Friday, June 12, 2009

Health Care Cooperatives--An Old New Idea--So What's a Blue Cross Plan?

As opposition to a Medicare-like public health plan option grows, there has been a lot of talk about the compromise idea of creating not-for-profit health insurance cooperatives that would compete on a level playing field with existing private insurers. The reasoning goes they would keep the existing insurers "honest" by introducing a new element of competition.

That's a great idea.

And it was a great idea 60 years ago when the first Blue Cross plans were established. See also: Here's an Example of a Cooperative Not-For-Profit Health Plan--North Dakota Blue Cross

What's the difference between a not-for-profit health insurance cooperative and all of the existing not-for-profit Blue Cross plans?

In April, I discussed the notion that such not-for-profit state driven plans already exist in other forms and haven't accomplished a lot in a post: A Public Health Plan That Looks Just Like a Big HMO---Why?

Proponents of this compromise co-op idea often point to health plans run by states for their workers as an example of the government already running efficient health insurance programs. I noted that 30 states already have a similar health plan model combining medical self-insurance with commercial networks—usually Blue Cross networks—to operate a publicly-run health plan for their state workers.

I also discussed similar models set up by states to provide state-run workers' compensation programs in direct competition with the private workers' compensation insurance companies. Here is an excerpt from that April post:
I don’t know of any of these state self-insured plans that are generally getting better results than the typical large private employer’s self-insured plan—or any commercial health plan. And why would they—they are just large self-insured employers using the same commercial networks the ERISA market uses. CalPERS, the biggest for example, has a partnership with California Blue Shield and the last time I looked their costs weren't anything to write home about compared to the typical Fortune 100 employer.

Just which state employee plan is a model for reducing health care costs, ridding the system of unnecessary services, and measurably reducing the "premiums" it charges its sponsors and employees?

But, you might argue, these state plans have expense ratios far less than the existing individual and small group market. Sure they do--just like a typical large employer. Now add the cost of servicing individuals and small groups and why would they be any less expensive than a private plan offered in the same "Insurance Exchange." They don't have to make a profit, one might argue. Really? A public plan would have to develop the same stabilization reserves any existing not-for-profit health plan has to build for in the down years.

There actually are plenty of examples of government going into the insurance business on a level playing field basis with the private sector. There have been a number of state workers’ compensation funds over the years as well as state sponsored physician medical malpractice funds—usually built at a time when the private sector was not creating adequate market capacity for even average risks. [I am not pointing to high-risk pools here but state sponsored insurers aimed at the mainstream market.] All of the ones I know about ended up looking exactly like the private players. The fact that none of them ever dominated the market is testament to just how similar, or ineffectual, they turned out to be compared to their private market cousins.

As an example, I would point you to the California State Compensation Insurance Fund. Founded in 1914 by the state legislature, it is a workers' comp insurer. In the mainstream market the Fund looks, acts, and underwrites just like the private players. California has always been a problematic workers' comp market--can't say having the Fund for 95 years has solved any systemic work comp problems there.

What the Fund has been though is a doormat for the private market and political regulators--carriers move into and out of California when workers comp regulation becomes intolerable for them and back in when the regulatory climate is tolerable. But the Fund has to stay no matter what and its revenue and financial stability have varied widely as a result. When the carriers are interested in being in California, they pretty much take market share away from the Fund at will.

When the day is done, it seems to me the authors are arguing they can create something that looks just like the existing private health plan market...


Looks to me that in an effort to create a level playing field and overcome the objections to a public health plan the authors have succeeded.

But they have also just come full circle and toward what end?

About half the private health insurance market in the U.S. is in not-for-profit health plans and networks (Blues, Kaiser, etc.). Just how would a "modest" public health plan provide something materially different?


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