange in 2015.

This effort is being made on a number of fronts but has been generally know as the "Halbig" challenge. I guess we will now call it the King challenge.

If the Supreme Court eventually affirms this challenge, anyone receiving a health insurance subsidy in the 37 states run by the feds would immediately lose it. Given that the bulk of those currently getting subsides are at the lower income range for those subsidy eligible, most would likely drop their Obamacare insurance unless they were so sick it made sense for them to beg, borrow, or steal the money they would need to continue making premium payments.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Obamacare: Death By a Thousand Votes?

We didn't see a Republican tide on election night.

We saw a Republican tsunami.

A year after Obamacare went into effect and Democrats said people would come to support it voters gave one Republican candidate after another, who made Obamacare a big part of each of their campaigns, one victory after another.

So, how will the Republicans use their convincing result on Obamacare?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Health Insurers "Expect at Least 20% Growth" From 2015 Enrollment

That was the lead in a Reuters story this morning saying, "health plans expect at least 20% growth in customers and in some states anticipate more than a doubling in sign-ups" from the 2015 Obamacare open-enrollment.

Well they better do a hell of a lot better than that!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Figures Don't Lie But Liars Figure––Will There Be Some Obamacare Rate Shock in 2015?

Hanging around actuaries as long as I have one of the old sayings I picked up was, "Figures don't lie, but liars figure."

I have read one story after another this summer and fall about the modest Obamacare rates increases––or decreases––for 2015.

On this blog you have also seen me write about the complex way the 2015 Obamacare rates will hit people particularly because of the impact the changes in the so called second lowest cost Silver plan will have on so many people's final subsidy. You have also seen me write about the fact that we really won't know what Obamacare costs people until the now unlimited Obamacare reinsurance program stops subsidizing insurance rates in 2017.

Recently, the Kaiser Family Foundation provided a report pointing out that the cost of the benchmark Silver Plan would fall 0.8% in sixteen cities they researched:

Monday, October 13, 2014

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Most Transparent Administration Puts a Gag Order on HealthCare.gov Testing

With the second Obamacare open-enrollment beginning on November 15th, the enrollment system's testing begins with insurance companies this week.

Of course, last year the enrollment system testing was a real mess resulting in a humiliating Obamacare launch for the administration.

Up until now I wasn't expecting any major problems with HealthCare.gov's consumer enrollment system given all of the lessons learned and the new people running things.

But apparently, the administration is pretty worried about what could happen.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

One Year Later: The Affordable Care Act's Launch on October 1, 2013––So How Did it Go?

Here unedited is what I posted on September 29, 2013:

The Affordable Health Care Act's Launch On October 1st––So How Did it Go?

Unavoidably, that will be the big question come Tuesday.

But there will be much more to it than that.

A 180-Day Open Enrollment––Not a One-Day Open Enrollment
What happens on the first day, for good or bad, will constitute only a tiny percentage of the open enrollment period. Consumers will likely visit the new websites many times before they make any decisions, and that is exactly as it should be.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The "7.3 Million"

The administration finally released the Obamacare enrollment count this week.

Like everything else about their scorekeeping we got a number. Just one number. A number that was conveniently better than we had expected. And, we got no real context for the number or any of the back-up information.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Next Chapter of Obamacare

Welcome back from the summer.

It's been pretty quiet lately on the Obamcare front.

So quiet, that there has been a flurry of articles recently over how Obamacare has dropped to a second or even third tier issue and will hardly matter come election-time.

Wishful thinking.

Obamacare has largely been out of the news cycle for a couple of months but that is about to change.

A few thoughts.

The 2015 rate increases have been largely modest. Does that prove Obamacare is sustainable? No. You might recall that on this blog months ago my 2015 rate increase prediction was for increases of 9.9%.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Halbig Decision Puts Obamacare Back on the Front Burner and Will Give Republicans a Huge Political Headache

Today's 2-1 decision by the DC Court of Appeals striking down federal premium subsidies, in at least the 27 states that opted for the feds to run their Obamacare insurance exchanges, has the potential to strike a devastating blow to the new health law.

