The Stages of Death and Dying, Employers and Health Reform

House Bill and Senate Bill subsidies for healt...
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“Change, before you have to…” Jack Welch

We live in a society that loathes uncertainty – particularly the unintended consequences that sometimes result from a catastrophic event or in the case of PPACA, landmark legislation. Wall Street and the private sector crave predictability and find it difficult in uncertain times to coax capital off the sidelines when the overhang of legislation or geopolitical unrest creates the potential for greater risk. Despite our best energies around forecasting and planning, some consequences, particularly unintended ones – only reveal themselves in time.

In the last decade, employers have endured an inflationary period of rising healthcare costs brought on by a host of social, political, economic and organizational failures.  There was and remains great anticipation and trepidation as Congress continues to contour the new rules of the road for this next generation’s healthcare system. Optimists believe that reform is both a way forward and a way out of a mounting public debt crisis and a bypass for an economy whose arteries are clogged by the high cost of medical waste, fraud and abuse.  Cynics argue reform is merely a Trojan Horse measure that offers an open invitation for employers to drop coverage and for commercial insurers to “hang themselves with their own rope” as costs continue to spiral out of control — leading to an inevitable government takeover of healthcare.

Meanwhile, leading economic indicators are flashing crimson warning signs as recent stop-gap stimulus wears off and long overdue private/public sector deleveraging results in reduced corporate hiring, lower consumer confidence and increased rates of savings.  The symptoms of a prolonged economic malaise can be felt in unemployment stubbornly lingering around 9.2% and a stagnating US economy that is struggling to come to grips with the rising cost of entitlement programs.  Across the Atlantic, the Euro-Zone is teetering as Italy and Spain (which represent more credit exposure than Greece, Portugal and Ireland combined) stumble toward default.  Despite these substantial head winds, US healthcare reform is forging ahead – – right into the teeth of the storm.

Closer to home, states have begun to debate and propose legislative amendments to their own versions of reform as they attempt to reconcile a declining tax base with the soaring obligations of Medicaid and collectively bargained pension and long term care.  Should Congress finally agree to allow an estimated 28% of fee reductions in Medicare provider reimbursement to become law, the private sector could see as much as a 400bps increase in core medical trends resulting from cost shifting – pushing trends back into the mid-teens. Hospital systems, providers and healthcare agencies are bracing for cuts and potentially looking to the private sector as a source for more dollars.  All of this is building at a time when certain industries are nearing a “point of failure” – – an inflection point where healthcare spend as a percentage of revenues and operating profit will either consume earnings or completely erode employee take home pay.

Many are looking ahead to 2012 as a “burning bush” year – a seminal presidential and Congressional election where political results will help clarify the direction of reform – pivoting toward the reinforcement of employer sponsored healthcare as catalyst for market based reforms or merely a cementing of the incentives that seem to encourage the deconstruction of employer based coverage.  With 33 Democratic Senate seats up for reelection and 10 GOP spots up for grabs, the entire composition of our government could change – or perhaps not.  In the interim, the fiscal year 2012 will continue to show 44 states projecting budget deficits totaling $ 112B.

A recent controversial McKinsey study forecasted that as many as 30% of employers or 54m individuals covered under private healthcare would be “dumped” into public exchanges as of 2014.  This number is in sharp contrast to the 12.6mm assumed by the CBO (approximately 7% of 180mm privately covered individuals.)  The influx of 41.4mm unbudgeted insureds – all eligible for federal subsidies of as much as $5,000 – would upend the initial CBO estimate of $ 140B deficit reduction over 10 years and result in an increase in public debt in just six short years.  The ensuing debt arising out of PPACA over the periods 2020 to 2030 could easily eclipse $ 1T of additional public debt.

Any economist can confirm that all unsustainable trends eventually end.  Rising premiums, public to private cost shifting, perverse and unaligned incentives for care, rationing and a host of other stop-gap issues are all doomed to be replaced by a system that either drives efficiency through market reform or through the single payer procurement of healthcare.  It will take at least five more years and three election cycles for this marine layer of debate to lift.  Unlike 1996, there is graveyard silence arising from the private sector.  Employers seem to be stuck in one of the several stages – – often attributable to the dead and dying.

Denial — “This can’t be happening, not to me.” One could argue that this generation of business leaders has drawn the short straw when confronting the decisions we will need to make to keep our businesses viable in a period of sustained high unemployment and economic stagnation.  Many larger employers are nervous regarding reform but somehow feel that reform is more likely to happen to other people – smaller employers and the individual marketplace.

