By Nomi Prins
Thoughts: Nomi Prins blog, Nov. 10, 2012
Election rhetoric shuns the big picture in favor of the bigger platitude. Now that The Show is over, we are left with the equivalent of a Sunday morning hangover following a binge of promises and lies. We leave the theatre of political spectacle on steroids for the real world of unstable economy, a globally and publicly subsidized financial sector, and increased costs of living on everything from food to education to health-care; outpacing declining median incomes. The average cost for health insurance for a family is $15,745 per year vs. a median income of $50,502, or about half post-tax take-home pay.
“Obamacare” is the name commonly used for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) of 2010. The very moniker is indicative of how name-and-image-centric our world has become; Medicare was never called “Johnsoncare” when President Johnson signed it into law in 1965 and Johnson was not exactly a man of small-personality. At any rate, Obamacare or the PPACA ranks as one of the most misrepresented issues from the campaign, by both sides of the ever-slimming aisle.
The Tea-Party Conservative types get it embarrassingly wrong when they call it a “government takeover of health care.” Likewise, Progressive Obama-supporters are deluded in accepting it as the most sweeping healthcare reform since Medicare. (Side note: I wish the word ‘sweeping’ could be retired from politics until it actually means -sweeping.)
Here’s why. The PPACA does nothing to restructure the health insurance industry, anymore than the Dodd-Frank Act restructures the banking industry. This means everything else it attempts to do, positive or negative, will be vastly overshadowed by an industry accelerating to morph itself into a acquisition machine in order to circumvent anything that even smells like a restriction, including laws that exist and ones to come.
How? By doing the same thing energy and telecom companies did after they were deregulated in 1996, and that banks did after they were summarily deregulated (after moving that way for decades) in 1999. They are merging, consolidating, eliminating competitors, and controlling their domain. They are manufacturing power.
Investment bankers are roaming the world to exploit this hot new opportunity. That’s one reason insurance companies don’t even call themselves that anymore. Now, they are ‘managed health care’ companies. Call yourself a managed health care company, and you can buy everything from other insurance companies to hospitals to clinics to doctors. The more consolidation, the more fees bankers rake in, and the more premiums and medical reimbursements and health care procedures, each company can control.
The result of 1996 energy deregulation was a glut of crime-spawned bankruptcies like Enron. Likewise WorldCom led a pack of telecom degenerates in the production of tens of billions of dollars worth of accounting fraud. The final repeal of Glass-Steagall ignited a merge-fest of investment and commercial banks, their linkages ensuring that taxpayers, whose deposits have been protected since the New Deal, provide a safety-net upon which they can mint toxic assets loosely based on over-leveraged home mortgages, and engage in risky, speculative activity; big banks don’t go bankrupt when they fabricate values or lose big on stupid bets, they get federally subsidized in all sorts of ways.
You know who else is similarly too big to fail? The insurance industry. UnitedHealth Group, the nation’s largest health insurer covers 50% of the insurable population in over 30 states. Blue Cross-Blue Shield, covers 100 million people through a constellation of 38 sub-companies. They, and other insurance companies are growing in breadth. When companies consolidate, the result is less transparency, less competition, and more possibility for fraud and shady behavior. Every. Single. Time.
Obamacare and Accounting Fraud
By January 2014, the PPACA will require insurance companies to list their prices on competitive exchanges. In Obama-theory, this is supposed to reduce premiums via competition. But what if, say, only three companies control nearly all of the premiums? Consider the fact that it costs the same $3 to extract your money from a Chase, Bank of America or Citigroup ATM (if you don’t get it directly from the firm you bank at.) They constitute a monopoly that defies anti-trust inspection (thank you, Department of Justice.) What incentive would any of them have to charge less? None. That’s why they don’t.
Managed Health Care companies don’t just administer private, but government health insurance policies as well. The http://www.healthcare.gov website says that under the PPACA, the life of the Medicare Trust Fund will be extended to 2024 as a result of reducing waste, fraud, abuse, and slowing cost growth. President Obama promised to reduce Medicare fraud 50% by 2012 according to the site – but if he did, he forgot to mention it during the campaign period.
To supposedly combat price hikes, the PPACA calls for a new Rate Review program, wherein insurance companies must justify premium hikes of more than 10% to a state or federal review program. Given that banks aren’t supposed to hold more than 10% of the nation’s deposits in any one institution, and three do, this isn’t a comforting constraint.
While it is positive that the PPACA requires coverage of people with pre-existing conditions and prohibits lifetime caps, it can’t control what people pay for insurance, because it doesn’t limit actual premiums, which have risen 13% on average since the Act was passed.
The medical cost ratio limitation the PPACA instills; that 80% of premiums must be used for medical care in the case of individuals and small groups, and 85% in the case of large groups) to supposedly ensure companies operate on a more efficient premium in vs. premium out basis, is a joke. Its punch line is accounting manipulation. Call everything a medical cost; even buying another company, and the ratio is meaningless.
WellPoint got the Joke
WellPoint got that joke immediately. The largest for-profit “managed health care” company in the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, it began trading publicly on December 1, 2004. Depending on the state, it operates under Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Blue Cross or Anthem.
After the PPACA was passed, in March 2010, WellPoint allegedly reclassified certain administrative costs as medical care costs in order to meet the law’s new medical loss ratio requirements (which requires insurers spend at least 80% or 85% of premiums on health care services, depending on the type of plan, individual or group respectively.)