The law says that individuals can get subsidies to buy health insurance in the states that set up insurance exchanges. That appears to exclude the states that do not set up exchanges––at least the 27 states that completely opted out of Obamacare. Another nine states set up partnership exchanges with the feds and the impact on those states is not clear.

The response by supporters of the law, and the IRS regulation that has enabled subsidies to be paid in the states not setting up exchanges, hinges on the argument that the language is at worst ambiguous and the Congress never intended to withhold the subsidies in the federal exchange states.

But in the DC Court ruling one of the majority judges said, "The fact is that the legislative record provides little indication one way or the other of the Congressional intent, but the statutory text does. Section 36B plainly makes subsidies only available only on Exchanges established by states."

My own observation, having closely watched the original Obamacare Congressional debate, is that this issue never came up because about everybody believed about all of the states would establish their own exchange. I think it is fair to say about everyone also believed a few states would not establish their own exchanges. Smaller states, for example, might opt out because they just didn't have the scale needed to make the program work. I don't recall a single member of Congress, Republican or Democrat, who believed that if this happened those states would lose their subsidies.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Biggest Insurer Drops Caution, Embraces Obamacare"

Kaiser Health News is out with that headline today reporting that UnitedHealthcare is expanding its Obamacare exchange presence planning to sell polices "in nearly half the exchanges next year." The story goes on to report that United's leadership is saying the new public marketplaces look sustainable.

There may be more to it than that.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Kaiser Family Foundation Survey Finds Most People Who Bought Health Insurance on the Exchanges Are Happy With It and That 57% Were Previously Insured––No One Should Be Surprised On Either Count

Let's take a look at both of these headlines:

Most People Are Happy
But Kaiser only asked the people who bought health insurance on the exchanges if they were happy with what Obamacare offered them.

As I have said before on this blog, two out of three subsidy eligible people did not buy a health insurance plan in the first open-enrollment.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Obamacare: What About the Working Class and the Middle Class?

The administration issued a report yesterday that says individuals who selected plans in the federal health insurance exchanges have a post-credit premium that is on average 76% less than the full premium for the plans they selected. And, 69% are paying less than $100 after the subsidies––46% are paying $50 or less.

The administration also pointed out that 65% of individuals selecting the Silver Plan in the federal exchange chose the lowest or second-lowest cost Silver Plan.

As I have said before, only about one-in-three subsidy eligible people bought and paid for coverage during Obamacare's first open-enrollment.

It would appear from this data that it is the lowest income people who are most often signing up for coverage. They are the ones who get the biggest premium subsidies as well as the reductions in their deductibles and co-pays.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

With the November Election Six Months Away Obamacare is Up For Grabs

House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans seemed surprised last week when representatives of the insurance industry reported that they didn't have enough data yet to forecast prices for next year's health insurance exchanges, the market was not about to blow up, and that so far at least 80% of consumers have paid for the health insurance policies they purchased on the exchanges. The executives also reported there are still serious back-end problems with HealthCare.gov––particularly in being able to reconcile the people the carriers think are covered and the people the government thinks are covered. These are all things that you have read about a number of times on this blog.

The insurance companies are doing their best to make Obamacare work.

Why?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Obamacare Observations From the Marketplace

A few observations from my travels and conversations in the marketplace:

About half of the enrollments are coming from people who were previously insured and half are not. When I try to gauge this, I go to carriers who had high market share before Obamacare and have maintained that through the first open enrollment. Some carriers have said only a small percentage of their enrollments had coverage before but health plans only would know who they insured before.  By sticking to the high market share carriers who have maintained a stable market share and knowing how many of their customers are repeat buyers, it's possible to get a better sense for the overall market. Other conventional polls have suggested the repeat buyers are closer to two-thirds of the exchange enrollees.