These firms do not want to believe that the myriad unintended consequences associated with reform could impact their bottom line. Denial has been a principle ingredient and willing accomplice to healthcare cost inflation in the last decade.  For many employers, the inability to confront the fact that many of their own business practices – insistence on open access PPO plans, less medical oversight and utilization review, limited appetite for employee disruption, inability to dedicate the time or resources to assess the health risks embedded within their own population of employees – – has them resigned them to a cycle where premiums are increasing faster than wages and corporate earnings. While costs continue to rise, many employers have simply focused on stop-gap year over year cost shifting.  Others prefer to abdicate to commercial insurers who have failed to drive affordability and improved access. It comes down to believing you can make a difference and a willingness to confront the hard choices – choices that could fundamentally drive market-based reforms.

Anger — Many find themselves simmering with resentment, hunting for villains whose feet they would seek to lay all blame: “It’s those damn insurance companies!” “It’s that Socialist in the White House!”” It’s the failure of regulators to do their job in managing the complexities of the healthcare delivery system. “It’s the big hospitals!” “It’s the drug companies!” It’s the rich and their lack of empathy” “It’s the poor and their lack of personal responsibility” The list of culprits could fill a thousand postal office walls.

A polarized Congress, pariah hungry media and a workforce unwilling to understand that access does not equal quality means that change cannot happen without some noses getting out of joint.  Yet, we understand clearly that if we want to reduce our exposure to the coming storm of public to private cost shifting, we must engage and move on from our own anger.  As 35m additional Baby Boomers increase the double the ranks of Medicare to 70mm by 2030, total health spending will near 30% of the GDP and Medicare costs are expected to eclipse $ 32,000 per enrollee up from $12,000 in 2010.  Facing the magnitude of these suffocating entitlement costs, we will either embrace private sector, market-based reforms that fundamentally realign the current delivery system or we will default into a more regulated, lowest common denominator system that will rely on rationed access and reimbursement as a means of controlling cost.

Bargaining —”I’ll do anything for a few more years.” The third stage involves the hope for postponement.   The lion’s share of stakeholders in healthcare can be found milling in this no man’s land of indecision.  While hope is not a strategy, a surprising number of firms are clinging to the dream of “repeal and replace” legislation. Others are merely expecting Washington to do what it does best – prolong debate and delay implementation long enough to afford them enough altitude to pass the problem on to someone else. The tea leaves do not look promising for fundamental legislative intervention that would disrupt the momentum of reform.  Repeal is unlikely. Employers must understand that 2014 will require certain decisions.  Fundamentally employers will have one of four choices:

Take the Money And Run – Do I drop coverage, pay the penalties associated with moving employees into the public exchange and pocket the difference?

Drop Them But Ensure A Safe Landing – Do I drop coverage, grossing all employees up to my current level of subsidization so all might afford coverage in the public exchanges?

Create a Consumer Plan of Your Own – Do I move to a private exchange or defined contribution approach to financing my medical benefits to cap expenditures but remain involved as a sponsor of my benefit programs?

Control Your Own Destiny – Do I continue to offer group based private insurance believing that employer sponsored health coverage is more likely to experience lower trends if properly managed and that medical coverage remains a fundamental part of my company’s ability to attract and retain employees.

Depression — “What’s the point?” The problems we face as a nation and in business can feel overwhelming.  We have the misfortune of having to confront $38T in underfunded Medicare liabilities, $ 14T in public debt, and a potential double dip economic recession arising out of any number of black swan events – – credit defaults abroad, domestic hyper-inflation or a slowing of Chinese GDP.  It seems inevitable that we must head into a period of profound austerity.  Facing the potential of sustained uncertainty can burden any decision maker to the point of inaction.  While some period of reflection is healthy to any organization, people must take a position, plan around the certainty of change, grieve over the passing of an epoch and move forward with a renewed conviction to address the challenges that lay ahead.

Corporate depression may manifest itself in a lack of willingness to engage in the discussions or conduct financial modeling required to understand what scenarios will best benefit your organization.  It is a strange period where we express grief knowing that the traditional employer/employee social contract has changed forever in a hot, crowded, global marketplace.

The sense of urgency to explore alternatives to traditional employer sponsored coverage will led by retail, agriculture and hospitality while professional services, technology and collectively bargained public sector plans may feel more obligated to remain on a course of employer sponsored coverage.  Planning prior to 2014 is essential to be position a firm to react to opportunities that may present themselves.  Should a key industry competitor choose to discontinue coverage and use operating overhead reductions to drive down prices, what will you do?  Many have promised to not be first but not be third in line to change.

