The Stages of Death and Dying, Employers and Health Reform

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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

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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.

The War Between The States

US House of Representatives Voting Map for HR3962
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Christmas is the time when kids tell Santa what they want and adults pay for it.  Deficits are when adults tell government what they want and their kids pay for it.  ~Richard Lamm

The day after a mid-term tidal wave of anti-incumbency sentiment swept through Congress resulting in the GOP reclaiming a controlling majority in the House and closer parity in the Senate, a seemingly contrite President Obama took personal responsibility for his party’s dismal showing at the polls. In a carefully worded conciliatory message, the President shared that, “the American people have made it very clear that they want Congress to work together and focus their entire energies on fixing the economy.”

Newly minted House Majority leader, John Boehner, subsequently reconfirmed that the GOP would not rest until Congress had reined in government spending.  This would be partly achieved by deconstructing the highly unpopular and “flawed” Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – a “misguided” piece of legislation that would actually increase costs for employers thereby reducing the nation’s ability to jump-start an economy that relies on job creation and consumer spending. In Boehner’s mind, government is not unlike the average American, overweight – it’s budget deficits bloated by the cost of financial bailouts, Keynesian stimulus spending and failure to discuss the growing burden of fee for service Medicare.

The President’s failure to acknowledge healthcare reform in his speech was interpreted by many as deliberate and only served to cement the perception that in Washington, it will impossible to have constructive dialogue around the imperfections and potential unintended consequences of PPACA. The White House’s resolve to defend its hard-fought healthcare legislation is likely to extend the polarizing partisanship that has come to characterize Congress. The impasse may very well spark a two-year period of bruising, bellicose finger-pointing over how to fix rising healthcare costs.

The absence of a veto proof majority leaves the GOP in a position of holding high-profile hearings and tendering symbolic legislation designed to expose PPACA’s limitations and its failure to address the core problem – medical inflation and its principal drivers.  The Obama administration and a Democratic Caucus will work to redirect legislative attention to the economy while working to protect the core elements of their health legislation – expanded and subsidized access for some 30M Americans, tighter regulation of insurance coverage and underwriting and an ambitious expansion of the role of Health & Human Services as a national oversight agency.  It seems that “reforming” reform may end up unlikely inside the Beltway setting the stage for regulatory skirmishes across state legislatures. We may very well look back on this period leading up to the 2012 Presidential elections as “The War Between The States”.

Healthcare civil war will result in intense competition for dollars.  Internecine fighting will flare across all lines – – between primary care physicians and specialists, community and teaching hospitals, brokers and insurers, employees and employers, as well as state and Federal regulators. Every stakeholder believes they are part of the solution, adding integral value to healthcare delivery.  Meanwhile consumers cling to the notion that the best healthcare is rich benefits delivered through open access networks where no administrative obstacle gets in between the consumer and the care they believe they need. The question becomes who is fit to referee and regulate this highly radioactive food fight.

PPACA MLR Regs May Reduce Competition – Recently promulgated Minimum Loss Ratio (MLR) legislation will spark a fundamental shift for insurers as they are forced to underwrite locally and account for profits exclusively by license and by state.  In higher loss ratio markets, insurers will need to price to their true cost of risk creating the potential for market volatility. In the past, regional and national insurers routinely redirected profits from lower loss ratio markets to subsidize higher MLR markets. This was particularly true when carriers were entering expansion markets in an attempt to create more competition.  New markets generally meant poorer medical economics for insurers who did not have enough membership to negotiate favorable terms with providers. This led to premiums priced to higher loss ratios and lower profit in an effort to gain market share and increase competition.

With final MLR regulations imminent, competition in certain markets may diminish as smaller market share insurers no longer have the patience or economic staying power to build membership.  If the threat of high loss ratios persisting in markets where rate increases cannot be approved, an insurer may attempt to withdraw from less profitable lines of business or a particular geographic market prompting a rebuke from a local insurance commissioner or HHS.  Insurers will now be constantly weighing the cost/benefit of a public fight that may taint their ability to do business in an entire state.

A New Type of Non Profit Insurer ? – In the Midwest, a different battle is brewing as Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC), the powerful Illinois based non-profit Blue, is drawing criticism from consumer groups over its $6B war chest funded by accumulated reserves – reserves that some claim are well above the necessary statutory limits and should be used to reduce premium increases.  Within historical market cycles, non-profit insurers and their reserves have played an important role in moderating medical costs as a non-profit can spend down excess reserves and in doing so, initiate a competitive pricing cycle that squeezes for profit competitors in select markets. Wall Street analysts closely follow insurer pricing cycles often portending lower managed care industry profits when non-profit insurer reserves reach too high a multiple of required reserves.

As hospitals and doctor groups consolidate and the supply side of healthcare repositions in the face of inevitable changes to reimbursement, non profits are recognizing that size and bargaining power matters. In a departure from normal excess reserve driven pricing, HCSC is building reserves, perhaps out of conservatism over an uncertain future or because they are looking for an opportunity to acquire another non-profit.

Should HCSC use excess reserves – essentially profits accumulated in four states – to potentially acquire a non-profit in another state, some regulators and consumer groups may argue that these reserves should be rebated to policyholders.  When a non-profit chooses more conservative reserving,  they give for profit competitors a potential pass from the pressure of having to moderate premiums.  Non-profits play a vital role but are not without their perceived warts. While clear exceptions exist in many markets, criticism of non-profit insurers is often leveled at their utility-like behavior – – limited innovation, bureaucratic insensitivity to customer service and waste.   As these non-profits become tougher and more formidable, they will begin to emulate certain for profit behaviors intensifying the debate in state legislatures over the nature of for profit and not-for-profit insurance.