A month earlier, WellPoint announced its Anthem Blue Cross unit would raise insurance rates for some individual policies in California up to 39%. Federal and California regulators are still investigating this, but the premium hikes remained.
WellPoint is also one of Wall Street’s favorite “managed health care” companies; cause it keeps getting bigger through acquisitions that pay hefty fees to the bankers involved. On October 23rd, WellPoint got approval from Amerigroup’s shareholders to acquire Amerigroup, a Medicaid-focused health insurer, in a $4.9 billion cash deal. The deal makes WellPoint the nation’s largest Medicaid insurer, and provides it greater access to Medicaid patients who also qualify for Medicare.
It was the largest cash deal ever, and the largest premium paid for a company in the managed health care realm. As a result, Goldman Sachs (who advised Amerigroup) and Credit Suisse (who advised WellPoint) retained their top positions in the global healthcare deal advisory league table.
The value of Amerigroup, as a company, dropped 34% within two weeks of that agreement, in stark shades of what happened when Bank of America took over Merrill Lynch in the fall of 2008.
This summer, Amerigroup and Goldman Sachs faced a shareholder lawsuit filed by the city of Monroe Employees Retirement System and Louisiana Municipal Police Employees Retirement System. It alleged that Goldman advised Amerigroup to accept WellPoint’s offer quickly, rather than seek other bids, because the bank had structured a complex, and fee-heavy derivatives transaction on the back of the deal. The insurers resolved the suit by tweaking the deal parameters. All parties denied ‘any wrongdoing.’ But where there’s smoke in complex derivatives land, there is fire.
After the Supreme Court upheld the PPACA, a spate of mergers rippled through the managed health care realm, to ostensibly cope with smaller profit margins and ‘compliance costs.’ But really, it’s because each firm wants to corner as much as possible of the market, in as many states as it can, to garner more premiums and control more disbursements and prices at the upcoming insurance ‘exchanges.’
In late August, the third largest insurance company in the US, Aetna announced it was buying Coventry Health Care for $5.7 billion. Coventry provides Medicare and Medicaid services, thus the takeover expands Aetna’s Medicare and Medicaid business. Being part of Aetna enables Coventry to grab more consumers on more state-run health insurance exchanges, reducing competition in the process. The Department of Justice is examining anti-trust issues surrounding the deal, but it’s still expected to close in mid-2013.
On October 17th, UnitedHealth Group issued $2.5 billion of bonds as part of its $4.9 billion acquisition of Brazil’s Amil Participacoes. Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley, UBS and Wells Fargo Securities were lead underwriters on the deal.
They are not buying international companies in order to increase accounting transparency. Like other multinationals, they are doing so to move profits around and circumvent restrictions and tax laws. They are using cash, or raising extra debt, to do so, rather than to reduce premiums or increase disbursements to medical professionals.
And if you’re keeping score – billion of dollars are flowing from insurance companies – NOT to reduce premiums to patients and NOT to reimburse doctors and NOT to enhance the quality of care, but to simply expand nationally and globally. Meanwhile, their CEOs are doing quite well from all that non-health care related movement.
Total compensation for the bulk of health care company CEOs rose by 14.7% in 2011 by 14.7%, or $11.1 million, to $87 million. Cigna’s CEO David Cordani made $19.1 million. UnitedHealth Group’s CEO, Stephen J. Hemsley bagged $49 million in salary, stock options, and other compensation last year. The highest-paid CEO made 94 times the average compensation level of primary care physicians. And none of them had to pick up a single scalpel in the process.
Doctors as profit centers
Not just patients, but physicians have been bled steadily from the current state of insurance company controlled health care through diminishing insurance reimbursements, electronic medical records mandates whereby they spend as much time complying with Kafkaesque controls over their decisions on performing surgeries and providing care, and debt. New doctors are graduating with an average of $250,000 in debt, which, combined with diminishing disbursement and soaring costs, will keep many, underwater. Forever.
According to Dr. Michael H. Heggeness, President of the North American Spine Society, a group of 6500 global spinal and orthopedic surgeons (at which I delivered a speech last month), “The last people, that most of the population feels sorry for are doctors, yet they are in an economic crisis of their own. In 2002, 80% were in private practice, now 70% are in hospitals because they can’t afford to make a private practice work.”
Meanwhile the more hospitals are viewed as profit centers, the more their Chairmen will cut costs to maximize returns, and not care quality. They will seeks ways to sell underperforming assets, programs or services and reduce the number of nonessential employees, burdening those that remain. No doubt the private equity community will be getting more into this game, as insurance companies buy more hospitals, doctors, clinics, and perhaps drug companies, or vice versa, and ‘restructuring’ accelerates.
And if insurance companies can manage doctors directly, they can control not just costs, but treatment – our treatment. It’s not an imaginary government takeover anyone should fear; but a very real, here-and-now insurance company takeover, to which no one in Washington is paying attention.
Nomi Prins is an independent journalist, speaker, and author of several books, including “Other People’s Money: The Corporate Mugging of America.” She is a former managing director at Goldman Sachs and and ran the international analytics group at Bear Stearns in London. She is a member of Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt) Federal Reserve Reform Advisory Council and is a senior fellow at the nonpartisan public policy think-tank, Demos.