Acceptance — “I can’t fight it, so I better prepare for the inevitable.”  2014 will mark the beginning of a movement toward or away from employer-sponsored healthcare.  It is more likely that most will be carefully weighing election results, the first two years of public exchange performance and the actions of their competitors to determine a course forward.

2014 is forcing discussions over the will of the private sector to drive market-based reforms, and the review of decades-old beliefs regarding direct and indirect compensation plans.  Employers that have navigated these phases of change and are now aggressively accepting the new normal of healthcare and will most likely end up as self insured, in touch and aware of their own population risks, directing patients to primary care based system that reward providers based on quality and efficiency and are committed to driving healthier behaviors and personal compliance with to reduce chronic illness.  Employers will realize returns on these efforts as aggressively managed plans will likely experience lower single digit medical trends.  These firms will be reticent to abdicate management of healthcare costs to a public exchange but instead focus on educating and activating their workforce to the personal and corporate dividends of change.

Some employers may convert to defined contribution plan designs such as cafeteria plans to allow for a more diversified workforce to allocate finite dollars to purchase coverage that make most sense for their unique needs.  Health benefits may become part of an overall defined contribution approach to retirement and benefit planning – affording each employee to allocate their dollars to their circumstances and in doing so, accept their circumstances more freely because they have choice in where they spend their dollars.

Reform is a process and like many of the vagaries in life, every person and each business will react differently to the stimulus of change.  Every problem is a disguised opportunity and with it, comes the added dividend of using change as a catalyst for reassessing your strategies to attract and retain employees. It’s about making decisions by commission rather than omission.  And, the sooner an employer navigates these stages of change, the more likely it is that healthcare reform will happen for them – instead of happening to them.

A Case for Self Insuring Small Business

Health care systems
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During the course of 2009, two distinct trend lines crossed. For the first time ever, more employers under 50 employees were not offering medical insurance to employees than those who continued to provide employer sponsored healthcare. It was an inflection point where the majority of smaller employers – those who make up close to 96% of the number of commercial businesses in the US –  could no longer afford to offer healthcare.

Unfortunately, achieving affordability is often a zero sum game and the current system often fails the weakest and most disenfranchised of its stakeholders.  While the burden of spiraling healthcare costs has effected virtually every employer, the weight of cost increases has been borne disproportionately by individuals and smaller employers (1-250 employees).  The opaque science of risk pooling, cost shifting and risk selection has as much to do with unacceptable increases as  poor consumerism, over treatment and inefficiency. As we march toward insurance exchanges and pooled purchasing for employers in 2014, we will continue to witness a game of pass the parcel leaving smaller employers holding the bag.

Healthcare cost shifting begins at the highest levels with federal and state governments routinely cost shifting to the private sector by serially under-reimbursing specialists and hospitals for the cost of their services. Doctors and hospitals, in turn, shift cost to the private sector charging higher fees for services to make up for underfunded Medicare and Medicaid rates. Health systems have consolidated along with multi-specialty medical groups gaining critical bargaining power that results in higher contracted rate increases negotiated with insurers.  Insurers, attempting to keep rising medical trends down, must exact concessions from less well leveraged providers such as community based hospitals and primary care doctors. The result is an Darwinian landscape where only the large survive.

As core medical trends hover between 7%-8%, private insurance book of business increases have climbed into and remain in double digits. Larger employers remain more immune from peanut butter spread book of business trends due to their own unique claim credibility and in many instances, due to the simple act of self insurance.  Lack of size and actuarial credibility leaves smaller employers and individuals to be underwritten within pools of risk — pools that continue to pass on the rising costs of care at an alarming rate.  To add insult to injury, as states and the Federal government become increasingly larger medical payers (already representing over 50% of all medical spend in the US), cost shifting will only accelerate in the private sector resulting in higher medical trends impacting smaller employer pools.

Larger Employers Don’t Bear As Much Burden for Medical Cost Shifting – Larger self-insured employers are less affected by hidden risk charges, expense loads and administrative cost shifting that often occurs in pooled underwriting arrangements. Larger firms enjoy a greater spread of risk across their employees. Self insurance brings greater transparency to employers around administration and claims costs. Given that self insured employers are bearing much of their own risk, a self-funding generates less risk transfer and as a result, much lower gross profit for an insurer than a fully insured customer. Unfortunately, when risk is transferred, the elements of pricing become more opaque. It is not uncommon for insurers to build margin and other conservative factors into the rates tendered to smaller insured clients.  Individuals and smaller clients do not merit the actuarial credibility to be rated on their own claims experience. Cost shifting across each risk within a pool is an accepted practice in pricing risk. It reduces dramatic swings in pricing and is fundamental to profitable risk pooling.

