Health Insurance Bailout Is Subprime Redux

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before: Financial institutions, enabled and empowered by lax regulators, make unwise multi-billion-dollar bets that threaten the well-being of millions of Americans—not to mention federal taxpayers. The subprime mortgage crisis that led to the financial meltdown of 2007-08? Sure. But it also describes insurers’ risky bets on Obamacare in 2017-18.

At issue in the latter: Federal cost-sharing reduction payments, designed to reimburse insurers for providing discounted co-payments, deductibles, and the like for certain low-income households. While the text of Obamacare includes no explicit appropriation for the payments, the Obama administration decided to start providing the payments to insurers anyway when the law’s insurance exchanges opened in 2014.

By summer 2016, anyone could have seen problems on the horizon for insurers: Collyer had declared the cost-sharing payments unconstitutional; a new president would take office in January 2017, and could easily terminate the payments unilaterally, just as Obama started them unilaterally; and neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump made any clear public statements confirming the payments would continue.

Worried about their potential exposure, insurers tried to fix their dilemma, but didn’t. Insurers insisted upon language in their contracts with healthcare.gov, the federally run insurance exchange, stipulating that cost-sharing reductions “will always be available to qualifying enrollees,” and allowing them to drop out of the exchange if those reductions disappeared.

But the legal and constitutional dispute does not apply to payments to enrollees. Insurers are legally bound to provide those reductions regardless. The contract provides no help to insurers on the fundamental question: Whether the federal government will reimburse them for providing individuals the reduced cost-sharing.

Likewise, despite having multiple reasons to do so, state regulators did not appear to question the uncertain status of the cost-sharing payments when approving insurers’ 2017 rates in the fall of 2016. I asked all 50 state insurance commissioners for internal documents analyzing the impact of the May 2016 court ruling declaring the payments unconstitutional on the 2017 plan year. In response, I have yet to receive a single document to indicate that regulators demonstrated concern about the incoming administration cutting off billions of dollars in federal subsidies to insurers.

Having under-reacted surrounding the cost-sharing reductions for much of 2016, insurers and insurance commissioners have spent the past several months over-reacting. Industry lobbyists have swarmed Capitol Hill demanding Congress pass an explicit appropriation for the payments—and more bailout payments besides.

But the hyperventilation regarding the cost-sharing payments sends the wrong message to financial markets: They can ignore significant risks, so long as their competitors do so as well. The “uncertainty” surrounding the payments was knowable, and known, both to insurers who tried to change their contracts with the federal exchange, and to analysts like this one. Yet insurers did not change their behavior to reflect those risks, nor did regulators require them to do so.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What You Need to Know about Cost-Sharing Reductions

A PDF version of this document is available via the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

On October 12, the Trump Administration announced it would immediately terminate a series of cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers. Meanwhile policy-makers have spent time debating and discussing cost-sharing payments in the context of a “stabilization” bill for the Obamacare Exchanges. Here’s what you need to know about the issue ahead of this year’s open enrollment period, scheduled to begin on November 1.

What are cost-sharing reductions?

Cost-sharing reductions, authorized by Section 1402 of Obamacare, provide individuals with reduced co-payments, deductibles, and out-of-pocket maximum expenses.[1] The reductions apply to households who purchase Exchange coverage and have family income of between 100% and 250% of the federal poverty level (FPL, $24,600 for a family of four in 2017). The system of cost-sharing reductions remains separate from the subsidies used to discount monthly insurance premiums, authorized by Section 1401 of Obamacare.[2]

What are cost-sharing reduction payments?

The payments (also referred to as CSRs) reimburse insurers for the cost of providing the discounted policies to low-income individuals. According to the January Congressional Budget Office (CBO) baseline, those payments will total $7 billion in the fiscal year that ended on September 30, $10 billion in the fiscal year ending this coming September 30, and $135 billion during fiscal years 2018-2027.[3]

What is the rationale for CSR payments?

