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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Health Insurance Rebates Show How Bad Insurers and State Regulators Can Be

Thursday's health care ruling was a surprising victory for the middle class. I went to bed Wednesday dreading waking up, only to be awakened by a phone call that the law had been upheld. Most of the story is well-known, and summarized in the President's speech: six million young adults under 26 who have gained  insurance, children now (and adults starting in 2014) can no longer be denied insurance due to pre-existing conditions, an end to terminating people's insurance when they get ill, closing the Medicare donut hole, etc. I want to focus on one provision the President mentioned in passing, the $1.1 billion in insurance rebates that 12.8 million Americans will be receiving August 1.

The rebates are due to the medical loss ratio or "80/20" rule that insurance companies cannot spend more than 20% of premium dollars on "administration, CEO pay, and profits," as Health Care for America Now (HCAN) summarizes it. The requirement is 85% spent on actual medical care for firms in the large group market, according to HCAN). Of the $1.1 billion in rebates, $393.9 million will be in the individual market, $386.4 million in the large group market, and $321.1 million in the small group market.

Although $1.1 billion in rebates is not a lot of money in the multi-trillion U.S. health care system, it is enough to provide noticeable rebates to millions of consumer before the November election. Consumers Union has a state-by-state breakdown of which insurance companies owe rebates in each state, and how much. Three patterns emerge from these data: First, some companies routinely failed to meet the 80/20 rule in state after state after state. Second, Blue Cross/Blue Shield companies, which were once largely non-profit but were converted to for-profit corporations mostly in the 1990s, are now frequent violators of the medical loss ratio rule. Third, some states, most notably Texas, have such lax insurance company regulations that violations of the rule are rampant. The data below come from the Consumers Union link above.

1) Multiple violations by individual companies: The poster child for gouging consumers and spending premium dollars on things other than health care is Golden Rule Insurance Company (since 2003 a subsidiary of UnitedHealthcare), which operates solely in the individual market, and not in either the small group or large group health care markets. According to the Consumers Union data, Golden Rule owes rebates in 23 states where it operates. Comparing the CU data with Golden Rule's website on where it operates, we find that in only nine states where it operates does it not owe rebates. We also learn that two Golden Rule subsidiaries also owe rebates, American Medical Security Life Insurance Company in Utah in the individual market, and Oxford Health Plans of New Jersey Inc. in the large employer market, bringing Golden Rule's total to fully 25 states where it owes rebates under the medical loss ratio rule. In a number of states (Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, and West Virginia) , Golden Rule owes more money than any other insurer in the individual market.

Furthermore, UnitedHealthcare subsidiaries carrying the UHC name owe rebates in 28 states in the small business market, large business market, or both.

I don't mean to single out UnitedHealthcare for overcharging: depending on the state and the market, Aetna, Connecticut General, and Time Insurance Company, among others, owe substantial rebates to their customers as well. But Golden Rule and UnitedHealthcare failed to meet their 80/20 tests in so many states that they really stand out.

2) In many states in which Golden Rule does not owe the highest rebates in the individual market, Blue Cross/Blue Shield does. This includes states like Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and most notably, Texas. This represents a complete repudiation of the historical BC/BS ethos, which included non-profit incorporation and community rating (i.e., not penalizing people for getting sick). But that's what happens when you turn non-profits into for-profits in health care.

3) This brings us to lax insurance regulation, as in Texas. Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Texas owes $89.9 million in refunds, all of it in the individual market, which by itself exceeds all the refunds in the much bigger California economy, where total refunds only amount to $73.9 million. Total rebates in Texas will total $167.0 million. The only other state with rebates exceeding $100 million this year is Florida, at $123.6 million. However, a number of states have higher average rebates, led by Vermont at $807. I believe both the total and average rebates should be examined for evidence of weak insurance regulation.

To summarize, the Supreme Court's decision was a great one for the middle class. On top of all the provisions that expand coverage and economic security, 12.8 million consumers will see refunds from their insurers to pay back for their price gouging.

This is not to say that we don't have a long way to go to complete health reform. As Aaron Carroll points out, there is a great deal more that needs to be done to our $2.7 trillion health system, including making coverage universal and getting cost increase under control. But upholding the Affordable Care Act is a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lost Output Over $3 Trillion And Rising

Still traveling, so just a quick post, but this really can't be emphasized enough. Andrew Fieldhouse at the Economic Policy Institute reports that the Congressional Budget Office now has cumulatively reduced its estimate of 2017 gross domestic product by 6.6% since the beginning of the recession in December 2007. As Fieldhouse points out, that doesn't sound like much, but when it's 6.6% of a $15 trillion economy, we are looking at about $1 trillion (with a "T") of lost income in 2017. To put it another way, that is well over $3000 of income per person that year. That is on top of $3 trillion in potential GDP already lost since the recession began, according to Fieldhouse.

The culprit, of course, is the lack of further stimulus to the economy. After the totally inadequate $800 billion stimulus package in 2009, we have had essentially nothing. At the end of 2011, Republicans had to be shamed into approving a payroll tax cut they previously favored. Indeed, as Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute and the Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute have pointed out, it is not the case that both parties are getting more partisan. As they put it, "Let's just say it. The Republicans are the problem." It is the Republicans in Congress who are blocking further stimulus measures. Electing a new Congress that will not pass a stimulus bill will cost Americans thousands of dollars out of their pockets.

We are a long way away from George Wallace's famous claim that there was not "a dimes' worth of difference" between the two parties.