Smaller employers, by definition, do not have enough medical claims predictability to be rated entirely on their own merits. In order to spread risk across a statistically valid sampling of employers, insurers pool employers across a large “block” of risk. Better performing risks subsidize worse performing risks – moderating overall increases for the entire pool. Problems arise when there is little visibility for an employer into how his/her renewal was developed and into the significant variance that can sometimes occur between the insurer’s initial renewal request and the final negotiated rate. Some argue that much of the difference is due to the rigor of the broker or client’s negotiation and the competitive pressure from the marketplace. However, the frustrating reality is the actual rate that is necessary to properly underwrite the risk, the rate the client ends up paying and the individual profitability by account varies dramatically.  Over the last decade, smaller employers have absorbed a disproportionate percentage of rising healthcare cost increases. As medical trends haven risen, fully insured risk pools have been quick to allocate these cost increases across their block of members – similar to the way a utility might pass along the rising cost of oil to its consumers.

The Affordable Care Act May Create Greater Inequities Around Small Employer Risk Sharing – Under health reform, insurers choosing to participate in regulated exchanges will be required to adhere to stringent community rating underwriting practices that will limit their ability to distinguish and price between employers representing better risks and those representing poorer population health risk. An employer who commits to driving healthier lifestyles among employees and generates lower claims experience will be subjected to the same narrow underwriting criteria as an employer with a less healthy workforce. This inability for insurers to properly reward employers for driving consumer engagement and health management among employees will drive many smaller employers to weigh the limited benefit of engaging their employees in wellness versus the disruption and distraction of attempting to promote health improvement.

Some argue these regulatory changes will homogenize pricing and create a better spread of risk for groups under 50 lives. With the individual and under 50 market having historically been the most profitable commercial segment  for many employers, some pundits contend that the ACA will limit profit taking and maximize small employer purchasing power.  Detractors believe that the diametric opposite will happen when exchanges initially are populated by previously uninsured and higher risk, small employer groups.  In either scenario, insurer profits will be squeezed in the under 50 life market segments. Insurers will have to look ” up market” to maximize profitability within their 50+ block of insured, manually rated clients.

For groups over 50 lives, insurers will be afforded more flexibility to manage pooled risks but they will be confined to a maximum of 15% of profit and administration charges. The level of precision and attention insurers must pay to underwriting their 50+ life block of insured business will determine much of their success or failure.  Price this business too conservatively and you risk losing members or having to refund rebates to customers.  Price to aggressively and you risk creating a political hot potato when asking a regulator to approve a politically undesirable double-digit increase. The optics of pricing will become very important to insurers and will become less flexible for employers to negotiate.

Pooled small group underwriting already creates inequities. As underwriters price their overall block of insured business to achieve a targeted yield (increases necessary to cover rising healthcare costs), there is typically more latitude afforded to larger insured employers whose claims experience is statistically credible. Most underwriters would argue that only cases with at least 1000 participants merits 100% claims credibility. The reality is there is discretion in small case underwriting.  Underwriters have the latitude to lend more or less credibility to certain cases if it allows them to renew a desired piece of business.

While ACA Caps Insurer Margins, It Reduces the Incentives to Control Costs – The minimum loss ratios mandated by Congress will cap potential profit taking on individual and small group coverage but it will also reward those whose clients have richer, inlfationary plan designs and higher per employee per month (pepm) costs. The maximum administration and risk percentage an insurer may realize for its larger case book of business is 15%. Thus, the greater the insured’s premium cost for a given level of benefits, the larger the actual profit dollars of operating income for the insurer. Insurers have already begun to fight over the benefit plans of certain white-collar and collectively bargained industries who have proven more willing to pay for rich plan designs – – investment banks, hedge funds, high-tech, professional services and bloated municipality and bargained plans.

Ironically, lower insured pepm plans may actually experience less underwriting flexibility as insurers seek to balance their book of 85% loss ratio employers to the highest premium plans. The only incentive to insurers confined to limited profits under ACA’s 85% MLR legislation is the specter of a public option being introduced to compete with private plans that cannot rein in costs. While most pundits seem to agree that a public option would not solve our affordability crisis, it could use taxpayer dollars and rationed provider reimbursement to offer lower cost alternatives – further eroding the private marketplace and leading to a tipping point towards single payer coverage.

