An Obamacare Lesson for Small Health Insurers?

In 2011, analysts were speculating that Assurant Health might exit the insurance business, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last week. So the recent news that Assurant’s parent company was looking to “sell or shut down” the insurance carrier by year’s end was not a total surprise. The issue now is whether its demise holds larger lessons about Obamacare’s impact on insurance markets.

One analyst called Assurant, which reported operating losses of nearly $64 million in fiscal 2014 and $84 million in the first quarter of fiscal 2015, a “casualty” of the law. The Affordable Care Act “required health plans to cover a package of basic benefits and required health insurers to spend at least 80 cents of every premium dollar on medical care or quality initiatives,” the Journal-Sentinel reported. Simply put, the law made health insurance more like a regulated utility—with plan designs, benefits, and overhead costs strictly regulated.

Obamacare supporters generally argue that these regulatory changes eliminate the potential for customer confusion or the sale of “substandard” insurance products. But further Journal-Sentinel reporting underscores a complication of that approach:

Finding a buyer for Assurant Health could be difficult. Unlike companies such as UnitedHealthcare or Anthem, which focus on larger employers, Assurant Health does not have the size in any one market to negotiate contracts directly with hospitals and doctors. It instead typically pays a monthly fee to other insurers to access their networks, potentially increasing its costs.

By standardizing insurance offerings—reducing or eliminating carriers’ ability to create niche markets through innovative product designs—Obamacare heightened the focus on insurers’ provider networks. Those companies that have the market clout to demand lower reimbursements from doctors and hospitals can moderate premium increases—winning more market share in the process. But smaller insurers that don’t have that clout may find themselves squeezed—and other carriers could face a similar fate to Assurant Health.

Obamacare standardizes offerings in the name of increasing competition, but doing so could end up reducing competition by creating an environment in which large insurers compete with large hospital and doctor networks in a battle of health-care oligopolies. Supporters of the law have worried about this for years—and Assurant’s impending closure appears to give more reason to do so.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.