Some states may condone non profit excess reserving practices – especially if there is a plan for non-profit to for-profit conversion. In these cases, a trust is established to convert the non-profit’s reserves to state control, presumably to be used to impact areas regarding public health.  Given that 80% of every state’s budget is dedicated to either “education, incarceration or medication”, a non-profit conversion can be a boon for a cash strapped state.   Losing a non-profit local insurer to for profit status is hard to explain to consumer advocates pushing for more competition among insurers but easier to ensure reelection by using one time windfalls to finance staggering state budgets.

Medicare Cost Shifting – As reform imposes restrictions on insurer loss ratios, it is also poised to shift more costs to the private sector through Medicare fee cuts – cuts that are expected to generate $ 350B of the estimated $940B of revenues required to cover the $800B price tag of PPACA. Congress, nervous over mounting evidence that added underfunding of Medicare reimbursement would only reduce access to medical services for seniors, has chosen to further delay these cuts in legislation.  The stop-gap delay on cuts known as “Doc-Fix” will challenge the upcoming lame duck session of Congress.  The moratorium on cuts expires in November, 2010, leaving the newly comprised Congress to wrestle with the highly unpopular consequences of further cutting Medicare.  Given that fee for service Medicare costs continue to spiral out of control, each month that Congress fails to pass these fee cuts reduces revenues earmarked to offset the costs of reform – – potentially turning PPACA from a bill that sought to reduce the public debt by $ 140B to a bill that would further increase our national debt by as much as $ 300B.

Regulatory Debates Over Premiums for Indivduals and Small Business– Healthcare civil war will further inflame as public spending in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements are reduced – causing providers to cease accepting patients, ration access and/or cost shift more to commercial insurance. Medicaid already reimburses providers less than 70% of retail costs of care followed by 80-85% by Medicare. Commercial insurance picks up this cost shift currently paying $1.25 for similar services with the most disturbing costs of $2.50 being charged to any uninsured patient uncovered by public or private care. With the new public spending cuts, commercial and uninsured care costs are likely to rise higher. Some insurers estimate unit costs likely to increase to as much as $1.40.

As rising unit costs result in higher medical loss ratios, insurers will raise rates – prompting more state conflicts with regulators seeking to manage the optics of rising insurance premiums for individual and small business. New MLR regulations will require extraordinary underwriting precision as conservative pricing will result in lost market share or the potential for large premium rebates while under-pricing premium will result in the need to raise rates higher and in doing so, risk high-profile battles with regulators as they weigh the political optics of allowing proposed increases. In at least half of US healthcare markets, states have prior approval rate authority allowing them to effectively prevent insurers from collecting premiums required to cover loss ratios in excess of the newly mandated 80 or 85% loss ratio limit. History has taught us that price controls are effective political but ineffective economic levers to address underlying cost inflation.

The first shots of the rate adequacy debate have already been fired in California, Colorado, Maine and Massachusetts — all markets who represent a perfect storm of rising medical costs, budget deficits and a firebrand belief that insurers should be highly regulated, non profit utilities. The result has been a rising war of words over the right balance between rate regulation and historical profit margins of insurers.

The seeds of civil war were buidling for a decade prior to the passage of reform. Some industry observers attribute the ill-timed efforts of Wellpoint California to collect a requested 39% increase on its individual lines of business as the spark that rekindled Federal reform.  While the loss ratios in their Individual Medical line of business had clearly deteriorated as a result of declining economy and a loss of healthier membership, Anthem/Wellpoint failed to think across its entire book of business – an insured multi-line block where small group, Medicare Advantage and other lines of business were all generating profits.  The failure to correctly understand the enterprise risk of raising rates – despite their actuarial justification, cost Wellpoint/Anthem and the insurance industry dearly as calls for reform rekindled across the US.  Wellpoint has subsequently resubmitted lower requested rates, accepted higher loss ratios in its individual line of business and taken a hit to earnings.

A Social Contract with States – The for profit insurer conundrum is clear. Providing health insurance carries with it an implied covenant within every market in which an insurer does business.  This social contract suggests that insurers and other for profit stakeholders must be actively demonstrating community stewardship, andthat they are improving the health system, not merely benefiting by its dysfunction. Responsible stewardship is also in the eyes of the beholder – – in this case, regulators, politicians, pundits, consumers, and a range of stakeholders. In the upcoming battles that will wage within each state, it will become increasingly relevant in the court of public opinion that how one makes money in healthcare is as relevant to policymakers as to how much one makes.

A low pressure system is already building over New York, California, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and other blue states as they begin to re-assert their regulatory authority to support federal oversight of healthcare.  Red and blue politics now matters as states will be either guided by an ethos of  “healthcare is a public/private partnership anchored by employer based healthcare and consumer market forces that drive quality and efficiency” or a mindset that “healthcare is in need of radical reform – reform that begins with PPACA and most likely ends with a single payer system acting as the catalyst to drive the least politically palatable phase of healthcare — rationing of resources.”

A Ray of Sunshine ? – There may prove to be a silver lining if certain states become incubators for successful alternative models of delivery. States quick to embrace medical home models that  expand the role of primary care providers may make faster strides to control readmission rates, formulary compliance and emergency room overtreatment.  Additional local regulatory reforms could include all payer reimbursement reform which levels in-patient reimbursement among all payers. There is a need for expanded malpractice reform and a tolerance of compliance based designs that hold those seeking access to subsidized care accountable for greater personal health engagement.