As of 2011, small group increases are averaging 11 – 13% medical trends and average overall increases in excess of 20%. Insured employers under 250 employees are essentially trapped in these risk pools and it may only get worse in 2014 as community rating and the uninsured are mixed into the stew of risk.

It’s Time To Self Insure Small Business –  It is rare that an employer under 100 employees can access its paid claims experience. Insurers provide little to no actionable data for smaller employers and defend  the lack of disclosure arguing that small group claims can be easily deconstructed to identify actual employees which can be a violation of privacy rights. When claims data is released to smaller employers, it is often released as “incurred” claims which include conservative assumptions on reserves – – the future costs of claims incurred but not yet reported.

In other cases when pressured for claims data, insurers counter requests with concerns that if they release data and a competitor does not, the competing insurer can cherry-pick better risks. With the exception of Texas, where House Bill 2015 requires the release of claims experience to employers down to as firms as small as two employees, small employers have little line of sight into claims and therefore little motivation to view insurance as anything other than a commodity to be shopped every year.

Insured group pricing is often calculated months in advance. It is an imprecise alchemy where uncertainty around a myriad of factors — future medical costs due to utilization trends, hospital and provider contract renewals, H1N1, Medicare reimbursement changes and pending or recently passed regulations – – can all prompt an underwriter to build margin into rates. Insured premium pools tend to be loaded with risk charges and margin to reduce the potential that the insurer will price premiums below their cost.

In situations where insurers need to expand margins or increase profits, the path of least resistance has historically been to build margin into insured pricing. In risking increasing rates above what the competitive market might bear, carriers rely on agent loyalty campaigns, customer apathy, the hassle of changing carriers and/or their own superior cost position above competitors to allow for margin expansion. If an insurer loses members to more competitive pricing, the remaining clients may more than cover the lost margin with their higher premiums. While it is a tricky endeavor, an insurer has to weigh the risk/reward of asking for more premium than the risk may actually require. If the insurer is too conservative in pricing, competitors will seek to steal market share. If the insurer gains market share by pricing to a lower margin point, profit percentages are diluted and Wall Street punishes the carrier for being ” undisciplined ” around pricing.

Larger employers understand that medical claims drive costs. Employers with over 100 employees are increasingly entertaining alternative financing arrangements such as minimum premium and self insurance to cut the risk premiums they pay to insurers. Generally, a self-funded program generates one-third the profit dollars of an insured health program. In doing so, an employer assumes more risk. However, that risk can be capped based on the client’s risk tolerance. As a self insured employer begins to make a connection between their own population’s health, wellness and healthcare claims, they begin to focus on higher value activities — holding vendors more accountable for managing costs.

Administration costs are generally higher in fully insured health plans – as much as 20+%. These administration costs include risk and pooling charges, administration, broker commissions, clinical programs, taxes and other administration. Insured claims costs include the cost of state mandated benefits which can add 8%-10% to premiums. As premiums rise, insured health plan administration charges often rise proportionately. Self insurance avoids state premium taxes, allows you to exclude state mandated benefits and reduces risk and profit charges. Self funding has been generally ignored by brokers and agents who do not understand alternative funding and who do not like the increased transparency of per employee per month administrative fees versus embedded commissions.

With the exception of CIGNA that uses the Great West chassis as a platform for small employer self funding, most insurers have not been eager to offer self funded products that essentially cannibalize their more profitable insured pools. If this is ever going to change, smaller employers must come to understand that they are paying a very high price for transfer of risk and given the fact that costs continue to increase, there is justifiable concern about whether employers are getting value for their insured arrangements.

This frustrating cycle of pooled increases and a limited sense of control over one’s destiny is driving smaller employers – – some as low as 50 employees to give serious consideration to self insurance. With average composite costs per employee now eclipsing $11,10o, a 110 employee company is paying over $1mm a year for healthcare.  For firms operating on slender margins, a 10% compounded annual increase in pooled insurance costs will consume operating profits in just a few years.  Liberating oneself from the rigidly predictable cycle of double-digit pooled increases is only the first step toward regaining control over healthcare costs.

What Next?  – Self insurance is not a panacea for rising healthcare costs.  Simply by changing the mechanism to finance your risk will not allay underlying issues around chronic illness and problems endemic in a workforce.  However, it is the first step toward focusing on the real problem – – the cost of healthcare delivery. Once self funded, the insurer can be seen more as a partner in managing your loss costs and can more credibly position themself on the client’s side of the table. With the barriers to entry being so high in healthcare, the only player large enough to compete with insurers is the Federal government. Most recognize that a Federal government that presides over Medicare with its serial under reimbursement of doctors, excessive fraud, abuse and deficits is today hardly qualified to supplant commercial plans. The key is changing the nature of commercial insurer cost-plus, pooled pricing. When it comes to small group insurance, one could argue that the managed care industry is failing to manage care.