Insurers argue that CSR payments reimburse them for discounts that the Obamacare statute requires them to provide to consumers. However, some conservatives would argue that the cost-sharing reduction regime might not be necessary but for the myriad new regulations imposed by Obamacare. These regulations have more than doubled insurance premiums from 2013 through 2017, squeezing middle-class families.[4] Some conservatives would therefore question providing government-funded subsidies to insurers partially to offset the cost of government-imposed mandates on insurers and individuals alike.

Why are the CSR payments in dispute?

While Section 1402 of Obamacare authorized reimbursement payments to insurers for their cost-sharing reduction costs, the text of the law did not include an explicit appropriation for them. Some conservatives have argued that the Obama Administration’s willingness to make the payments, despite the lack of an explicit appropriation, violated Congress’ constitutional “power of the purse.” In deciding to terminate the CSR payments, the Trump Administration agreed with this rationale.

What previously transpired in the court case over CSR payments?

In November 2014, the House of Representatives filed suit in federal court over the CSR payments, claiming the Obama Administration violated both existing law and the Constitution, and seeking an injunction blocking the Administration from making the payments unless and until Congress grants an explicit appropriation.[5] In September 2015, Judge Rosemary Collyer of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the House of Representatives had standing to sue, rejecting a Justice Department attempt to have the case dismissed. Judge Collyer ruled that the House as an institution had the right to redress for a potential violation of its constitutional “power of the purse.”[6]

On May 12, 2016, Judge Collyer issued her ruling on the case’s merits, concluding that no valid appropriation for the CSR payments exists, and that the Obama Administration had violated the Constitution by making payments to insurers. She ordered the payments halted unless and until Congress passed a specific appropriation—but stayed that ruling pending an appeal.[7]

How did the Obama Administration justify making the CSR payments?

In its court filings in the lawsuit, the Obama Administration argued that the structure of Obamacare implied an appropriation for CSR payments through the Treasury appropriation for premium subsidy payments—an appropriation clearly made in the law and not in dispute.[8] President Obama’s Justice Department made this argument despite the fact that CSR and premium subsidy regimes occur in separate sections of the law (Sections 1402 and 1401 of Obamacare, respectively), amend different underlying statutes (the Public Health Service Act and the Internal Revenue Code), and fall within the jurisdiction of two separate Cabinet Departments (Health and Human Services and Treasury).

The Obama Administration also argued, in court and before Congress, that it could make an appropriation because Congress had not prohibited the Administration from doing so—effectively turning the Constitution on its head, by saying the executive can spend funds however it likes unless and until Congress prohibits it from doing so.[9] In her ruling, Judge Collyer rejected those and other arguments advanced by the Obama Justice Department.

Did Congress investigate the history, legality, and constitutionality of the Obama Administration’s CSR payments to insurers?

Yes. Last year, the Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce Committees organized and released a 158-page report on the CSR payments.[10] While congressional investigators received some documents relating to the Obama Administration’s defense of the CSR payments, the report described an overall pattern of secrecy surrounding critical details—portions of documents, attendees at meetings, etc.—of the CSR issue. For instance, the Obama Administration did not fully comply with valid subpoenae issued by the committees, and attempted to prohibit Treasury appointees who volunteered to testify before committee staff from doing so. However, despite the extensive oversight work put in by two congressional committees, and the pattern of secrecy observed, neither of the committees have taken action to compel compliance, or redress the Obama Administration’s obstruction of Congress’ legitimate oversight work.

What has the Trump Administration done about the CSR payment lawsuit?

After the election, the Justice Department and the House of Representatives filed a motion with the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.[11] The parties stated that they were in negotiations to settle the lawsuit, and sought to postpone proceedings in the appeal (which the Obama Administration had filed last year). The Justice Department and the House have filed several extensions of that request with the court, but have yet to present a settlement agreement, or provide any substantive updates surrounding the issues in dispute. In announcing its decision to terminate the CSR payments, the Trump Administration said it would provide the court with a further update on October 30.

