Prices rising, choice declining for 2016 Obamacare

Data released yesterday at shows the beginnings of an adverse selection death spiral that threatens the stability of the system of insurance created by the Affordable Care Act.  The data shows that, on plans using the “federally facilitated marketplace” created under the ACA, PPO plans that continued from 2015 to 2016 increased gross premiums an average of 16% and Gold and Platinum plans increased 15% and 21% respectively.  HMO plans, by contrast, increased a lesser 8% and Bronze and Silver Plans increased a lesser 12% and 9% respectively.  We should thus expect to see in 2016 relatively fewer people purchasing plans that give them a greater choice in physicians or that provide greater protection against medical expenses.

The tables below summarize the big picture.  The first table shows the mean change in gross premiums between 2015 and 2016 for plans that persisted over that timespan when grouped by metal level.  As one can see the more generous Gold and Platinum plans increased at rates considerably higher than the less generous Catastrophic, Bronze and Silver plans.

MetalLevel percent change
1 Bronze 12.1
2 Catastrophic 8.1
3 Gold 15.2
4 Silver 9.4
5 Platinum 20.9
mean change in premiums between 2015 and 2016 for 6,699 persistent plans

The second table shows the mean change in premiums between 2015 and 2016 for plans that persisted over that timespan when grouped by plan type.  As one can see the PPO plan, which offers the greatest choice of doctor, increased at a higher rate than other types of plans.  EPOs, which are similar to HMOs but restrict visits to specialists less, increased in gross premiums at a rate far higher than HMOs.

PlanType percent change
1 POS 12.3
2 HMO 8.3
3 EPO 12.2
4 PPO 16.5
mean change in premiums between 2015 and 2016 for 6,699 persistent plans

The third table combines the first two and shows, for each combination of metal level and plan type, the mean percentage increase in gross premiums between 2015 and 2016.

1 Catastrophic 1.9 5.8 6.9 14.8
2 Bronze 11.2 10.9 12.0 16.2
3 Silver 5.8 8.8 12.5 14.5
4 Gold 9.4 16.6 17.1 19.7
5 Platinum 12.2 25.6 7.5 25.9
mean change in premiums between 2015 and 2016 for 6,699 persistent plans

Premium increases are only part of the story, however.  Some types of plans are not available at any price any longer.  The table below shows the percentage of rating areas in 2015 and 2016 containing each type of plan.  Notice that the percent of rating areas containing any PPO has dropped significantly between 2015 and 2016; HMOs and POS plans have dropped as well, though EPO plans have become more prevalent.

PlanType AVG2015 AVG2016
1 HMO 92.6 88.6
2 EPO 78.3 82.5
3 POS 83.7 75.4
4 PPO 92.5 76.7
percent of rating areas having at least one of these plan types

We can also consider the prevalence of competition. The table below shows the percentage of rating areas in 2015 and 2016 containing at least two of each type of plan. Notice that with PPOs, the percentage of rating areas with competition has declined, although it has increased somewhat for HMOs, EPOs and POS plans.

PlanType AVG2015 AVG2016
1 HMO 71.3 72.5
2 EPO 66.5 74.0
3 POS 48.2 50.6
4 PPO 76.0 61.0
percent of rating areas having at least two of these plan types

The same analysis can be done on the metal levels of the plans available.  The table immediately below shows for 2015 and 2016  the percentage of rating areas in which there is at least one plan of the specified metal level.  Platinum plans have declined sharply in prevalence since 2015.  Now only just over half of the rating areas have even a single platinum plan available even if one were willing and able to pay the higher premiums.

MetalLevel AVG2015 AVG2016
1 Catastrophic 74.3 72.2
2 Bronze 91.8 88.1
3 Silver 91.1 89.7
4 Gold 90.9 88.5
5 Platinum 92.7 53.2
percent of rating areas having at least one of these metal levels

When it comes to competition, the picture is even worse for platinum plans.  In only about a third of the rating areas can one choose between platinum plans.

