Being against Obamacare has been the keystone, the capstone, the mighty sledgehammer, the massive metaphor of your choice for the right for five years now. They couldn’t stop it from being passed. They couldn’t stop it at the Supreme Court. They weren’t able to choke it off by “defunding” it. They rejoiced at the rubber-meets-the-sky rollout of Healthcare.gov, but then the kinks got worked out of that. They railed at the administration using discretionary powers built into the law to help it work better. Every horror story of Obamacare ruining people’s lives they came up with turned out to be false. Almost all of the people cynically cancelled by the insurance companies as a way to sell them more expensive insurance got insured again fairly quickly. Then 7 million people signed up on the exchanges, and altogether some 10 million formerly uninsured people now have medical coverage.
But the right still needs to call it a “train wreck.” The magic mantra has to work for them. Just this morning, here’s a Republican Congressman saying that we have to cut Food Stamps because: Obamacare. Say that again slowly?
It’s getting harder and harder on the right to come up with new ways to say it isn’t working when it actually seems to be working. I have to hand it to them, though: Those spin factories are filled with hard-working creative people. Get to work early, stay late, trash Obamacare. Hey, it’s a living.
So what’s the latest?
So what’s the latest? This fall, Obamacare premiums are going to “skyrocket”!
Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius went before a House Ways and Means Committee hearing a few weeks ago and claimed outrageously that premiums on the exchanges are likely to rise for 2015, but not by much, and certainly more slowly that in the past.
What? How can this be? Yet another Administration figure has been trotted out to claim baldly to Congress and the American people that Obamacare is basically going to do all right.
TheHill.com got right to work and managed to come up with what they claimed were health insurance company officials eager to forecast that they would have to triple their premiums or more — and they would be rolling out those jack-ups right in time to deal a blow to Democratic chances in the fall elections. TheHill then published it under the breathless headline: “O-Care premiums to skyrocket.”
Neat, huh? Maybe a little too neat. Let’s see whether this claim makes sense.
Capped MLRs: Under the ACA, insurance companies must pay out at least 80% to 85% of premiums for actual medical costs, depending on the type of plan. These are “medical loss ratios” (MLRs). That’s the law. The other 15 to 20% is all they get for administration, advertising, executive bonuses — and profit. If they arbitrarily jack up rates, so that they are paying out a lower proportion in medical costs, they have to give the excess back to the rate-payers. The federal government has already forced some insurance companies to do this.
Those anonymous company officials who complained to TheHill claimed that “everybody knows” that higher costs imposed on the insurance companies by the botched Obamacare rollout will have to be passed on to consumers. Is this is true? Were there huge costs to the insurance companies? Doesn’t matter. Unless they plan to break the law and falsely report their MLRs, these alleged extra costs still have to be absorbed in that 15 to 20%.
So the only reason that they would be able to make premiums “skyrocket” is if the actual healthcare costs per person “skyrocket.” So how are healthcare costs doing?
Healthcare costs: Yes, healthcare costs (National Medical Expenditures) are continuing to go up — at a rate lower than 2%, the lowest rate that has been counted in the 50 years that they have been counting. Not a skyrocket.
But maybe they mis-guessed on 2014, and holy moly, they’re suffering! Or maybe they purposely under-priced their offerings in 2014 to gain market share. So they have to make up for it in 2015?
Price war: Talk to insurance marketing and sales people. I do a lot. They’ll tell you that you really don’t want to be the low-price leader. If you purposely under-price the market, you get the people who buy on price alone, and these are not anybody’s favorite customers. They will buy the cheapest product you offer this year, then drift away for someone else next year, when you have to raise the premiums. And you will have to raise your premiums, because your MLR came in at 110% — you’re spending more on medical care than the premium brought in, and you just can’t do that year after year.
So no, price wars are not the thing to do in healthcare insurance.
But maybe they guessed wrong on how expensive these new people are going to be with their new medical insurance?