In August, the Court of Appeals granted a motion by several Democratic state attorneys general seeking to intervene in the suit (originally called House v. Burwell, and renamed House v. Price when Dr. Tom Price became Secretary of Health and Human Services).[12] The attorneys general claimed that the President’s frequent threats to settle the case, and cut off CSR payments, meant their states’ interests would not be represented during the litigation, and sought to intervene to prevent the House and the Trump Administration from settling the case amongst themselves—which could leave an injunction permanently in place blocking future CSR payments.

Upon what basis did President Trump stop the CSR payments to insurers?

Under existing law, court precedent, and constitutional principles, a determination by the executive about whether or not to make the CSR payments (or any other payment) depends solely upon whether or not a valid appropriation exists:

  • If a valid appropriation does not exist, the executive cannot disburse funds. The Anti-Deficiency Act prescribes criminal penalties, including imprisonment, for any executive branch employee who spends funds not appropriated by Congress, consistent with Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution: “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”[13]
  • If a valid appropriation exists, the executive cannot withhold funds. The Supreme Court held unanimously in Train v. City of New York that the executive cannot unilaterally impound (i.e., refuse to spend) funds appropriated by Congress, which would violate a President’s constitutional duty to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”[14]

Has a court forced President Trump to keep making the CSR payments?

No. In fact, until the Administration had announced its decision late Thursday, no one—from insurers to insurance commissioners to governors to Democratic attorneys general to liberal activists and Obamacare advocates—had filed suit seeking to force the Trump Administration to make the payments. (While the Democratic attorneys general sought, and received, permission to intervene in the House’s lawsuit, that case features the separate question of whether or not the House had standing to bring its matter to court in the first place. It is possible that appellate courts could, unlike Judge Collyer, dismiss the House’s case on standing grounds without proceeding to the merits of whether or not a valid appropriation exists.)

Given the crystal-clear nature of existing Supreme Court case law—if a valid appropriation exists, an Administration must make the payments—some would view the prolonged unwillingness by Obamacare supporters to enforce this case law in court as tacit evidence that a valid appropriation does not exist, and that the Obama Administration exceeded its constitutional authority in starting the flow of payments.

How will the decision to stop CSR payments affect individuals in Exchange plans?

In the short- to medium-term, it will not. Insurers must provide the cost-sharing reductions to individuals in qualified Exchange plans, regardless of whether or not they get reimbursed for them.

Can insurers drop out of the Exchanges immediately due to the lack of CSR payments?

No—at least not in most cases in 2017. The contract between the federal government and insurers on the federal Exchange for 2017 notes that insurers developed their products based on the assumption that cost-sharing reductions “will be available to qualifying enrollees,” and can withdraw from the Exchanges if they are not.[15] However, under the statute, enrollees will always qualify for the cost-sharing reductions—that is not in dispute. The House v. Burwell case instead involves whether or not insurers will receive federal reimbursements for providing the cost-sharing reductions to enrollees. This clause may therefore have limited applicability to withdrawal of CSR payments. It appears insurers have little ability to withdraw from Exchanges in 2017, even if the Trump Administration stops reimbursing insurers.

If insurers faced a potential unfunded obligation—providing cost-sharing reductions without federal reimbursement—to the tune of billions of dollars, how did they react to Judge Collyer’s ruling last year?

Based on their public filings and statements, several did not appear to react at all. While Aetna and Centene referenced loss of CSR payments as impacting their firms’ outlooks and risk profiles in their first Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) quarterly filings after Judge Collyer’s ruling, most other companies ignored the potential impact until earlier this year.[16] Some carriers have given decidedly mixed messages on the issue—for instance, as Anthem CEO Joseph Swedish claimed on his company’s April 26 earnings call that lack of CSR payments would cause Anthem to seek significant price hikes and/or drop out of state Exchanges,[17] his company’s quarterly SEC filing that same day indicated no change in material risks, and no reference to the potential disappearance of CSR payments.[18]

Even before Judge Collyer’s ruling in May 2016, one could have easily envisioned a scenario whereby a new President in January 2017 stopped defending the CSR lawsuit, and immediately halted the federal CSR payments: “Come January 2017, the policy landscape for insurers could look far different” than in mid-2016.[19] However, despite public warnings to said effect—and the apparent lack of public statements by either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton to continue the CSR payments should they win the presidency—insurers apparently assumed maintenance of the status quo, disregarding these potential risks when bidding to offer Exchange coverage in 2017.