MetalLevel AVG2015 AVG2016
1 Catastrophic 33.5 30.3
2 Bronze 82.5 82.4
3 Silver 85.7 84.6
4 Gold 73.0 73.4
5 Platinum 44.9 34.6
percent of rating areas having at least two of these metal levels

Finally, since it seems to be the PPO plans whose prevalence is declining most, we can show the extent of that prevalence according to the metal level of the plan. The table below shows that the Platinum PPOs, the plan probably most helpful to the chronically ill that the ACA was supposed to help greatly, is diminish significantly in prevalence but that Gold and Silver PPOs are diminishing as well

PlanType MetalLevel AVG2015 AVG2016
1 PPO Catastrophic 85.8 71.1
2 PPO Bronze 94.9 81.6
3 PPO Silver 94.9 81.6
4 PPO Gold 94.9 81.6
5 PPO Platinum 89.5 53.5
percent of rating areas having at least one of these Platinum plan types


The data shows that platinum plans and PPO plans are shrinking in prevalence and that the gross premiums for such plans are going up. One might say that this development is not so awful since it leaves in place a market for more basic plans: HMO plans for example or silver and gold plans.  Perhaps the government should not be subsidizing individual’s choice of doctors or fostering plans, such as platinum plans, that fail to deter excess medical consumption.  Such is not, however, the promise of the ACA or, I suspect, the desires of many of its proponents.

Moreover, we are in a dynamic situation.  Think about next year when the insurer subsidies are supposed to disappear and when the chronically ill people who were in platinum and/or PPO plans migrate into the next best thing, a gold plan or, if one is available, a POS or EPO plan.  Suddenly those plans become vulnerable to adverse selection pressures.  And for 2017 we might thus expect to see yet further shrinkage of PPO and platinum plans and greater pressures on everything but the basic Bronze and Silver HMO plans.  When that happens, the adverse selection death spiral will not only start biting wealthier purchases or those with chronic conditions, but mainstream America. Private health insurance is fragile. It generally does not well withstand the sort of underwriting regulation imposed by the ACA.  The conceit of the ACA proponents was that they had engineered a system — the “three legged stool” so strong that it could resist the almost invariable pressures of adverse selection.  If I am right, and regardless what one thinks about the motives of those proponents, we are beginning to see that the engineering was just not good enough.

Caveats and further research

The computations shown above are based on the number of plans and not weighted by the number of enrollees.  This is largely of necessity since the federal government has not been releasing enrollment figure by plan in a clear way (although it may be possible to tease the figures out of rate review submissions filed and collated on  Although enrollment weighting will likely decrease the average mean premium (less expensive policies tend to be purchased more), it is not clear that enrollment weighting will have much effect on relative premium increases.

The figures are also not computed yet on a state-by-state basis, something that I hope to present in a later post.  They also contain only data for states whose plans are described in material available at  Data for states such as California and New York, which have their own exchanges, is not included here and might alter the numbers somewhat.

Finally, I present gross premiums here; as I have discussed at length elsewhere, net premium increases may well be higher, particularly where the purchaser wishes to retain a gold or platinum plan or a PPO plan whose premiums are rising even faster than those of the silver plans and the second lowest silver plan. The situation is worst where, due to some willingness on the part of a new entrant to take risk,  the second lowest silver plan drops in price, thereby decreasing subsidy levels, but other silver, gold and platinum plans increase in price.


Programming for this work was done in R using data from and is available on request from the author. Packages used include data.table, tidyR, htmlTable and dplyr. There is a lot more work to be done mining these databases.

Share Button

Choose your doctor? Not anymore in Obamacare’s Houston

The data is not fully out yet, but, if my home area of Houston, Texas (Harris County) is representative, PPO plans that offer the greatest choice of doctors and that provide low cost sharing are extinct, as are POS plans that also offer more choice of medical practitioners. Platinum plans of any sort are on their way to its extinction.

In 2015, there were 19 PPOs available in Harris County, 12 from Blue Cross Blue Shield and 7 from Cigna Healthcare.  In 2016, according to the preliminary data available on and released Sunday, there are none.   Nor does the matter improve my considering POS plans, which also offer a greater degree of choice of doctor than does an HMO.  In 2015 there were17 such plans in Harris County, 10 from Aetna and 7 from Humana.   Those are gone too in 2016.  So, basically, it is no longer true in Harris County that you have a choice of doctor if you purchase an Obamacare plan.  You get what the HMO or EPO gives you.