The battles will wage up to the 2012 Presidential elections – – a vote that could very well determine the future of healthcare in America. A Democratic administration is likely to cement basic reforms into place and further placing near term faith in expanded access highly regulated insurance exchanges, rate regulation and the potential trigger of a public option if private plans are unsuccessful in taming medical inflation.  A 2012 GOP win would likely mean revocation of individual mandates, a scaling back of the role of exchanges, greater incentives to preserve employer sponsored healthcare and a focused but modest expansion of Medicaid to cover those most in need of a core level of coverage. The GOP and Democrats alike face a common challenge of tackling soaring fee for service Medicare costs and the eventual need to reshape a healthcare delivery system that is rewarded for treating chronic illness not preventing it.

Most states will be agnostic to the presidential elections, choosing to continue to pass regulations if they feel reforms are falling short of dealing with local access and affordability issues. Only larger employers in self insured health arrangements will avoid the crazy quilt of shifting multi-state regulations.

Robert E Lee once remarked, “it is good that war is so horrible, ‘lest men grow to love it.”  As with war, the politics of reform is a zero sum game.  Achieving savings means someone in the healthcare delivery system makes less money.  The war over healthcare reform will not be popular nor easily understood. Every American will be impacted. Fear and misinformation will rain over the battle field like propaganda. Yet, if we could agree on a guiding vision – improvement of public health, personal responsibility, elimination of fraud and abuse, torte reform, the digitalization of the US healthcare delivery system, the preservation of our best and brightest providers and a system built on incentives to reward quality based on episodes of care, perhaps we may achieve a public/private détente where we focus less on vilifying and more on healing a system, it’s consumers and our unsustainable appetites.

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

The Day After Tomorrow – Human Resources and Surviving Health Reform

Medicare and Medicaid as % GDP
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As the first snowflakes of change fall on the eve of health reform, HR professionals may soon wake up to an entirely transformed healthcare delivery landscape.  The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) clearly will impact every stakeholder that currently delivers or supplies healthcare in the United States.

While the structural, financial, behavioral and market-based consequences of this sweeping storm of legislation will occur unevenly and are not fully predictable, this first round of healthcare legislation is designed to aggressively regulate and rein in insurance market practices that have been depicted as a major factor in our “crisis of affordability” and to expand coverage to an estimated 30 million uninsured.  However, fewer than 30 percent of employers polled in a recent National Business Group on Health survey believe reform will reduce administrative or claims costs.

Yet, it is unlikely that reform will be repealed.  For all its imperfections, PPACA is the first in a series of storm systems that will move across the vast steppe of healthcare  over the next decade resulting in a radically different system.  Whether reform concludes with a single payer system or emerges as a more efficient public-private partnership characterized by clinical quality and accountability remains obscured by the low clouds and shifting winds of political will.  One thing is certain during these first phases – inaction and lack of planning will cost employers dearly.

As the U.S. government struggles to rein in an estimated $38 trillion in unfunded Medicare obligations, the private sector and commercial insurance will feel the weight of the government’s efforts to reduce costs and impact our $12T of public debt.  HR professionals will have to act thoughtfully to insulate their plans from the inflationary effects of regulatory mandates and cost-shifting.

So while many HR professionals are getting hit from all angles – finding it difficult to  continue to transfer rising costs to employees, unwilling to absorb double-digit trends, under-staffed to intervene in the health of their populations and uninspired to assume the role of market catalyst to eliminate the perverse incentives that reward treatment of chronic illness rather than its prevention – they must forge ahead to address the intended and unintended impacts on the estimated 180 million Americans covered under their employer-sponsored healthcare plans.

To prevail over the elements, one must have a map and a flexible plan.  It also helps to have a qualified guide.  Consider the following as you brace for the “new normal.”