Did insurance regulators fail to anticipate or plan for changes to CSR payments following Judge Collyer’s ruling?

It appears that many did. For instance, the office of California’s state insurance commissioner reported having no documents—not even a single e-mail—analyzing the impact of Judge Collyer’s May 2016 ruling on insurers’ bids for the 2017 plan year.[20] Likewise, California’s health insurance Exchange disclosed only two relevant documents: A brief e-mail sent months after the state finalized plan rates for the 2017 year, and a more detailed legal analysis of the issues surrounding CSR payments—but one not undertaken until mid-November, after Donald Trump won the presidential election.[21]

Some conservatives may be concerned that insurance commissioners’ failure to examine the CSR payment issue in detail—when coupled with insurers’ similar actions—represents the same failed thinking that caused the financial crisis. That herd behavior—an insurer business model founded upon a new Administration continuing unconstitutional actions, and regulators blindly echoing insurers’ assumptions—represents the same “too big to fail” mentality that brought us a subprime mortgage scandal, a massive financial crash on Wall Street, a period of prolonged economic stagnation, and a taxpayer-funded bailout of big banks.

How can Congress restore its Article I power?

With respect to the CSR payments, conservatives looking to restore its Article I power—as Speaker Ryan recently claimed he wanted to do by maintaining the debt limit as the prerogative of Congress—could take several appropriate actions:[22]

  • Insist on a settlement of the lawsuit in the House’s favor, consistent with the last Congress’ belief that 1) Obamacare lacks a valid appropriation for CSR payments and 2) decisions regarding appropriations always rest with Congress, and not the executive;
  • Ask the Justice Department to investigate whether any Obama Administration officials violated the Anti-Deficiency Act by making CSR payments without a valid congressional appropriation; and
  • Insist on enforcement of the subpoenae issued by the House Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce Committees during the last Congress, and pursue contempt of Congress charges against any individuals who fail to comply.

How can Congress exercise its oversight power regarding the CSR payments?

Before even debating whether or not to create a valid appropriation for the CSR payments, Congress should first examine in great detail whether and why insurers and insurance commissioners ignored the issue in 2016 (and prior years); any potential changes to remedy an apparent lack of oversight by insurance commissioners; and appropriate accountability for any unconstitutional and illegal actions as outlined above.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, by blindly making a CSR appropriation without conducting this critically important oversight, Congress would make a clear statement that Obamacare is “too big to fail.” Such a scenario—in addition to creating a de facto single-payer health care system—would, by establishing a government backstop for insurers’ risky behaviors, bring about additional, and potentially even larger, bailouts in the future.

What are the implications of providing CSR payments to insurers?

Given the way in which many insurers and insurance regulators blindly assumed cost-sharing reduction payments would continue, despite the lack of an express appropriation in the law, some conservatives may be concerned that making CSR payments would exacerbate moral hazard. Specifically, when filing their rates for the 2017 plan year, insurers appear to have assumed they would receive over $7 billion in CSR payments—despite the uncertainty surrounding 1) the lack of a clear CSR appropriation in the statute; 2) the May 2016 court ruling calling the payments unconstitutional; 3) the unknown outcome of the 2016 presidential election; and 4) the apparent lack of a firm public commitment by either major candidate in the 2016 election to continue the CSR payments upon taking office in January 2017.

Some conservatives may therefore oppose rewarding this type of reckless behavior by granting them the explicit taxpayer subsidies they seek, for fear that it would only encourage additional irresponsible risk-taking by insurance companies—and raise the likelihood of an even larger taxpayer-funded bailout in the future.