Platinum plans are now almost extinct. In 2015, there were three platinum plans available in Harris County, an HMO and POS offered by Humana and and EPO offered by United Healthcare.  According to the preliminary information released Sunday, only the Humana HMO survives. Thus, you can get a plan that has minimal cost sharing, but no longer one that offers great choice of medical practitioners. The Humana POS and the United EPO are gone.

Notice what's missing from the list of plan types?
Notice what’s missing from the list of plan types?

And it’s going to cost you a lot to put yourself in a pool in which cost sharing is low.  In 2015, the gross premium for the Humana Platinum HMO (32673TX0640030) was $448 for an individual age 40 (non-smoker). In 2016, the gross premium for the same Humana plan was $551, an increase in gross premiums of 23%.

Net premium increases — the thing the insured actually pays — are likely to rise a similar amount for the one remaining platinum plan.  The second lowest silver plan — the baseline for computation of subsidies — has increased in price by $34, from $222 in 2015 to $256 in 2016.  Consider an individual eligible for a $150 subsidy in 2015.  If they purchased the Humana Platinum HMO in 2015, their net price would be $298.  If they purchased the same policy in 2016, yes, their subsidy might grow by $34 but their net price would still be $367, an increase of 23%.

All of this is the very predictable consequence of a design flaw in the ACA.  It heralds an unraveling of the Obamacare market. Who is willing to pay the extra cost of a PPO: generally people who value a long term relationship with their physician.  And those people are disproportionately less healthy than others.  Hence, the PPO pool tends to be populated by people who are expensive to treat.  Although insurers could, in theory, compensate for this by raising premiums to very high levels, in fact that does not work for long because, with premiums yet higher, only the least healthy of the least healthy persist, and the pressure on premium grows. Insurers, seeing the handwriting on the wall, thus kill off these plans before they technically implode.

It is the same problem with platinum plans.  The people who most want low cost sharing tend to be the people who most have high costs.  These plans are thus difficult to sustain where plans with lower cost sharing are available.  The complex ecology of health insurance does not permit them to survive.

When the Obama administration releases its data in a form that is more susceptible to in depth analysis, we’ll be able to see if Harris County is representative or an anomaly.  Although the trend may  be stronger or weaker in other areas, I predict it will not show there is much special about the Houston, Texas area in its vulnerability to a death spiral.

Share Button

Winter is coming?

For the past year or so, ACA proponents have gloated over the fact that markets have not yet collapsed in a death spiral and that enrollment in Exchange plans has grown to 9 million.  There are at least four recent developments, however, that suggest the ACA is in greater trouble than many realize.

Enrollments Way Lower Than Projected

The first piece of troubling news comes from CMS itself: Notwithstanding the full implementation of the individual mandate, CMS is projecting anywhere from 9.4 million to 11.4 million people enrolled in the Exchanges, an increase of 3-25% over its figure for 2015.  And, while ordinarily growth rates of this nature might please insurers, the projections on the basis of which Obamacare was enacted asserted that 21 million would be in the Exchanges by 2016.  Thus, while the Exchanges were running at 70% of original projections in 2015, they are now projected to run at just 45 – 52% of projections for 2016.  Moreover, between 0.9 million and 1.5 million of the enrollees for 2016 are projected to come  not from the uninsured but from those already holding off-Exchange individual market policies.

The new projection
The new projection
The premise on which the ACA was enacted
The premise on which the ACA was enacted

The reduced enrollment in the Exchanges has several ramifications. First, it likely means the pool in the Exchanges is less healthy on average than expected. Second it means the significant overhead expended in establishing the Exchanges and running them is spread over a lot fewer people. And third it means that Obamacare was essentially passed on greatly exaggerated assertions of its benefits.  Does the extraordinarily elaborate and expensive apparatus is establishes make sense when the a far lower than projected number of people gain health insurance of quality? One also must wonder how the dilution of the individual mandate through various “hardship exemptions” may have lowered the number of people enrolled on the Exchanges.