  • Think Twice When Someone Suggests Dumping Health Coverage – Many smaller and razor-thin margin employers will be tempted to drop medical coverage and pay the $2,000 per full-time employee penalty – essentially releasing employees to buy guarantee-issue coverage through health exchanges, which will be available in 2014.  Aside from impacting employers’ ability to attract and retain employees (consider how many of your employees will fall into the class of individuals eligible for federal subsidies), the assumption that the $2,000 will remain the baseline assessment per employee for those choosing to not offer coverage is a dangerous variable.  While it is clear that PPACA as it is currently constructed creates obvious incentives for employers to drop coverage and allow those eligible for federal subsidies to purchase through exchanges, it is unclear how the government can continue to subsidize proportionate contributions on behalf of those buying through exchanges when costs start to inevitably rise.  The General Accounting Office ( GAO) has already forecasted an increase of almost $500B in cost due to rising costs of subsidies as medical costs trend upwards. The forecasted CBO savings of $140B versus the GAO’s estimates of a $500B increase in costs have yet to be reconciled. Whether the $2,000 penalty was intentionally set low to entice employers to drop sponsored coverage and move America one step closer to a national system, or whether someone from the CBO missed a decimal, we expect the employer penalty for dropping coverage to increase as costs rise.  Employers should be certain to model their own costs to subsidize minimum levels of coverage today against an uncertain future of variable taxes that will only increase to fund coverage subsidies.
  • Pay attention to Section 105(h) now. – Many employers may be unaware that self-funded plans that discriminate in favor of highly compensated employees must comply with Code Section 105(h) non-discrimination rules.  As of the first plan year following September 23, 2010, these rules now will apply to non-grandfathered, fully insured plans.  Insurers may choose to exercise their right to either load rates for potential adverse selection or decline to quote because employers have failed to meet minimum participation percentages.  Section 105(h) testing is critical for industries, such retail, hospitality and energy that historically have excluded various classes of rank-and-file employees or provided better contributions and/or benefits to their top-paid groups. Penalties for not complying with the new regulations are $100 per day per employee.
  • Understand the sources of cost shifting pressure – As Congress and state governments wrestle with Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements and begin to focus on fraud, over-treatment and accountability for clinical outcomes, providers will feel the increasing pinch of reimbursement reform and will pivot in the direction of trying to shift costs to commercial insurance.  Physician hospital organizations (PHOs) and other integrated healthcare delivery systems – where health systems operate primary care, specialty and inpatient care – are accelerating – giving more clout to providers in contract negotiations and increasing commercial insurance unit costs, potentially exacerbating already conservative insurer claim trend assumptions.  HR professionals will need to better track employee utilization patterns for in-patient facilities especially in  high-use urban and rural commercial hospitals that also derive a large percentage of their revenues from Medicare. If a hospital derives 60% of its revenues from government reimbursement and 40% from commercial insurance, proposed fee cuts will impact facility revenues and create pressure to cost shift to private insurance.  An understanding of hospital utilization and consideration of tiered networks can help insulate your plans and drive lower costs.
  • Don’t be intimidated by self-insurance – Many employers underestimate the advantages of self-insurance and overestimate its complexity and risk.  But, in a post reform world, firms with more than 200 employees should give serious consideration to partial or total self-funding.  Aside from the total transparency of commissions, fees, administrative expenses and pooling charges, employers own their own data. The sooner employers get comfortable with self-insurance as a risk financing strategy, the sooner HR professionals can construct loss control programs that can mitigate claims costs. By self-funding, employers may better manage their population’s health risk; may avoid a myriad of state-based mandates legislated to fund potential shortfalls should local exchanges prove inadequate to contain costs; and may increase flexibility with respect to plan design. Be certain to understand the economics of your self insured arrangement.  A cheap third party administrator with weaker provider discounts and limited medical management capabilities ultimately costs you much more than services provided by a national insurer with better discounts.  In other cases, insurers may have more than one PPO network and assign the less aggressive discounts to their self funded TPA based clients.  Make sure you press for the best possible discounts.
  • Forget Wellness – Think Risk Management. – Wellness has become a broad-brush term to describe any sponsored effort at health improvement. Forget wellness. Population risk management (PRM) is the operative term to describe a process of understanding embedded health risks and structuring plan designs to remove barriers to care and keep people healthy. PRM requires access to clinical data, cultural engagement and designs that have consequences for employees who do not engage. If employers do not understand the risk within their workforces, it is impossible to improve results or be confident that plan changes will drive a desired result.  For example, more than 50 percent of claims arise out of modifiable risk factors and as few as five percent of employees drive 50 percent of claims.  The great news is PPACA actually increases employers’ ability to charge up to 30 percent more in premium for individuals who do not actively get and stay healthy.  Also, employers that establish comprehensive workplace wellness programs and (1) employ less than 100 employees who work 25 hours or more per week and (2) do not provide a workplace wellness program as of March 23, 2010 can take advantage of available government grants.
  • You are the “market forces” everyone keeps talking about and you need to use this power to influence on-going reform. – Employers purchase healthcare for more than 180 million Americans – about 60% percent of all individuals who have healthcare coverage, but ironically feel less empowered, informed or in control of their spending or their employees’ behavior as they access the system.  HR professionals must become activists for public health improvement and change – promoting healthy behaviors, transparency and accountability while putting an end to public-to-private cost shifting, overtreatment, fraud, abuse and clinical variability. Congress will only listen to employers because the other stakeholders have a perceived conflict of interest in how health reform is ultimately resolved.  Employers must build up the courage and resolve to begin to reshape the local, regional and national delivery models that result in overtreatment and lack of accountability for poor outcomes.

As we look out the window, the full force of reform is still swirling somewhere off in the distance.  As business hunkers down and adopts PPACA legislation, the question for many in HR is simply – will reform happen for me or to me?

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

Getting Over The New Normal

Barack Obama signing the Patient Protection an...
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Getting Over The New Normal

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin

In her 1969 Book, On Death and Dying, Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross describes the five stages of grief.  Over a 27 year career marked by mergers, acquisitions, and perpetual change, I have come to accept these five stages as necessary rites of passage that humans must endure as they navigate the inevitable shoals of change. It seems we all must endure denial, anger, bargaining and depression before we finally break through to acceptance.

While we all intellectually agree that our healthcare system is broken and is in profound need of change, most preferred that all the heavy lifting required to reduce healthcare costs as a percentage of US GDP, occurred on someone else’s watch.  As Woody Allen once quipped, “ I don’t mind dying.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

We know that chronic illness, escalating costs, opaque and uneven reimbursement practices, and a $ 38 Trillion unfunded Medicare obligation would eventually bring the nation to its knees.  However, it suddenly felt like the confederacy of agents, brokers, and consultants were passengers on a bus with no breaks that was careening toward a cliff of profound change.  And then it actually happened: health reform.  Prognosis: Uncertain.