How can Congress solve the larger issue of CSRs creating an unfunded mandate on insurance companies absent an explicit appropriation?

One possible way would involve elimination of Obamacare’s myriad insurance regulations, which have led to insurance premiums more than doubling in the individual market over the past four years.[23] Repealing these new and costly regulations would lower insurance premiums, reducing the need for cost-sharing reductions, and allowing Congress to consider whether to eliminate the CSR regime altogether.


[1] 42 U.S.C. 18071, as created by Section 1402 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148.
[2] 26 U.S.C. 36B, as created by Section 1401 of PPACA.
[3] Congressional Budget Office, January 2017 baseline for coverage provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/recurringdata/51298-2017-01-healthinsurance.pdf, Table 2.
[4] Department of Health and Human Services Office of Planning and Evaluation, “Individual Market Premium Changes: 2013-2017,” ASPE Data Point May 23, 2017, https://aspe.hhs.gov/system/files/pdf/256751/IndividualMarketPremiumChanges.pdf.
[5] The House’s original complaint, filed November 21, 2014, can be found at https://jonathanturley.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/house-v-burwell-d-d-c-complaint-filed.pdf.
[6] Judge Collyer’s ruling on motions to dismiss, dated September 9, 2015, can be found at https://docs.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/district-of-columbia/dcdce/1:2014cv01967/169149/41.
[8] Links to the filings at the District Court level can be found at https://dockets.justia.com/docket/district-of-columbia/dcdce/1:2014cv01967/169149.
[9] Testimony of Mark Mazur, Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy, before the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee hearing on “Cost Sharing Reduction Investigation and the Executive Branch’s Constitutional Violations,” July 7, 2016, https://waysandmeans.house.gov/event/hearing-cost-sharing-reduction-investigation-executive-branchs-constitutional-violations/.
[10] House Energy and Commerce and House Ways and Means Committees, “Joint Congressional Investigative Report into the Source of Funding for the ACA’s Cost Sharing Reduction Program,” July 7, 2016, https://waysandmeans.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/20160707Joint_Congressional_Investigative_Report-2.pdf
[13] The statutory prohibition on executive branch employees occurs at 31 U.S.C. 1341(a)(1); 31 U.S.C. 1350 provides that any employee knowingly and willfully violating such provision “shall be fined not more than $5,000, imprisoned for not more than two years, or both.”
[14] Train v. City of New York, 420 U.S. 35 (1975).
[15] Qualified Health Plan Agreement between issuers and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for 2017 plan year, https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Regulations-and-Guidance/Downloads/Plan-Year-2017-QHP-Issuer-Agreement.pdf, V.b, “Termination,” p. 6.
[16] Aetna Inc., Form 10-Q Securities and Exchange Commission filing for the second quarter of calendar year 2016, http://services.corporate-ir.net/SEC/Document.Service?id=P3VybD1hSFIwY0RvdkwyRndhUzUwWlc1cmQybDZZWEprTG1OdmJTOWtiM2R1Ykc5aFpDNXdhSEEvWVdOMGFXOXVQVkJFUmlacGNHRm5aVDB4TVRBMk5qa3hOQ1p6ZFdKemFXUTlOVGM9JnR5cGU9MiZmbj1BZXRuYUluYy5wZGY=
p. 44; Centene, Inc., Form 10-Q Securities and Exchange Commission filing for the second quarter of calendar year 2016, https://centene.gcs-web.com/static-files/23fd1935-32de-47a8-bc03-cbc2c4d59ea6, p. 42.
[17] Transcript of Anthem, Inc. quarterly earnings call for the first quarter of calendar year 2017, April 26, 2017, http://phx.corporate-ir.net/External.File?item=UGFyZW50SUQ9NjY3NTM5fENoaWxkSUQ9Mzc1Mzg1fFR5cGU9MQ==&t=1, p. 5.
[19] Chris Jacobs, “What if the Next President Cuts Off Obamacare Subsidies to Insurers?” Wall Street Journal May 5, 2016, https://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2016/05/05/what-if-the-next-president-cuts-off-obamacare-subsidies/.
[20] Chris Jacobs, “Don’t Blame Trump When Obamacare Rates Jump,” Wall Street Journal June 16, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/dont-blame-trump-when-obamacare-rates-jump-1497571813.
[21] Covered California response to Public Records Act request, August 25, 2017.
[22] Burgess Everett and Josh Dawsey, “Trump Suggested Scrapping Future Debt Ceiling Votes to Congressional Leaders,” Politico September 7, 2017, http://www.politico.com/story/2017/09/07/trump-end-debt-ceiling-votes-242429.
[23] HHS, “Individual Market Premium Changes: 2013-2017.”