[[Added 10/20/2015]] For an excellent analysis of this issue, look also at Brian Blase’s recent article in Forbes. (

Footnote 1: CMS is now “unable” to make projections for the SHOP Exchanges.  Are we now prepared to call them a bust?

Footnote 2: It is not clear whether the CMS enrollment projections took into account the very substantial gross and net premium that appear to be coming (see below).

More Coops Closing

The second piece of disturbing news is that at least four more coops insuring a significant number of people on the Exchanges are going out of business.  They are as follows:

Health Republic Insurance of Oregon (10,000 members; $50 million startup “loan”). By the way, Dawn Bonder, CEO of Health Republic, was quoted in The Oregonian just a month ago as follows: “We are strong and we are sticking to our plan, which has always been slow and steady growth. We’re very financially stable,” Bonder said. “We see a long,healthy life in front of us.”

Colorado HealthOP (83,000 members; $72 million in startup “loans”).  According to the Denver Post, this comes after the coop increased its enrollment seven-fold and captured 39% of the market in Colorado by cutting rates in 2015 (notwithstanding losses the year before).

Kentucky Health Cooperative (51,000 members; $146 million in federal loans, with a $65 million “emergency solvency loan” in 2014).  Again, this coop managed to capture 75% of the Kentucky Exchange market by offering insurance at lower prices.  Before shutting down, it had requested a 25% increase in premiums for 2016.  By the way, anyone remember those stories about how Kentucky was the success poster child for the ACA? It looks like its success may have been built primarily by selling insurance at cut-rate prices hoping that most of the losses would be bankrolled by the federal government.

Tennessee Community Health Alliance (27,000 members; $73 million in federal startup loans).  How had this coop captured market share?  Apparently by charging premiums so low that, as reported by The Tennessean, it had to request a 32% increase for 2016 and was granted/directed — get this — to offer premiums at a 45% higher rate.

Many of the coops blame their failure on the Cromnibus law enacted in December of 2015 that prohibited use of non-appropriated funds to pay for the federal Risk Corridors program that, on paper, was supposed to have the federal government backstop up to 80% of losses.  Given the magnitude of insurer losses thus far, the federal government is thus able to pay only 12.6% of the obligations created on paper by this program.  If one assumes, however, that the coops are correct in blaming Risk Corridors rather than mismanagement for their failure, this would confirm the suspicions of many that insurers priced their policies deliberately low in order to bring in business, relying on the federal taxpayer to cover their losses. I would also not be surprised to see some sort of legal action relating to coops who, notwithstanding Cromnibus and the handwriting on the wall persisted in booking Risk Corridor receivables at full value until very recently.

There will surely be lots of finger pointing over the failure of these coops: Democrats pointing to the “evil” Cromnibus bill as the source (although many Democrats voted for the legislation) and Republicans pointing to the inherent flaws in the ACA as the root of the problem. In the meantime, however, in many states, one of the sources of lower-priced insurance has been eliminated, meaning that many will be seeing substantial increases in gross premiums.

The fall of the PPO?

One of the promises of the ACA was that it would continue to offer choice to consumers and that they would be able to keep their doctor.  Not so in many states.  Plans that offer greater degrees of choice in selecting one’s provider appear to be in some trouble, closing in the shadow of an impending adverse selection death spiral. In Florida, for example, zero PPOs will now be available on the Exchanges in 2016.  In Texas, the state’s largest insurer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, has announced that it lost so much money on individual PPO plans that it will no longer sell any in 2016. This development means 367,000 people will have to find other types of plans. In Illinois, Blue Cross is continuing PPOs for now, but only with narrower networks than had been available under a plan that had served 173,000 individuals.

I suspect this is just the beginning of problems for PPOs sold on the individual market in an era when insurers can not medically underwrite.  Between 2014 and 2015, PPO premiums went up at a far higher rate than other plan types.  We will shortly have the data to see whether this trend continued in 2016.


