Health Insurance Exchanges May Be Too Small to Succeed

By Dana P. Goldman, Michael Chernew and Anupam Jena
The New York Times, November 23, 2012

With the re-election of President Obama, the Affordable Care Act is back on track for being carried out in 2014. Central to its success will be the creation of health-insurance exchanges in each state. Beneficiaries will be able to go to a Web site and shop for health insurance, with the government subsidizing the premiums of those whose qualify. By encouraging competition among insurers in an open marketplace, the health care law aims to wring some savings out of the insurance industry to keep premiums affordable.

Certainly, it is hard to be against competition. Economic theory is clear about its indispensable benefits. But not all health care markets are composed of rational, well-informed buyers and sellers engaged in commerce. Some have a limited number of service providers; in others, patients are not well informed about the services they are buying; and in still others, the quality of the service offerings vary from provider to provider. So the question is: What effect does insurer competition have in a marketplace with so many imperfections?

The evidence is mixed, but some of it points to a counterintuitive result: more competition among insurers may lead to higher reimbursements and health care spending, particularly when the provider market – physicians, hospitals, pharmaceuticals and medical device suppliers – is not very competitive.

In imperfect health care markets, competition can be counterproductive. The larger an insurer’s share of the market, the more aggressively it can negotiate prices with providers, hospitals and drug manufacturers. Smaller hospitals and provider groups, known as “price takers” by economists, either accept the big insurer’s reimbursement rates or forgo the opportunity to offer competing services. The monopsony power of a single or a few large insurers can thus lead to lower prices. For example, Glenn Melnick and Vivian Wu have shown that hospital prices in markets with the most powerful insurers are 12 percent lower than in more competitive insurance markets.

So health insurance exchanges are probably welcome news for hospitals, physicians, and pharmaceutical and medical device companies throughout the United States. If health insurance exchanges divide up the market among many insurers, thereby diluting their power, reimbursement rates may actually increase, which could lead to higher premiums for consumers.

There is some evidence on how insurer market power affects premiums. Leemore Dafny, Mark Duggan, and Subramaniam Ramanarayanan have found that greater concentration resulting from an insurance merger is associated with a modest increase in premiums — suggesting that concentration may not help consumers so much — although they did report a reduction in physician earnings on average. Over all, however, the evidence is limited and mixed.

Greater competition in the insurance industry — either through health insurance exchanges or other measures — may not lower insurance premiums. Weakening insurers’ bargaining power could instead translate into higher costs for all of us in the form of higher premiums.

In financial markets, we ask if banks are too big to fail. When it comes to health care, perhaps we should ask if insurers are too small to succeed.

It is true that very large insurers within the exchanges can use their monopsony power (controlling the market as exclusive buyers) by demanding lower prices for health care services, but only for their own plans. Most health care costs will still be covered by employer-sponsored plans, Medicare, Medicaid and other programs. Thus plans offered by the exchanges cannot have much impact on our total national health expenditures.

Another difficulty with the monopsony power of private insurers is that when they are investor owned (WellPoint, UnitedHealth, Aetna, etc.), their first priority must be to use their leverage to benefit their investors. That results in insurance innovations that often are not particularly transparent, but have adverse consequences for the patients they insure. The private sector exercising power as a monopsony can be as evil as a monopoly.

In contrast, a public monopsony can be very beneficial in getting prices right – high enough to ensure adequate capacity in the delivery system, yet low enough to ensure value in health care.

The ultimate beneficent monopsony would be a single public program covering absolutely everyone (“single payer”). We could achieve this easily by improving Medicare and then making it universal. Health policy studies have proven that this would not only cover everyone, but it would finally bring us that elusive goal of health care reform – bending the cost curve to sustainable levels.…