Insurers’ Obamacare Extortion Racket

The coming weeks will see U.S. health insurance companies attempt to preserve what amounts to an extortion racket. Already, some carriers have claimed they will either exit the Obamacare exchanges entirely in 2018, or submit dramatically higher premium increases for next year, if Congress does not fund payments to insurers for cost-sharing reductions. While insurers claim “uncertainty” compels them to make these business changes, in reality their roots are the companies’ gross incompetence and crass politics.

While Obamacare requires insurers to lower certain low-income individuals’ deductibles and co-payments, and directs the executive agencies to reimburse insurers for those cost-sharing reductions, it nowhere gives the administration an explicit appropriation to do so. The Obama administration made payments to insurers without an explicit appropriation from Congress, and was slapped with a federal lawsuit by the House of Representatives for it.

Either the Companies Are Mismanaged Or Playing Politics

For insurers to assume that the cost-sharing reduction payments would continue through 2017, let alone 2018, required them to ignore 1) public warnings in articles like mine; 2) Collyer’s ruling; 3) the fact that President Obama would leave office on January 20, 2017; and 4) the apparent silence from both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during last year’s campaign on whether they would continue the cost-sharing reduction payments once in office.

Given those four factors, competent insurance executives would have built in an appropriate contingency margin into their 2017 exchange bids, recognizing the uncertainty that the cost-sharing reduction payments would continue during the new administration. Instead, some insurers largely ignored the issue. In its most recent 10-K annual report with the Securities and Exchange Commission, filed February 22, Anthem made not a single reference in the 520-page document to the cost-sharing reduction payments or the House lawsuit.

Therein lies the reason for insurers’ threats. All last year, several insurers assumed Clinton would win and continue the (unconstitutional) payments. Worse yet, some may have willfully ignored their fiduciary responsibility to create a contingency margin for their 2017 plan bids because they wanted to help Clinton by keeping premiums artificially low.

How the People’s Representatives Should Respond

Responding to this extortion racket requires several layers of accountability. First, insurers must accept responsibility for their persistent refusal to address the cost-sharing reduction issue sooner. The Securities and Exchange Commission should investigate whether publicly traded insurers failed to disclose material risks in their company filings by neglecting to mention the clearly foreseeable uncertainty surrounding the payments.

Likewise, the Justice Department’s antitrust division should examine whether insurers’ 2017 premium submissions represent an instance of illegal collusion. If the insurance industry collectively neglected to include a contingency margin surrounding the cost-sharing payments—either to keep premium increases low before the election, or to strong-arm the incoming administration to continue to fund them—such a decision might warrant federal sanctions.

Finally, conservatives and the Trump administration should shine a bright light on state insurance commissioners’ review of premium submissions. Commissioners who approve large contingency margins for 2018 due to uncertainty over cost-sharing reductions, yet did not require a similar contingency margin for 2017 premiums, can be reasonably accused of gross incompetence, playing politics with health insurance premiums, or both.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Medical Loss Ratios

Background:  The term medical loss ratio refers to the percentage of health insurance premium costs used to pay medical claims, as opposed to overhead for various administrative expenses or surplus/profit for the insurance carrier.  For example, a medical loss ratio of 70% indicates that 70 cents of every premium dollar is spent on claims for medical services, with 30 cents dedicated towards administrative expenses, marketing costs, related overhead, and any profit for the carrier.  While the medical loss ratios of publicly-traded insurance carriers are available in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), privately-held and not-for-profit insurers often do not face similar public reporting and disclosure requirements.