We don’t have all the information yet, but if ACA proponents like Charles Gaba are correct, we are looking at some substantial gross premium rate hikes in the United States, and extremely high rate hikes in some states.  What Mr. Gaba has done is to go state by state through various filings and do what no one else has tried: correlate premium rates with actual enrollments.  Although I do not always agree with Mr. Gaba, I must praise him for a very worthy and time consuming enterprise. The fact that some insurer is charging an astronomical premium for insurance doesn’t mean as much when few people are buying their product as it does when an insurer is getting a large share of the business.  Unfortunately, the federal government does not publish in any place I can discover insurer-by-insurer breakdowns of enrollment.

The research suggests gross premiums will go up 12.45% nationwide once enrollment weighting is taken into account.  Statewide figures range from a high of 41.4% in Minnesota, 39.0% in Alaska, and 30% in Hawaii to lows of 0.7% in Maine, 0.7% in Indiana and  3.5% in Connecticut.  Among the bigger states, the estimates are 4% for California, 15.8% for Texas, 9.5% in Florida, and 7% in New York. As I have noted on this blog and in testimony before a Congressional committee, net premium increases — which is what really matters to purchasers — can often be considerably greater than these figures, particularly for poorer individuals, but also can be lower.


More to come

We will, of course, see what plays out.  But for those who thought the brilliant engineering of Obamacare had forever slain the adverse selection dragon, beware. Dragon eggs can hatch.

Share Button

Is Minnesota the canary in the coal mine?

We will have a fuller picture in a few weeks when the federal government is supposed to release the premiums and plans available on, which serves about 34 states, but if Minnesota is representative, there are signs that the ACA is entering a dangerous phase. That state has posted its rates for 2016 already. It’s not pretty. Gross premiums for policies sold on its Exchange will go up between 14% and 49%.  Net premiums will go up more than this or less than this depending on the income of the subscriber.

The table below shows the average rate increases for 2016 among the insurance carriers selling on MNSURE, Minnesota’s health insurance exchange. The data is simply copied from its website.


The spreadsheet shown below indicates gross and net premiums for a 40 year old individual residing in Minneapolis, earning $25,000 per year and selecting a silver plan.  The rate increases contained there make the simplifying assumption that each insurer applied its average rate increase to the listed plans.  We don’t have actual plan-by-plan data that would enable us to provide a better estimate.  Here, the net premiums assume that the individual is deemed able under to contribute about $136 per month to the premium.  As one can see the the net premiums go up between 2015 and 2016 by -7% for a few of the Medica plans to up to 36% for the more expensive Blue Cross plans.


If we reduce the income of the purchaser, the net premium increases can grow.  Here, we take our same 40 year old but cut his income down to $18,000.  The individual is (somehow) supposed to be able to contribute about $62 a month for a policy. Now the net premiums for the silver plans swing more dramatically, going from -15% for one of the Medica plans to 61% for one of the Blue Cross plans.


Is Minnesota representative?  Not entirely.  It is probably at the high end of premium increases in part because its premiums were unusually low in 2015.  But if other states experience rate hikes anything like Minnesota, we will see healthier individuals search out alternatives or start to be more creative about hardship exemptions in the event they decide that insurance under the ACA is just too expensive. Either way, there is beginning to be a significant risk of the exchange markets unraveling.






Share Button

Bad news for Obamacare: Insurers lost a lot of money in 2014

In testimony before Congress last June,  I think I may have shocked some Representatives by estimating that insurers selling policies on the individual exchanges as part of the Affordable Care Act would be sufficiently unprofitable that they would get only 37% of what they would have received under the Risk Corridors program had the federal government not required that the budget for that program be balanced.  It turns out, however, that my gloomy estimate was, in fact, wrong — but only because it was far too cheery.  In fact, according to data released yesterday, insurers will receive only 12.5% of what they thought at one time they would receive.  There is a $2.5 billion shortfall between the money taken in under that program from profitable insurers and the money now owed to those who lost money, at least as the government measures it.

The shortfall spells trouble for Obamacare in a number of ways.  And it is difficult to overestimate how troubling this development should be for supporters of that program.