Denial – Most brokers and agents objectively looked at reform as a flawed proposition as it failed to address fundamental cost drivers that were clearly contributing to unsustainable healthcare costs.  Brokers were witnessing 20%+ increases for small business, a limited marketplace of insurers, huge barriers to entry for competing health plans and a supply side of providers that were up in arms over serial under reimbursement from the government and a Darwinian reimbursement environment where only the strong could survive.  Our employer clients were angry with increases, predisposed to market their insurance each year to a limited field of insurers, consumed with avoiding disruption and content to cost shift to employees through higher deductibles and co-pays.  It seemed no one was willing to touch the third rail of healthcare – affordability.

High performance networks, promotion of primary care, an emphasis on personal accountability for health improvement and value based plan designs seemed too complex, cumbersome and indecipherable for many small, mid-sized and larger employers who felt they little capital left with employees to impose additional changes.  This reticence to be early adopters of critical cost management programs and the nature of fully insured pooling by carriers for smaller employers, conditioned employers to consider health insurance a commodity. Most brokers happily moved at the speed of their reluctant clients and remained in step with their insurance partners.  Instead of focusing on risk identification, and mitigation, the industry focused on risk transfer, a generation of brokers and agents built wealth but did not seem willing to risk provoking clients out of their own death spiral.  An entire industry was in denial.

Anger – As the Obama administration shifted its strategy from health reform to insurance reform, denial turned to anger as the industry found itself in the vortex of a poison populism. As insurers were pilloried for for-profit practices, and other third party players were painted as parasites draining the system of its sustainability, brokers felt their blood pressure rise.

The seeming hypocrisy of underfunded Medicare obligations, deficit financing by states facing billions in debt, a generation of consumers on the slippery slope toward chronic illness, employers overwhelmed and averse to change and an opaque and increasingly inflexible oligopoly of insurers – – led brokers to feel victimized and marginalized in the debate.

On the other side of the aisle, legitimate questions arose around broker value as critics witnessed commissions that rose with medical premiums and a lack of transparency on base and contingent compensation.  There was difficulty in determining value for services that did not seem to bend the medical trend curve, and seeming relationships of mutual convenience between insurers and brokers that created potential for conflict of interest.

When reform recently passed, brokers gazed across a horizon line of regulations and did not like what they saw.  Brokers recognized legislation as the first step in addressing fundamental flaws in the system but understood clearly that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was uniquely focused on access and insurance market reforms.  It would not materially change the trend line impacting private employers – – in fact, it could very well make it worse in the near term.  Insurers driven by demands as public companies and possessing fewer levers to pull to impact rising medical loss ratios had become less flexible and defensive.

Brokers also recognized incentives in the new legislation that could accelerate the erosion of employer sponsored healthcare as costs would inevitably rise from increased adverse selection, government cost shifting, a new vouchers system allowing individual opt outs and less onerous penalties that could create tempting incentives for employers to drop coverage.

Questions are now being asked: Will the minimum loss ratio calculation pressure carrier’s retentions to where they will begin to unilaterally cut commissions?  Will insurance companies attempt to disintermediate us? Am I prepared to defend my remuneration in the brave new world of transparency? If I convert my larger clients to fee based remuneration will my margins be severely impacted?

Will my lack of size or premium with insurers make me less relevant and more susceptible to unilateral actions? Do I possess the resources necessary to compete in a world where impacting claims costs will be more relevant than entertaining, shopping insurance and adjusting plan design options? Will state connectors attempt to supplant my role as an advisor?

As costs increase in the near term from mandated plan design changes, underwriting restrictions, Medicare cuts and minimum loss ratios, will companion legislation not be far behind that establishes a state or federal rate authority to artificially control prices? Judging from the insanity in Massachusetts – a market exclusively managed by non-profit insurers, universal coverage has led to an affordability crisis and the most expensive healthcare in the US.  Are we headed over this same cliff?  Will a public option reemerge if we cannot reduce barriers to entry for new players to offer employers more choice? Am I going to end up living in a card board box ?

Bargaining and Depression– Career professionals are already beginning to rationalize.  “ We have until 2014 and many of the impacts will not be felt until 2018 and beyond. “  Others whistle in the dark, “ I just need to make it until my kids graduate college.”  This period of bargaining is a mental feint to prolong change as long as one can to avoid the pain of conforming to a new normal.

Some brokers may just sit down in the middle of the road resigned to a belief that if the insurers do not get them in the form of reduced compensation that employer sponsored healthcare will slowly erode and an increasingly crowded and qualified mid-sized and larger employer brokerage and consulting market will leave them little if any role to play.

Some are taking these changes very personally.  These brokers are becoming lightening rods in their local markets and catalysts elevating the discussion and debate about what next needs to happen to achieve access AND affordability.

They have accepted the axiom that any unsustainable trend eventually ends and that it has now happened on their watch.  Attention is focusing on how they can become focal points for local, regional and national change, They recognize they are not bystanders and third wheels but they are key influencers and the nexus between the supply and delivery sides of the business.  They recognize that they must write the next chapter of health reform and not merely be waiting to read each subsequent installment. Their grief has been brief, their anger channeled, their bargaining and depression endured and their entire focus now is on shaping the next stages of change.

Acceptance – Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “each person has a choice to either light a candle or curse the dark.”  The best and brightest in the brokerage community understand that to broker is to consult and to consult effectively, one must enjoy a trusted relationship with a client.  Any practice that erodes that trusted role should be avoided – especially if it is a legacy practice of an industry did not do a good job in changing our opaque and disconnected third party payer system.

Transparency creates enormous opportunity to delineate value.  If value is defined as “outcomes divided by cost”, the successful post reform broker will delineate their services, the outcomes they hope to achieve and the costs of the services they will provide.  Historically, many commission-based clients did not always know broker remuneration, did not employ service contracts and judged a good outcome as the absence of service disruption.  The world has changed.

