By Peter J. Cunningham
Center for Studying Health System Change
A key provision of the national health reform law is the creation of state-based exchanges to provide more affordable insurance options for people, especially the uninsured. Despite premium subsidies for people with incomes up to 400 percent of the poverty level, or $88,200 for a family of four in 2010, and an individual requirement to enroll in coverage, no one knows who will enroll in the exchanges and who will not, at least initially. Almost 40 percent of uninsured people eligible to receive subsidies through the exchanges have chronic conditions or report fair or poor health, and another 28 percent report recent problems with access to care or paying medical bills, according to a new national study by the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC). However, about one-third of uninsured people eligible for subsidies have had no recent problems with their health, access to medical care or paying medical bills. Enrolling these apparently healthy uninsured people is likely to be challenging but essential to avoiding adverse selection, or enrolling sicker-than-average people, in the exchanges. Otherwise, health insurance costs in the exchanges could be higher than expected.
Contrary to popular perception, many of these healthy and low-cost uninsured people view themselves as risk-averse, which could motivate them to gain coverage in the absence of health or access problems. Also, most uninsured people believe they need health coverage, although fewer believe that health insurance is currently worth the cost, a situation that could change once premium subsidies are available in 2014.
By Don McCanne, MD
One concern of the authors of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was that the state insurance exchanges called for in the legislation might be subject to adverse selection. That is, individuals with greater health care needs would buy the government-subsidized plans if they could afford them, whereas healthy individuals might well choose to remain uninsured, feeling that their portion of the premium was too expensive or frankly unaffordable. This would concentrate high-cost patients in the insurance plans, resulting in the death spiral of skyrocketing premiums.
Healthier individuals who tend to be younger – the so-called “young invincibles” – have been perceived to be greater risk takers and thus more willing to go without health care coverage. This study suggests that these healthy individuals are just as risk-averse as uninsured people with health problems. Everyone wants to be insured.
Thus it is not so much the willingness to take risks that causes these individuals to forgo insurance coverage, but rather it is more whether the additional cost of the premium over the penalty provides enough perceived value, or whether they even have enough funds to pay the premium after their other basic needs are met.
In writing the bill, the authors struggled to balance the actuarial values of the plans (what percentage of costs the plans pay), the subsidies for the premiums and out-of-pocket expenses, and the penalties for non-compliance in purchasing the plans. They wanted the premiums to be affordable, so they pushed actuarial values down, shifting more costs to patients in need. They wanted to limit the burden on the federal budget, so they limited the government-provided subsidies for premiums and out-of-pocket expenses. They didn’t want to press too hard on requiring individuals to purchase expensive private plans from an industry in such disfavor, risking public furor, so they kept the non-compliance penalties low.
No matter how much you adjust these variables, you cannot ever get everyone to agree to purchase insurance. The numbers of individuals declining to purchase plans will be significant, and they will be predominantly healthy. It is absolutely inevitable that the exchange plans will experience adverse selection and will need to keep pushing premiums up.
Households with an income of 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($88,200 for a family of four) will feel the full brunt of the premiums inflated by the death spiral. How high? $25,000? $50,000? And should the family need health care, none of their out-of-pocket expenses are subsidized.
Trying to fudge the numbers won’t work in this structurally unsound financing scheme. We should quit playing games simply to keep the middlemen private insurers in play. Instead, let’s go for an improved Medicare for everyone.