The number of those in the key 18-34 demographic group improved only slightly during the last month of open enrollment so the average age is still high. The actuaries I talk to think this issue of average age is made to be far more important than it should be. It is better to have a young group than an old group. But remember, the youngest people pay one-third of the premium that older people pay. The real issue is are we getting a large enough group to get the proper cross section of healthy and sick?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Virginia Should Take the Obamacare Medicaid Expansion Money and So Should All Republican States

In a September 2012 post on this blog, I said that Republican governors should be expanding their Medicaid programs under Obamacare. I argued that Republicans have long called for state block grants and the flexibility to run their own Medicaid programs in what are the state "laboratories of democracy."

I made the point that, given the then recent Supreme Court decision enabling states to opt out of the expansion, the Obama administration would be hard pressed to deny any reasonable proposal from Republican governors. If Republicans really believed in state responsibility and flexibility for how they run their Medicaid programs, this was the opportunity to prove it. (See: The Medicaid Controversy––The Republican Governors Should Put Up or Shut Up)

Since then, a few Republican governors have taken that tack and the Obama administration has been very cooperative and flexible.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Mission Accomplished?––7.1 Million––Will the Obama Administration Come To Regret Today's Obamacare Enrollment Announcement?

Politics is about expectations.

The Obama administration blew the doors off Obamacare's enrollment expectations this week and scored big political points.

But in doing so, they may have set Obamacare's expectations going forward at a level that can only undermine their credibility and that of the new health law.

What happens when the real number––the number of people who actually completed their enrollment––comes in far below the seven million?

What happens when the hard data shows that most of these seven million were people who had coverage before?

What happens when it becomes clear that the Obamacare insurance exchanges are making hardly a dent in the number of those uninsured?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Was Obamacare Worth It? How Many of the Previously Uninsured Have Really Signed Up?

Health insurance reform was long overdue. But did it need to be done the way the architects of the Affordable Care Act did it?

Obamacare was enacted, and the private health insurance market fundamentally changed, so that we could cover millions of people who previously couldn't get coverage.

Are enough people getting coverage who didn't have it before to justify the sacrifices the people who were already covered––in the individual, small group, and large employer market––are making or will make?

I will suggest the country will never really be able to judge how good or how bad Obamacare is until that question is answered.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The One Thing That Could Save Obamacare––And The Obama Administration Needs To Do It In the Next Month

To properly price the exchange health insurance business going forward the carriers have to sharply increase the rates. A senior executive for Wellpoint, which sells plans in 14 Obamacare exchanges, is quoted in a Reuters article telling Wall Street analysts there will be big rate increases in 2015, "Looking at the rate increases on a year-over-year basis on our exchanges, and it will vary by carrier, but all of them will probably be double digits."

If the health plans do issue double digit rate increases for 2015, Obamacare is finished.

There are a ton of things that need to be fixed in Obamacare. But, I will suggest there is one thing that could save it.

Monday, March 24, 2014

What Individual Mandate? It is Looking More and More Like the Obama Administration Will Not Enforce the Individual Mandate

It looks to me the Obama administration will claim at least 6 million enrollments by the end of March. But that will mean 75% of subsidy eligible people will not have bought a plan.

Will the 2014 mandate to buy health insurance be enforced come tax time?

It sure doesn't look like it.

To be sure, the administration is not making any major announcements prior to the close of open enrollment on March 31 the better to get as many people to sign-up as possible.

When asked about waiving the individual mandate at a recent Congressional hearing, HHS Secretary Sebelius said, "That's what the law says and that is what will happen."

Well sort of.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Republicans Considering Proposing High-Risk Pools––Health Insurance Ghettos

We are hearing that Republicans are considering proposing high-risk pools as part of an alternative health insurance reform proposal to Obamacare.

A high-risk pool proposal would likely mean the Congress giving states the flexibility, and perhaps funding, to set up these risk pools. Risk pools by definition are a place where people can go when they are not able to buy health insurance in the regular market because they have a health problem.

That means Republicans would be turning the clock back to a time when insurance companies could turn people down for health insurance because of their health status.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Silly Republican Insurance Reform Ideas––Selling Insurance Across State Lines and Association Health Plans

There are news reports indicating Republicans will be proposing such longstanding health insurance reform ideas as selling insurance across state lines and association health plans.