Consolidation will create odd bedfellows and strange alliances.  However, in the brave new world, advisors must drive value across an entire employer organization.  While insurers will be struggling to dispel the notion that they are not worthy of margins beyond those of a utility, brokers will need to convey value and if they cannot achieve the critical mass and resources required to compete, they will lose business.

The pressure to create competition and choice may help lower barriers to entry in markets and create new competitors to traditional carriers.  More choice for employers requires more advisors to assist them in navigating through the minefields of competing carrier practices.  As companion legislation continues to evolve, the need to serve clients as a legal and compliance interpreter will be essential.  Merely copying new laws and emailing complex regulatory language to customers will weed out lower performers.  Clients want to know: How and when does this effect me?  What should I be thinking about?

Clients will require help in attacking the last frontier of healthcare – employee health and well-being.  The desert of good intentions is littered with the skeletons of ineffective wellness plans that merely nudged individuals toward healthy lifestyles.  True risk mitigation will require leveraging every aspect of the law to intervene to improve public health.  The best and brightest will recognize that a healthy worker is less likely to file a workers compensation claim.  A healthy worker will miss fewer days reducing absenteeism and costs associated with replacement workers. Population Health management will become as standard as loss control for property and workers compensation programs.  It is motivating to think that by structuring a preventive care plan properly, we can detect asymptomatic illness and significantly reduce the rate of lifestyle based chronic illness.

A Brand New Day: Health reform is not terminal.  However, it will require everyone to change.  We are entering a strange, new universe forged out of intended and unintended consequences.  However reform is also a relief because it is the beginning of a process (however unsavory) to arrest an unsustainable trend.  As citizens, free market capitalists and parents, we do not want to leave our children holding the bag with record deficits and massive public debt.  We always knew the process of taming entitlements and changing a dysfunctional third party payer system would be messy.  As most in Congress lack the political will to take on affordability, it will fall to us.

Regardless of the twists and turns in these first few chapters of what will most certainly be a Dickensonian saga, there will always be a role for smart, motivated, transparent and intellectually curious brokers and consultants.  The sooner each of us concludes our stages of grieving and gets on with accepting the new normal, the better chance we have to lock arms and demonstrate that we can be highly influential in a creating a better and more efficient healthcare system for tomorrow.

Stalking the Public Option

Health care systems and single payer
Health care systems and single payer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The law of unintended consequences is what happens when a simple system tries to regulate a complex system. The political system is simple, it operates with limited information (rational ignorance), short time horizons, low feedback, and poor and misaligned incentives. Society in contrast is a complex, evolving, high-feedback, incentive-driven system. When a simple system tries to regulate a complex system you often get unintended consequences. Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, Freakonomics

I hear it restlessly moving off in the distance, the way spring struggles and finally gains momentum through the mud season.  It hesitates, sending subtle harbingers of change in the form of a warm wind or the scent of new growth.  The public option is stirring like a new shoot poking out of the decay of an old stump. With it, a next stage of reform is already forming even as Managed Care 2.0 struggles to gasp its first few breaths.

It is strange to be speaking of the next stage of reform years before the majority of Managed Care 2.0 regulations are due to take effect.  However, in the land of unintended consequences, no one can predict with certainty how healthcare is likely to evolve.  We do know that no one from the political middle, left or right is convinced that this first iteration of health reform will result into a system characterized by affordable, high quality care.  Managed Care 2.0 is merely a brief stage in the metamorphosis of the last private healthcare system in the industrialized world.

Some believe that the US’ best chance to salvage its mounting public debt, socioeconomic polarity and physical vitality is to eventually yield to a single payer system that can ensure coverage all of our citizens.  In that brave new world, those capable of opting out into private care, could do so on their own dime and on an after tax basis. Critics of single payer argue that an entitlement of this magnitude only stands to propel the nation toward record deficits, hyperinflation and economic ruin. The very thing that has made the US great, conservatives argue,  is its ability to avoid safety net entitlements that eventually become hammocks. One thing is for certain: Reform in its current form will do little to alter the supply side of the business.

Change is a scary proposition for 180M Americans who believe the devil they know (employer based private coverage) is preferred to a government run system. Seniors are doing the math and wondering if Medicare will default on their watch. More than 50% of these same seniors, when polled, shared they do not want a government run healthcare system – even though Medicare is a government run system.  People are confused, angry and wary.  To attack the real crisis of affordability at this time is an even scarier proposition for politicians who want to be reelected. Yet, The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is now law and despite its obvious flaws and potential for unintended consequences, it is unlikely to be repealed or deconstructed.  For better or worse, it is the foundation for Managed Care 2.0.

The building blocks of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are insurance market and access reforms — legislation that has little to do with moderating rising medical costs.  It’s not that those that conceived the legislation did not understand or consider more draconian steps toward achieving affordability.  However, no on wants to break that news to the American people. It would be too scary a bedtime story for adolescent, recession sick America to hear about a future where tough decisions will need to be made about who gets how much care.  The story would not have clear heroes and villains but be cast in an ambiguous gray world of ethical and moral dilemmas — do we reduce reimbursement to our revered doctors and hospitals? How can we assure that our best and brightest continue to practice medicine?  Do we cut Medicare? Will venture capital, public and private equity flee out of healthcare profoundly effecting research and development?  How do we tackle the march towards chronic illness of Americans who are obese and unable to take personal responsibility for their health? Should we ask all Americans for a durable power of attorney so we have the ability to make the hard choices about end of life care?

