Tuesday’s announcement by health insurer Aetna that it had halted plans to expand its offerings on Obamacare exchanges and may instead reduce or eliminate its participation entirely, caused a shockwave among health-policy experts. The insurer that heretofore had acted as one of Obamacare’s biggest cheerleaders has now admitted that the law will not work without a massive new infusion of taxpayer cash.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Aetna’s CEO, Mark Bertolini, explained the company’s major concern with Obamacare implementation:
Bertolini said big changes are needed to make the exchanges viable. Risk adjustment, a mechanism that transfers funds from insurers with healthier clients to those with sick ones, “doesn’t work,” he said. Rather than transferring money among insurers, the law should be changed to subsidize insurers with government funds, Bertolini said.
“It needs to be a non-zero sum pool in order to fix it,” Bertolini said. Right now, insurers “that are less worse off pay for those that are worse worse off.”
A brief explanation: Obamacare’s risk adjustment is designed to even out differences in health status among enrollees. Put simply, plans with healthier-than-average patients subsidize plans with sicker-than-average patients. But the statute stipulates that the risk-adjustment payments should be based on “average actuarial risk” in each state marketplace — by definition, plans will transfer funds among themselves, but the payments will net out to zero.
Risk adjustment, a permanent feature of Obamacare, should not be confused with the law’s temporary-risk-corridor program, scheduled to end in December. Whereas risk corridor subsidizes loss-making plans, risk adjustment subsidizes sicker patients. And while plans can lose money for reasons unrelated to patient care — excessive overhead or bad investments, for instance — insurers incurring perpetual losses on patient care have little chance of ever breaking even.
That’s the situation Aetna says it finds itself in now. In calling for the government to subsidize risk adjustment, Bertolini believes that for the foreseeable future insurers will continue to face a risk pool sicker than in the average employer plan. In other words, the exchanges won’t work as currently constituted, because healthy people are staying away from Obamacare plans in droves. Aetna’s proposed “solution,” as expected, is for the taxpayer to pick up the tab.
It’s not that insurers haven’t received enough in bailout funds already. As I have noted in prior work, insurance companies stand to receive over $170 billion in bailout funds over the coming decade. For instance, the Obama administration has flouted the plain text of the law to prioritize payments to insurers over repayments to the United States Treasury. But still insurance companies want more.
Some viewed Aetna’s threat to vacate the exchanges as an implicit threat resulting from the Justice Department’s challenging its planned merger with Humana. But the reality is far worse: Aetna was conditioning its participation not on its merger’s being approved but on receiving more bailout funds from Washington.
Like a patient in intensive care, the Left wants to administer billions of dollars to insurers as a form of fiscal morphine, hoping upon hope that the cash infusions can tide them over until the exchanges reach a condition approaching health. Just last month, the liberal Commonwealth Fund proposed extending Obamacare’s reinsurance program, scheduled to end this December, “until the reformed market has matured.” But as Bertolini admitted in his interview, the exchanges do not work, and will not work — meaning Commonwealth’s suggestion would create yet another perpetual-bailout machine.
Only markets, and not more taxpayer money, will turn this ailing patient around. Congress should act to end the morphine drip and stop the bailouts once and for all. At that point, policymakers of both parties should come together to outline the prescription for freedom they would put in its place.
This post was originally published at National Review.