These ideas have been around for some time and have served Republicans as convenient talking points out on the campaign trail positioned as common sense alternatives to Obamacare.

When I discuss these ideas with people in the insurance industry––people who know how their market really works––these ideas generally command plenty of snickers.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Gallup: The Number of Those Uninsured Is Falling––Why All of the Amazement?

Reading the many press reports about the new Gallup poll estimating the number of the uninsured I couldn't help be surprised by their surprise.

Under the headline, "Obamacare Working?" CBS reported that Gallup found the uninsured rate had fallen to 15.9% in a survey taken during January and February. That was down from 17.1% at the end of 2013––a reduction of 2.5 million adult Americans.

Other news reports have pegged the reduction in the uninsured to be worth as many as 4 million people.

The Los Angeles Times headline said, "Obamacare Meeting Goal of Reducing Number of Uninsured, Data Indicate."

Well, dah!

The Gallup survey is fully consistent with the reports that Obamacare's enrollment is coming in at a tepid rate at best and there are serious questions about the number of uninsured that are buying Obamacare.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Obamacare: The Uninsured Are Not Signing Up Because the Dogs Don't Like It

Here's my version of a classic corporate marketing story from the 1980s:
A big dog food company decided to come out with the latest and greatest new dog food. They hired the smartest consultants from the big universities in Boston to advise them. They had their scientists, who know far more about nutrition than any consumers or the dogs, come up with the most nutritious formula they were convinced was good for them. The engineers designed a new and cost effective manufacturing process that capped their overhead. The marketing department allocated enormous amounts of money to the various state sales offices and put together a very expensive and colorful national ad campaign led by a charismatic spokesman. The company trained a newly recruited sales force and signed up the biggest supermarkets for the best shelf space.

It did not sell.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Extending the Obamacare Cancelled Policy Moratorium––One More Contortion in the Pretzel

The administration has confirmed that the individual policies that were supposed to be cancelled because of Obamacare can now remain in force another two years.

For months I have been saying millions of individual health insurance policies will be cancelled by year-end––most deferred until December because of the carriers' early renewal programs and because of President Obama's request the policies be extended in the states that have allowed it.

The administration, even today, as well as supporters of the new health law, have long downplayed the number of these "junk policy" cancellations as being insignificant.

Apparently, these cancelled policies are good enough and their number large enough to make a difference come the November 2014 elections.

Monday, February 10, 2014

More Obamacare Unravelling

On Friday, I asked if Obamacare was unraveling.

The Obama administration announced today that they are delaying the employer mandate again.

In the announcement, they said that large employers, those with at least 100 workers, will only have to cover 70% of their otherwise eligible workforce in 2015 and 95% in 2016 and beyond.

The administration also said that employers with 50 to 100 workers will have their mandate to provide affordable health insurance to their workers delayed until 2016––one more year's reprieve.

Employers with less than 50 workers, not required to provide coverage by the Affordable Care Act, will be exempt from the original reporting requirements in 2015 and every year thereafter.

Democrats have been under increasing political pressure from employers back home because of the reporting requirements as well as the mandate that employers with more than 50 workers offer coverage. No doubt Congressional Democrats have been pressuring the administration to back off on the requirements with an election approaching in the fall.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Is Obamacare Unraveling?

Rumors have been circulating in the marketplace all week that the administration was thinking of extending the individual health insurance policies that Obamacare was supposed to have cancelled for as much as three more years.

Those rumors have now come out into the open with Tom Murphy's AP story that began running today.

That the administration might extend these polices shouldn't come as a shock. My sense has always been that at least 80% of the pre-Obamacare policies would ultimately have to be canceled because of the administration's stringent grandfathering rules that forced almost all of the old individual market into the new Obamacare risk pool.

But with the literal drop dead date for these old policies hitting by December 31, 2014, that would have meant those final cancellation letters would have had to go out about election day 2014. That would have meant that the administration was going to have to live through the cancelled policy nightmare all over again––but this time on election day.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Judging Hospital Quality and Narrow Networks––Barking Up the Wrong Tree?