Legislative History:  In July 2007, Section 414 of H.R. 3162, the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection (CHAMP) Act, proposed several reporting requirements and restrictions on Medicare Advantage (MA) plans with respect to their medical loss ratios.  Specifically, the bill required MA plans to submit information to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regarding overall expenses on medical claims, marketing and sales, indirect and direct administration, and any medical reinsurance.  The Secretary would be required to publish this information annually.

In addition to the reporting requirements outlined above, the CHAMP Act also proposed punitive measures against MA plans which did not meet new federal requirements with respect to their medical loss ratios.  Subsection (c) of Section 414 proposed sanctions for MA plans which did not spend at least 85% of payments received (both from the federal government and beneficiary premiums) on medical services: plans below the ratio for one year would receive a decrease in their funding rate, plans below the ratio for three years would be banned from enrolling new beneficiaries, and plans below the ratio for five years would be terminated from the Medicare Advantage program.  While the bill passed the House by a 225-204 vote, the Senate has yet to take up the measure.

Presidential and State Proposals:  The actions proposed by House Democrats last year with respect to Medicare Advantage plans are consistent with the proposals advocated by the Democrat candidates for President.  During her campaign, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) proposed an unspecified minimum medical loss ratio for insurers, because “premiums collected by insurers must be dedicated to the provision of high-quality care, not excessive profits and marketing.”[1]   Similarly, the health plan of Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) dedicates a section of his platform to explaining why insurance carriers’ “record profits” constitute “needless waste,” and pledges that “in markets where the insurance business is not competitive enough, [the Obama] plan will force insurers to pay out a reasonable share of their premiums for patient care instead of keeping exorbitant amounts for profits and administration.”[2]  However, the plan does not specify what constitutes a “competitive” state insurance market, nor the level of a “reasonable” medical loss ratio.

In recent months, several state-based efforts to reform health care have incorporated proposals to regulate medical loss ratios by insurers.  Proposals in California, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin have all discussed setting a minimum medical loss ratio, often at 85%.  While some states currently do impose minimum medical loss ratios, these are significantly lower than the proposed new standards; in some cases, minimum ratios are designed to ensure that the policy is a bona fide insurance product, rather than attempting to influence the structure of an insurance policy or the business model of an insurance carrier.

Medicare Advantage Reports:  This week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report requested by Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) regarding profit levels by Medicare Advantage plans.  The report noted that in 2005, Medicare Advantage plans’ actual profits were higher, and their medical and administrative expenditures lower, than originally projected before the start of the contract year.  However, even the lower-than-expected percentage of revenue devoted to medical expenses—85.7%—exceeded the minimum loss ratio proposed by Congressional Democrats under the CHAMP Act.[3]  GAO also conceded that the disparity between actual and projected expenses had no impact on the total payments made to Medicare Advantage plans.[4]

In response to the GAO report, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) pointed out that contract bids for Medicare Advantage plans in 2005 were submitted under a since-replaced bidding formula, and have since been subjected to more stringent actuarial standards with respect to the accuracy of the original projections—both of which would tend to cast doubts on the relevancy of the three-year-old data on the current Medicare Advantage program.  Additionally, the fact that nearly half of the “unexpected” profits arose from a single Medicare Advantage plan raises additional questions as to whether the disparity between projected and actual medical expenditures is a system-wide problem or a relatively confined anomaly.[5]

Some conservatives may view higher-than-projected profits for Medicare Advantage plans as consistent with the free-market principles that encourage companies—in this case, private health insurers—to improve efficiencies in the hope of generating improvements for their customers and a return to their investors.  The fact that nearly half of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries were covered by plans with lower-than-expected administrative and non-medical expenses could suggest that plans took steps to reduce bureaucracies that made their delivery more efficient.[6]  Moreover, to the extent that improved care management tools implemented by insurance carriers resulted in lower-than-expected medical expenditures for plans, conservatives may argue that allowing Medicare Advantage carriers to retain these profits is not only appropriate, but desirable.