It is time to consider new risk bearing models that moderate profit taking and reduce cost shifting between customer segments and deliver total transparency around all administrative costs and claims experience. In addition to encouraging market based small employer self insurance solutions, we should:

1) Allow for creation of multiple employer welfare association risk pools that offer smaller employers insured and self insured purchasing leverage coupled with a defined, highly focused plan designs that drive health improvement, wellness, chronic illness screening and coaching. Instead of granting rebates, create reserve mechanisms to invest any dividends resulting from a better than target 85% loss ratio into a premium stabilization fund to offset future increases for pool participants. Require a two-year participation in the pool to prevent adverse selection.

2) Require transparency for all claim and non-claim related expenses. This includes claims administration, clinical programs, brokers commissions, taxes, fees and any other non-medical claim related costs. Insurers should be allowed to include in the claim expense calculation those programs proven to drive savings. Insurers should also disclose any costs charged to the claims loss ratio that originate from an entity owned by that insurer. As insurers migrate into health services, employers must understand if insurer costs are being included as an administrative cost and as a claim cost. Regulators must approve any administrative program included as a claims expense to make sure it is a competitively priced, proven cost mitigation program.

3) Mandate the release of claims experience for all employers down to 50 employees. Do not hide behind HIPAA as a means of preventing the release of claim data. This is a red herring.

4) Create a small group self-insured solution with a maximum liability limit of 105% of expected claims. Retention expenses might run higher than traditional self insurance but it would offer greater flexibility and a line of sight on claims cost. Consider state-run self insurance stop-loss pools offering smaller employers dividend eligible non-profit pooling.

We should not wait for Congress.  States and the private sector have the means to improve imperfect reform to achieve smaller employer affordability goals. If we cannot successfully rein in these expenses, smaller employers will accelerate dumping coverage and in doing so, shift the burden of healthcare subsidization to the Federal government, exchanges, the states that manage them, and ultimately taxpayers.

The private sector has the skill to drive many of the changes necessary to fix gaps in care, improve consumer engagement, realign incentives and drive affordable options.  The question remains whether employers have the will to take the lead in driving reform.  Should smaller employers choose to self insure, they will quickly shift from commodity buyers to value buyers and in doing so, join the ranks of those who fundamentally believe that the only real means of preserving quality and achieving affordability is market based reform.

Be Careful What You Wish For America – The Debate Over Minimum Essential Benefits

President Barack Obama's signature on the heal...
President Barack Obama's signature on the health insurance reform bill at the White House, March 23, 2010. The President signed the bill with 22 different pens. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Affordable Care Act is officially under construction.  The framework for the minimum mandatory levels of benefits offered through state exchanges is now being researched and will soon be ready for prime time debate.

The Institute of Medicine, a non-partisan research group, has been retained by Health and Human Services to conduct public and private planning sessions to help shape final recommendations on what standard levels of benefits should be required as a “floor” for all health plans.

The queue of industry and special interest groups increases daily as stakeholders wade in to offer personal perspectives on why certain levels of benefits should be considered as “essential”. The stories will be heart wrenching as individuals plead for broader coverage terms and looser definitions of medical necessity to cover a range of therapies treating orphaned or difficult conditions that do not neatly fit into today’s definitions of coverage.  The unfortunate fact also remains that the average consumer expects “essential coverage” to be synonymous with open access, comprehensive coverage, minimal out-of-pocket cost sharing and an affordable price tag.  In effect, everyone wants a Cadillac when the nation can barely afford a Corolla.

As the IOM solicits perspectives from a range of medical, academic, public and private stakeholders, it is gaining valuable insights into the opportunities and land mines associated with attempting to define a basic level of benefits that can guarantee affordable, sustainable and high quality healthcare.  Those states that have already walked the path of attempting to define mandatory benefits are perhaps the best leading indicators of the intended and unintended consequences of setting benefits levels too high or at more minimal levels.  States such as Maryland, Massachusetts and Utah have struggled and led efforts to set up universal and affordable benefits anchored by standard benefits and medical necessity protocols.  In determining what should be covered by commercial insurance and Medicaid, these and other states can offer valuable lessons to legislators seeking to establish the boundaries of the coverage requirements under ACA.