It isn't news for anyone to suggest the most expensive hospitals may not be worth the money. 

A recent paper published in the journal Health Affairs, "Understanding Differences Between High- and Low-Price Hospitals: Implications For Efforts To Rein In Costs" makes some excellent points regarding the pricing power of the largest hospitals and the wide variation in local prices. But then it attempts to make some comparisons between cost and quality of care concluding that "the high-priced hospitals' performance on outcome-based quality measures was mixed.".

Looking at the analysis suggesting that cost doesn't necessarily equal quality and comparing it to some real life situations I've seen leads me to believe these studies are missing something really big.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Republican Alternative to Obamacare––Their Aversion to Fixing It May Prove to Be a Political Mistake

The Republicans have an alternative to Obamacare and they may have given the Democrats a big political gift.

The proposal was unveiled last Monday by Republican Senators Richard Burr, (NC), Tom Coburn (OK), and Orrin Hatch (UT).

The Republican plan targets many of the most unpopular parts of the Affordable Care Act such as expensive mandated benefits and the resulting lack of choice, the individual mandate, the employer mandate, and age-rating disruptions.

My sense is that most independent voters––the ones that matter in an election-year––don't want Obamacare repealed; they want it fixed.

The problem for Republicans is that they have such a visceral response to the term "Obamacare" that they just can't bring themselves to fix it. The notion that Obamacare might be fixed and allowed to continue as part of an Obama legacy and as a Democratic accomplishment is something they can't get past.

So, the only way Republicans can propose an alternative to Obamacare is to first wipe the health insurance reform slate clean and start over.

There is a problem with that strategy. Have you heard the one about, "If you like your health insurance you can keep it?"

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Survey Data and Market Reports Say the Uninsured Are Not Signing Up for Obamacare

In my last post, I asked, "But what if most of the uninsured literally don't buy Obamacare?"

"Only 11% of consumers who bought new coverage under the law were previously uninsured," according to a survey of 4,563 consumers eligible for the health insurance exchanges done by McKinsey & Company and reported in Saturday's Wall Street Journal.

The Journal reports that "insurers, brokers, and consultants estimate at least two-thirds" of the 2.2 million people who have so far signed up in the new exchanges are coming from those who already had coverage.

This is consistent with anecdotal reports from insurers I have talked to that are seeing very little net growth in their overall individual and small group markets as of January 1.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Obamacare: To Buy Or Not To Buy–––An Entrepreneur Would Have Done It Differently

Now that consumers can generally make an efficient health insurance purchase at HealthCare.gov and most of the state-run exchanges, we can finally get to the real question.

Are the healthy uninsured going to buy it?

The big health insurance changes Obamacare made to the individual and small group market were arguably done in order to get everyone, sick and healthy, covered in a more equitable system.

To be clear, no one I know of wants to go back to the prior health insurance market that excluded people from being covered because of pre-existing conditions.

But what if most of the uninsured literally don't buy Obamacare?

Then people will question whether or not all of this change was worth it: Why did those who were in the old individual and small group market have to accept all of the expensive changes, narrower networks, higher deductibles, and fewer choices if the uninsured largely don't want it?

Are we moving away from a system where only the healthy could buy health insurance to a system where only the sick want to buy it? 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Will There Be an Obamacare Death Spiral in 2015? No

If the Obamacare health insurance exchanges are not able to get a good spread of risk––many more healthy people than sick––the long-term viability of the program will be placed in great jeopardy.

Given the early signs––far fewer people signing up than expected, enormous negative publicity about website problems, rate shock, big average deductibles, narrow provider networks, and a general growing dissatisfaction over the new health law––it is clear to me that this program is in very serious trouble.

But that trouble would not necessarily transfer to the health insurance plans participating on the state and federal health insurance exchanges.

Obamacare contains a $25 billion federal risk fund set up to benefit health insurance companies selling coverage on the state and federal health insurance exchanges as well as in the small group (less than 50 workers) market. The fund lasts only three years: 2014, 2015, and 2016.

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