Moreover, another GAO report released in February injected a note of caution regarding attempts to use headlines about Medicare Advantage plan profits to regulate medical loss ratios, noting that “there is no definitive standard for what a medical loss ratio should be.”[7]  In the February report, officials at CMS commented that some plans may consider certain care management services an administrative expense, while other plans may classify these costs as medical treatments.  The fact that Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs)—which are traditionally known for intensive care management techniques, and whose per-beneficiary costs are slightly lower than those for traditional fee-for-service Medicare—had the highest percentage of beneficiaries in plans under the 85% threshold ratio included in the CHAMP Act demonstrates the inherent difficulties in applying a single regulatory standard to all types of insurance.[8]

Conclusion:  The issue of regulating medical loss ratios, although not as prominent as other elements of Democrat proposals for health care reform, nevertheless deserves scrutiny.  An article in the journal Health Affairs concluded that medical loss ratios had little correlation to the quality of care provided by carriers; moreover, the article’s discussion of the loss ratio as an inherently arbitrary measure dovetails with the unintended consequences of applying a one-size-fits-all standard for health insurance.  For instance, individual insurance plans face higher administrative charges than group policies, because of the increased costs associated with selling policies on a person-to-person basis, as opposed to the hundreds or thousands of beneficiaries who obtain insurance through a single group employer.  Additionally, regulating medical loss ratios may prompt some insurance carriers to stop offering high-deductible insurance plans—which, due to their smaller premiums, may have greater difficulty meeting a federally-imposed standard—thus diminishing the impact of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), which have over the past few years helped slow the growth of health insurance premiums.

More broadly, some conservatives may be concerned that regulating medical loss ratios represents an effort by Democrats to impose price controls on the health insurance industry.  Proposals such as those included in the CHAMP Act are unlikely to result in higher spending on medical claims, or lower profits for insurance companies; carriers could instead choose to reduce administrative costs in order to comply with a mandated medical loss ratio, resulting in additional delays for beneficiaries seeking to have their claims processed.

An alternative solution could lie in proposals for increased public transparency and disclosure of medical loss ratios.  Applied evenly to for-profit and not-for-profit insurers alike, this information would allow consumers to make an informed choice, considering the percentage of premiums devoted to medical claims payment as one element among many when selecting an insurance policy.  Although some policy-makers may find it politically expedient to criticize the profits of certain insurance carriers, many conservatives would greatly prefer the transparency of a free marketplace to heavy-handed government price controls.

 

[1] “American Health Choices Plan,” available online at http://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/healthcare/americanhealthchoicesplan.pdf (accessed March 11, 2008), p. 7.

[2] “Barack Obama’s Plan for a Healthy America,” available online at http://www.barackobama.com/issues/pdf/HealthCareFullPlan.pdf (accessed March 11, 2008), pp 9-10.

[3] “Medicare Advantage Organizations: Actual Expenses and Profits Compared to Projections for 2005,” Letter to Hon. Pete Stark, Report GAO-08-827R, (Washington, DC, Government Accountability Office, June 2008), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08827r.pdf (accessed June 26, 2008), p. 5.

[4] Ibid., p. 8.

[5] Ibid., pp. 11-14.

[6] Ibid., p. 6.

[7] “Medicare Advantage: Increased Spending Relative to Medicare Fee-for-Service May Not Always Reduce Beneficiary Out-of-Pocket Costs,” Report GAO-08-359 (Washington, DC, Government Accountability Office, February 2008), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08359.pdf (accessed March 11, 2008), p. 32n.

[8] Ibid., pp. 27-28.