As the IOM and subsequently HHS consider the flood of opinions from stakeholders, a few unenviable considerations loom large:

Essential benefits will dramatically impact the future level of benefits many employers choose to offer.  Essential benefit levels will determine whether employers continue to offer healthcare and/or what benefits are no longer subsidized. Many believe that if HHS establishes a “national” level of essential benefits, it will become the floor as well as the “mean” to which many employers will gravitate their current medical coverage levels.

A national essential benefit design that establishes lean levels of benefits will prompt some states to consider mandating levels of benefits above and beyond those required in a national essential benefits design. A national design that is too rich could accelerate the budget crisis in states as more employers drop coverage sending employees into exchanges and expanded Medicaid pools increasing the financial burdens already crushing state coffers.

States will naturally argue for the flexibility to administer their own versions of essential benefits, largely because of fear over escalating obligations under Medicaid, legacy coverage and provider issues, the recognition that healthcare is local and that there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” plan.  Legacy budget deficits, the unique nature of each state’s demographics and healthcare delivery systems (single hospital towns vs. large healthcare systems, urban vs. rural care ) and the political mood of its constituents will figure heavily in determining the appetite of each state to advocate a richer or leaner level of mandated essential benefits

While fiscal hawks fear an essential benefit plan that is too comprehensive and therefore too expensive, there is the potential that more pragmatic designs could prevail leading to an essential benefits plan that is less expensive and better designed than many current plans in the market.  Plans anchored by primary care based gatekeepers, value based plan designs, effective cost sharing to promote personal responsibility and consumerism, and network tiering to ensure plans only reimburse at the highest level those providers that practice efficient, high quality care – are likely to run at significantly lower medical trends and in doing so, be able to support lower premiums over a longer period of time.

Change Behavior or Ration Access – Nationalized, single payer health plans offer rich preventive and catastrophic care but suffer the reputation of rationed access issues when delivering elective or non-emergency care. In a political environment where there is often no will to change the underlying behaviors of those utilizing the healthcare system, the only way to control the costs that arise out of unlimited demand and finite resources is to ration access and reimbursement.

CMS may soon be dealing with similar issues if delayed Medicare cuts are ratified by the 112th Congress. Medicare and Medicaid recipients may find themselves with rich benefits but fewer providers willing to accept reduced levels of reimbursement as payment for services. If the provider does accept coverage, the coverage will undoubtedly carry longer waiting times. Providers will either limit the number of recipients they treat or continue down the path of the “triage” encounter as they attempt to make up in volume what they are losing in unit cost.

It is important to note that access does not equal quality.  Yet, many Americans currently believe access is synonymous to quality. In a two tiered public/private system, access is as much a privilege as it is a right. The single payer country determines the pace of one’s access based on medical necessity. The ability to pay for the right to opt into private alternative delivery is the only way of bypassing a payer’s medical necessity and access protocols. While many argue that today’s current for profit system already functions in this capacity, the majority of medical necessity issues arise out of insured individual and small business coverage issues where there is no purchasing leverage and scarce clinical data to support broader coverage.  Individuals working at larger, self insured organizations generally do not have these issues as employers act as plan fiduciaries and have the ability to make the final decisions on medical necessity and reimbursement.

Larger Employers Still Offer The Best Coverage and Most Balanced Cost Sharing – In the last ten years, employee out-of-pocket health cost sharing has risen 149% while wages have only risen 37%. According to a recent Towers Watson survey, the composite cost of healthcare per worker was $ 10,212 in 2010. The average cost sharing contribution per employee was $2,292. The average American worker makes $ 40,000 a year.  The total composite cost of health care per worker as a percentage of salary is 25%.  Employees currently share approximately 22% of coverage cost but only 5.5% of the total cost of this coverage as a percentage of their own gross earnings.

These numbers do not tell a complete story.  Cost sharing is greater among individuals working for smaller organizations as most small employers tend to subsidize less coverage and have less flexibility to affordably purchase more generous plans.  In addition, the average median wage for individuals working for employers of fewer than 50 employees lags those working for larger employers.  The crisis of affordability has been most acute among those who can least afford it.

At the same time as small employers are dropping coverage or fatiguing under its costs, as many as 75% of employees in a recent PWC survey, said that they would prefer to be paid salary in lieu of benefits – opting to purchase healthcare as individuals through newly established exchanges.  It is interesting to note in this PWC study that many of these same employees grossly overestimated what they believed their coverage was worth in additional salary. The question remains for many employers and for those watching healthcare reform develop – can affordable and sustainable essential benefits be established that can incent smaller employers to maintain and even potentially, rejoin those offering coverage?