Is Massachusetts a Mature Version of Managed Care 2.0 ?

The next chapter of the managed care story is being read aloud in Massachusetts. Already having achieved universal coverage through reform, the Bay State is seeing costs in its merged individual and small group pool continue to surge. In an election year game of cat and mouse, Governor Deval Patrick is restricting non profit insurers to live with rate increases well below those required to cover the costs of ever increasing medical utilization.  When Massachusetts passed reform, it covered all individuals but simply did not confront the underlying factors contributing to rising costs.  Before you shout, “Those damn insurers,” remember that 95% of Mass’ insurers are not for profit.

To add insult to injury, the Massachusetts legislature has recently proposed a bill that would require any physician seeking to be lisenced in the Bay State to accept Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement levels.  It may be time for Kaiser to move into Massachusetts as the alternative employer of choice to the state.

Most new Massachusetts insureds can’t find a primary care doctor as too few are left after years of under reimbursement. This leaves our newly insureds — many of whom are chronically ill and require coordinated care — to access the system through the least efficient point of entry, the emergency room.  The state’s not for profit insurers are in a profound pickle.  They have statutory reserves that will soon be depleted if they cannot raise rates.  However, it is an election year and the governor is using an age old lever, price controls, to buy time, point fingers and escalate the debate.  If this were allowed to play out, the insurers would be unable to meet legal reserve requirements within 24 months and be out of business in the state — leaving the need for a single payer to assume responsibility.

Why is There Not More Competition Between Health Plans?

Where are the competitors you ask?  When insurers are raising rates 20%-40% for small business, why are there no new entrants to steal market share as is often the case in other industries primed by a free market pump.  Simply put, the barriers to entry are too high for new entrants.  The economics of provider contracting (which drive 80% or more of a payer’s costs) are such that a payer has to have membership to get the best economics from a provider.

In many US markets that are dominated by a handful of players, the cost of building market share to achieve similar economics to the market’s largest competitor is too high — particularly for a public company.  You essentially can only enter a new market by purchasing a competitor – – which is expensive and carries enormous execution risk for the capital being employed.

For example,  trying to unseat a deeply entrenched Blues plan with 70% market share and most favored nation pricing deals with hospitals, is an almost impossible feat for any new payer.  No insurer has the financial will to enter a new market against a giant competitor that controls as much as 50% of the individual and small group market — a market where margins are largest.   A further complication arises if that entrenched competitor is a non profit sitting on huge reserves and you are a for profit company expected to show earnings improvement quarter over quarter. No shareholder or private equity owner has the patience to wait out the price war that you would inevitably engage to take market share.

So, who can compete with a large competitor squatting like a toad with a disproportionate amount of market share? United Healthcare?  Aetna? Harvard Pilgrim?  Kaiser? Bzzzzzzz!  Sorry, wrong answer.  It is the government.

Ah yes, the dreaded public option defined by some as “Medicare Lite,” ” Obamacare” or ” Death Panels for Granny”.  Over time, it would represent a basic package of essential services consistent with so many other nationalized plans across the world.  Many believe that a public option is really the only viable way to create competition within markets where competition does not exist.  Other see it as a Trojan Horse leading to unfair competition where taxpayer dollars are used to subsidize the cannibalization of private care by a public plan.  The goal: single payer, socialized medicine.  So who’s right ?

Why Not Introduce the Public Option In Markets With No Competition?

Here’s the dilemma: If a public option were to be created, its reimbursement would likely be linked to Medicare. If a larger percentage of insureds reimburse doctors and hospitals at Medicare levels, providers would revolt contending that public option reimbursement is inadequate to cover the true costs of care. Critics argue of rationed provider reimbursement note that US providers make 8.5 times the average salary of a worker in the US and only 2 times the average salary in other Western countries.  Our best and brightest seek medicine and in doing so, deliver some of the best care in the world. ” If I get cancer” asserts one anti-reformer, ” I want to be treated in the US where I have the highest probability for survival.” Naysayers argue that our outcomes are actually worse than other industrialized countries whose reimbursement systems have created systems that are characterized by primary care and smaller secondary and tertiary care systems.  “The US is the diametric opposite”, contends one critic, ” we lag many nations in critical public health indicators. In the US, the insured live longer.  Outside the US,  everyone lives longer – not just those who can afford healthcare.”

Doctors have long contended that like it or not, their ability to cost shift to private healthcare enables a less than optimal equilibrium that holds our broken system together. With a public option tied to Medicare, doctors would find a larger percentage of their patients policies reimbursing at lower levels.  This would be abetted by the fact that insurers would be losing market share to a lower priced public option alternative.  As public companies  they would have to continue to lower premiums to keep pace with a public option that has better economics or lose market share — either way suffering an operating profit death by a thousand cuts. Supporters for the public option view this economic transformation as an inevitability of eliminating waste, inequity and over-treatment.  The dollars are there, many contend, they just need to be redistributed.

The reimbursement differences between Medicaid, Medicare and private insurance are real and pronounced. We know in New Jersey for example, there are three levels of hospital pricing reflected in state regulations.  More than 500% of the federal poverty level (FPL) is considered retail charges.  Between 300% and 500% of the FPL can be charged at 115% of Medicare and below 300% of FPL is charged at the state Medicaid fee for service rate.  The range of costs that can be charged to uninsured individuals vary dramatically.  For example, the charges for back surgery for a 500%+ FPL patient range from $185,000 to a startling low of $13,000.  The reimbursement for an under 300% Medicaid patient averages around $5,800.  How one is allowed to reimburse hospitals and doctors determines much of their fate as a payer.