Some Exchange insurers are likely in serious trouble

First, it likely means that some of the smaller insurers who, at least  before passage of section 227 of the Cromnibus bill last December,  had anticipated receiving full payment for the money the government owes under the Risk Corridors program, are going to find themselves with a serious cash flow problem. Some may even find  themselves with solvency problems given the improbability that the full amount of the Risk Corridor obligation will ever be paid.  Companies that had booked Risk Corridor payments as receivables valued at 100% of the face amount, may have to start writing off at least part of them off as uncollectable.  Thus, when CMS says that the government’s inability to pay 87.5% of what it owes may create “some isolated solvency and liquidity challenges,” that is likely an understatement. Fortunately, as the Wall Street Journal reports, some insurers apparently saw the handwriting on the wall and accounted for the Cromnibus limitation properly so as not to deceive shareholders or state regulators.

Bad news for Exchange premiums

Second, it augurs severe pressure on insurance pricing in the healthcare exchanges.  The reason that there is a $2.5 billion shortfall is that a lot of insurers lost a lot of money selling policies on the Exchanges during 2014.  Insurers, like other businesses, have this habit of trying to make up for past losses by charging more in the future.  So we will see later this month some of the effect when the Obama administration releases data on premiums for 2016, but the massive losses in 2014 shown by the Risk Corridors results is likely to add to pricing pressures.

The Obama plan to rescue insurers has failed

Third, it shows that broken promises have consequences.  Let’s go through some history here.  Remember the infamous promise, “if you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it.  Period.”?  That was, of course, not exactly true in light of what the statute actually said.  And, when Americans saw their policies cancelled as a result, the Obama administration decided it would delay and relax enforcement of the various provisions of the ACA that would have killed enough many non-Exchange insurance plans.

But this refusal to salvage the political rhetoric by sacrificing the language of the statute got many insurers angry. The insurershad priced their policies on the assumption that of course the Obama promise was the usual political moonshine and that those healthy insureds previously owning now non-compliant policies would migrate their way over to Exchange policies and stabilize that market.  In true Cat in the Hat Comes Back style, the Obama administration “solved” that problem, as I explained twice (here and  here) in December of 2013, by fiddling with the accounting rules in the Risk Corridors program by making it more difficult for insurers to be deemed to have made sufficient money to owe the government and making it easier for insurers to be deemed to have lost money and thus be owed money by the government.  (Although its pronouncements were a bit cryptic, as I noted last April, the CBO may have estimated that the cost of this gimmick was as much as $8 billion).  Now, however, with the Cromnibus bill prohibiting the Obama administration from dipping into unspecified accounts to pay for Risk Corridors,  which I guess is what they planned since no money was ever appropriated for the program, that last bit of  multi-billion tinkering has backfired.   Insurers will not be paid for Risk Corridors for a long time if ever and, thus, they have indeed suffered a significant loss of a chain of make-it-up-as-you-go-along policies designed to salvage the ACA.

Don’t trust government accounting

Fourth, the Risk Corridors deficit exposes as pure bunkum the statements of many in Washington in the post ACA era — and continuing even today — about the state of the insurance market and the Risk Corridors program. Recall that at one point not too long ago the CBO was asserting that the Risk Corridors would actually make the government $8 billion.  This was done, perhaps not coincidentally, after an effort by Senator Marco Rubio gained prominence to defund Risk Corridors as an insurance industry bailout.  Devoted readers may also recall that I found the CBO’s estimate “baffling,” a bit of cynicism whose sagacity may have improved with age.  And even today with the announcement,  officials at CMS repeated the technically correct and yet practically dubious notion that, yes, there were shortfalls today, but Risk Corridor payments made by insurers in 2015 and 2016 might be enough not just to overcome the 2014 deficit now valued at $2.5 billion but also to make whole insurers who lost money in 2015 and 2016.

And the plea to undo Cromnibus

It is no wonder that former CMS head administrator Marilynn Tavener, now speaking for the America’s Health Insurance Plans, is now saying it is “essential that Congress and CMS act to ensure the program works as designed and consumers are protected.” By “as designed, Ms. Tavenner means  before Cromnibus when Congress, in a spasm of fiscal responsibility, required that Risk Corridors, for which no money was ever appropriated, actually pay for itself just like the Risk Adjustment program.  Translation of Ms. Tavenner: find someone else’s money somewhere to bail out insurers who lost money in the Exchanges.

Share Button