Actuarial risk: It would be reasonable to assume that the insurance companies took their best shot at the actuarials for 2014. These are new markets and new customers, and there are lots of them. It’s a “bet the company” deal to get it wrong by any major amount. They have already figured in the really sick people who couldn’t get insurance before, and the bump in utilization from not-sick people who are newly insured and getting various problems taken care of, and so on. Looking forward to 2015, there is no new, extra actuarial bump in the offing, except that more of the uninsured, having missed the window this year, are likely to sign up when the window opens again in the fall.
But what about the balance of young and old?
Death spiral: What about the dreaded “demographic death spiral,” with too few healthy young people signing up to balance out the 50-somethings and the chronically ill? Didn’t happen. Apparently a pretty good percentage of young healthy people signed up, especially in the last surge, enough to come close to the Administration’s projections and hopes. Now, of course, you can always just claim that the Administration is “cooking the books,” that’s an easy out. But my read is that the Administration, having been seriously burned on the “you can keep your insurance, you can keep your doctor” misstatement, is actually being quite cautious in its claims. I am not seeing any dancing in the end zone here.
But what if a particular insurance company got it wrong in a particular market? Won’t they get burned badly and have to jack up rates to make the loss back?
The Three Rs: The insurance companies are back-stopped by each other and the federal government if they guessed seriously wrong through the provisions in the law called the “Three Rs” (reinsurance, risk corridors, and risk adjustment). No one is going to be “forced” to make their rates “skyrocket.” If they want to stay in the market, they will be looking for very moderate increases.
Still, aren’t the insurance companies themselves saying that things are way out of whack, they are taking it in the shorts, and they are going to have to jack up premiums for 2015? Actually, no, they are not.
How the insurance companies really see it: There are plenty of reasons to believe that running most citizens’ healthcare financing through for-profit public companies is a bad idea. But it does have at least one advantage: unlike not-for-profits, for-profit public companies by law have to show a certain amount of transparency. They have to open the doublet and show us what they’ve got. In annual reports, in 10Ks, and in conference calls with Wall Street analysts, what CEOs and CFOs say has legal weight. Of course they want to sound positive, because they would like to drive the stock price up. But material forward-looking misstatements can get you sued by your shareholders. So unlike in alleged anonymous unattributed whines to political blogs, public company executives have some care about what they say.
And what are they saying? They’re doing fine. Wellpoint, one of the nation’s largest health insurers (it operates many of the for-profit Blue Cross/Blue Shield plans) recently raised its earnings projections. Why? According to CEO Joseph Swedish, mostly because way more people signed up for its Obamacare plans than it expected. Think about that: This also clearly means that Wellpoint expects to make money off of all those new customers at the prices they were quoted. Absent some huge demographic or actuarial bump, they don’t expect that they will have to “skyrocket” premiums next year to make up for some mistake.
This is just the latest in a string of positive financial projections since the first of the year from all the big for-profit insurance companies, including Aetna, Cigna, Humana, and UnitedHealth Group. Swedish at least doesn’t think this is temporary. In the same analysts call, he predicted that Wellpoint is currently in a position to “drive profitable growth over the next several years.”
So: Actual healthcare costs are almost flat. Healthcare insurers don’t really do price wars. They were serious about their actuarial guesses for 2014, including all the new expenses of really sick people and the previously uninsured. The “demographic death spiral” did not really appear. The Three R’s protect the insurance companies from getting the risk seriously wrong. And in public, when misstating things could get them into big lawsuits, they say they are doing fine, they can handle the risks, and they expect to make money.
So no, there is no reason to believe that rates for 2015 are going to shoot up, “skyrocket,” explode, use metaphor of your choice here. None.
There is plenty to find fault with in the ACA, and plenty of room to debate about the perfect way to reform healthcare. But I would expect people who want to add to that debate to come armed — with things like research, logic, facts, real quotes from real people, and an understanding of how this industry actually works.