As many as 70% of Americans earn less than 400% of the Federal Poverty level – the current cut off for ACA offering pro rata subsidies to purchase healthcare through exchanges. If essential benefits begin to eclipse those benefits currently offered by employers and subsidies net a savings to consumers, we may witness a larger migration of employees and their employers out of employer sponsored plans. It then falls to the Congressional Budget Office to recalculate whether the larger base of exchange participants and subsidy recipients has turned a modeled $ 140B reduction in public spending into a massive drag on the national deficit.

A more basic level of affordable essential benefits could induce employers back into the market as well as usher in a return to defined contribution style cafeteria plans – An essential benefits plan anchored by 100% coverage for primary care, shared responsibility through a health savings account, tiered networks, centers of excellence for chronic care, primary care delivered through medical homes and/or gatekeepers and compliance incentives could achieve cost savings while offering coverage  greater than bare-boned mini-med coverage.

A lower level of mandated essential benefits could also prompt employers to reduce richer coverage to a new, more affordable common denominator.   In aligning their benefit plans to a national norm, employers could adopt a defined contribution benefits approach – choosing to fund up to the level of benefits required by law and then grossing up individuals’ salaries one time to afford them the opportunity to spend dollars as they see fit e.g. greater take home pay, purchasing of voluntary benefits, upgrading to more generous medical designs etc.

Better Coverage Does Not Translate To Better Health – Coverage and consumer advocates will be pushing for expansion of coverage definitions to include diseases and medical conditions that have historically been excluded from private insurance.  The definition of medical necessity will be debated as advocates argue that comprehensive coverage will translate into improved public health. One has only to look at financially distressed municipal and collectively bargained plans that offer rich, first dollar coverage combined with broad open access networks to see that better coverage does not translate to better health.

To define and mandate essential coverage is to walk a mine field of ethical, moral and social issues. Some therapies may not necessarily improve the status of one’s health condition but may prevent it from becoming worse.  The unenviable task of establishing a process for determining medical necessity is the first step toward the difficult process adopted by other countries who have wrestled with the cost/benefit of determining what gets covered and what does not.

The UK’s National Institute of Clinical Excellence which determines medical necessity and establishes the basis for reimbursement of certain therapies is often maligned for the difficult choices it makes regarding palliative care and determinations surrounding when and how it may pay for experimental therapies. This is the unenviable role of any payer. Whether it is government making the call or a for profit insurer, any thing that falls to the unreimbursed side of the ledger will be viewed as a diminishing coverage and ultimately public health.

Now is a time for austerity – The dangers of creating unsustainably rich benefits plans are real. Not unlike Medicare, a rich essential benefit plan that drives higher medical trends will contribute to rather than reduce the public debt. If employers choose to drop coverage and more consumers receive federally subsidized coverage, the market will reach a tipping point where federal expenditures for healthcare outstrip the government’s ability to pay.

Aside from raising taxes and increasing assessments for failure to cover employees, the government will want to pressure the provider side of the market to reduce the costs of its services.  If the private insurer market can not reign in the costs of a rich essential benefit design (and they will not), there is a strong possibility that there will be a renewed call for a public option.  Once enough individuals join a cheaper, taxpayer subsidized public option, the public option payer will begin to ration reimbursement to providers as CMS has done with Medicare.  While single payer advocates argue that doctors and hospitals would have no choice but to accept reduced single payer reimbursement, most industry professionals argue that price controls as a means of controlling costs will lead to diminished quality and reduced investment in innovation. This is happening today under Medicare and Medicaid.

The table is being set for another food fight around health reform.  As healthcare impacts every American, we can expect 300 mm opinions on what “essential benefits” should cover.  It is a critical argument at a historic time for our country.  Without introducing fiscal restraint and evidence based medicine into this debate over essential benefits, we may end up with a rich and totally unsustainable level of healthcare.  As a nation we are already suffering from the palpitations of fiscal heart disease and the obesity of public debt. Offering too generous essential benefits could very well induce a budget coronary from which it will be hard to recover.

Be careful what you wish for, America. You may get it.

Michael Turpin is Executive Vice President and National Practice Leader of Healthcare and Employee Benefits for USI Insurance Services. USI provides a range of business and risk brokerage, consulting and administration services to mid-sized and emerging growth companies across the US. USI is privately held and is a portflio company of Goldman Sachs Capital Partners.  Turpin can be reached at Michael.Turpin@usi.biz