Should the government introduce a single payer, it would reimburse providers at lower levels than private insurance which would allow it to capture market share through lower costs resulting in lower premiums.  In 2014, consumers concerned about the rising cost of care delivered through newly formed state insurance exchanges, would seek the lowest price plan.  If that choice was a public option, many would be likely to try it on for size.  So far, so good?

There is a scenario where a large percentage of those currently privately insured move from an exchange plan to a public option exchange alternative. The more participants that join the public pool, the greater the purchasing power the government can wield in negotiating fee increases to providers.  As the economic advantage between a public option and private insurance widens, private insurers start to withdraw from markets.

Much of healthcare cost control is achieved through provider reimbursement contracting but it only goes so far.  As physician and hospital reimbursement decreases, fewer individuals stay in or enter medicine leading to reduced capacity.  Access to care becomes an issue resulting in a delivery system that is anchored by rationing and triage.  This transformation toward rationing access is inevitable in any system where there are limited resources and infinite demand. Many economists and health policy experts would argue that our current course is untenable and that managing healthcare within a finite annual appropriation is not a bad thing.  Affordability is, after all, a zero sum game.

Can The Public Option Compete Without Medicare Reimbursement?

If a public option is introduced but not allowed to index reimbursement to Medicare could it survive ? Certainly a public option not anchored by Medicare rates of reimbursement would experience the same challenges that any insurer experiences when trying to enter a new market.  A public option may have initial advantages due to lower administrative costs and non profit status but as a level playing field competitor, it requires additional infrastructure to pay claims and administer clinical, fraud and utilization management programs to control cost. Hospitals and providers would be reluctant to give a new public option better economics than private plans for several reasons — the knowledge that a stronger public option means reduced reimbursement over time, the awareness that any government plan allows less of an ability to negotiate rates and the recognition that a public option without members has no real purchasing power.  Like credit, one has to have it to get it. Competitive contracting economics come with leverage. Leverage is membership.  The more members you have, the better the rates you can negotiate.  No members, no competitive contracts.

Fear not, the public option has the advantage of using tax payer dollars to initially price premiums at a loss (charges for care will exceed premiums received ) until the it takes on enough membership to be self sustaining.  Initially insurers would try to cherry pick against the upstart public competitor, running off poorer risks to the public option.  However, the deep pockets of a public option funded by tax payer dollars can outlast any private plan.  The balance in the market shifts and the public option gains equal or better financial footing than its for profit foes. The twilight of private insurance is at hand in a 2.0 world.

Some question whether a public option can delivery similar clinical and utilization management as private plans to ensure cost effective delivery of care and limited abuses by providers trying to make up in quantity those dollars that they are losing in reimbursement. After all, unit cost discounts can only go so far.  The holy grail of medicine is managing care in a more integrated fashion, eliminating unnecessary treatments and keeping people healthy — none of which get rewarded through today’s treat vs. prevent chronic illness reimbursement system.

History suggests Medicare and Medicaid have not been nearly as diligent as private insurers in fraud, medical management and waste prevention.  In fact, while government run plans have an administrative cost that is one-third of private for profit insurers, fraud and abuse represent an additional 10% or $$100B per year. The savings achieved through razor-thin administration are bleeding out through the thousand cuts caused by laissez faire medical management. It’s a fair question to ask whether a single payer would really be able to manage care and outcomes or just manage access and reimbursement.

What Next?

Insurers understand that Managed Care 2.0 is just that — a next stage in an irreversible process of transformation.  Their greatest fear did not immediately occur – the establishment of a federal rate authority administered by Health and Human Services.  However, if minimum loss ratio thresholds prove inadequate to contain costs ( and they will prove inadequate ), we are likely to see the two headed beast appear where we are asked to pick our poison — rate controls or a public option. Prior approval of rates are already embedded in 50% of US markets.  Rate debate is happening as we see Massachusetts and others grapple with little imagination around the reality that access without affordability is like a flashlight without batteries — it doesn’t work.

My guess is by the time health exchanges are established for individuals and small employers in 2014, costs will have risen another 40%.  The government will realize that $500B of Medicare cuts to finance access for new insureds did nothing to reduce its $38T unfunded liabilities. Medicare will continue to hurtle towards insolvency until the real cost containment legislation is passed.

The average cost for private insurance will increase with mandated coverage minimums and guarantee issue, non cancelable coverage. An individual above 400% of the poverty line will find it hard to afford coverage and may spend a large percentage of their discretionary income on health insurance.  Larger employers are likely to pull up the drawbridge and begin to slowly cut coverage.  Mid-sized and smaller business will do the simple calculus around whether they keep or drop insurance. No one will want to be the first guy to drop coverage but no one wants to be the last guy who pays for the $15,000 aspirin as cost shifting hits its high water mark. A public option could provide the air cover employers need to slowly step away from employer sponsored coverage.

The middle class will take it on the chin as they always do.  At this point, we will rally around the cry for affordability.  The pitchforks and torches will once again appear and we will look for a common enemy.  And out of the woods, crashing across the growing chasm of cost will fall the public option.  It will be hailed as the panacea for competition and sentinel control over for profit players.  It will usher in a new era and it may very well set in motion the next phase of Managed Care 2.0 – – an era characterized by the death of private insurance.

Depending on where you sit, you will either be dancing around the bonfire or burning someone in effigy.  One thing is certain, more change is coming.