All posts by Seth Chandler

I'm a law professor at the University of Houston Law Center with an emphasis on insurance law. I also have a long-standing and profound interest in the use of mathematics, and Mathematica, in studying law and policy.

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.






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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.

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Backstop argument shouldn’t rescue Obama administration in House lawsuit

A recap of where we are in House v. Burwell

The hottest issue in the law of Affordable Care Act at the moment is whether the Obama administration had constitutional authority to pay insurers billions of dollars for the “Cost Sharing Reduction” provisions when Congress did not appropriate any money for that program.  Those who believe the Obama administration has acted illegally got a boost  recently from United States District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer, who ruled that the House of Representatives had standing to sue Obama administration officials for these sorts of payments.

But it was not just that Judge Collyer ruled in favor of standing that creates the tempest; it was what she said in her opinion. As I noted in a recent blog entry, in resolving the standing issue, Judge Collyer appeared to reject the Obama administration’s main defense. Instead, she wrote:

An appropriation must be expressly stated; it cannot be inferred or implied. 31 U.S.C. § 1301(d). It is well understood that the “a direction to pay without a designation of the source of funds is not an appropriation.”

And that would seem to be precisely what we have here. It is very clear that there is no clear direction from Congress to pay insurers for the cost sharing reductions.  Indeed, as Judge Collyer notes:

On July 13, 2013, the Senate Appropriations Committee adopted S. 1284, a bill appropriating monies to HHS and other agencies. An accompanying report stated that “[t]he Committee recommendation does not include a mandatory appropriation, requested by the administration, for reduced cost sharing assistance . . . as provided for in sections 1402 and 1412 of the ACA.

To be sure, Committee reports are not the same thing as the law. Nonetheless, to the extent they are relevant, here they are highly unsupportive of the notion that Congress intended to spend money on this program.

Moreover, Judge Collyer rejected the argument that the Obama administration could spend money on cost sharing reductions because, unlike in other areas of the ACA, Congress had not explicitly forbad it. Wrote Judge Collyer,  “The absence of a restriction, however, is not an appropriation. ”

Looking at a fallback argument

And, so, what’s left?  And here is where we get to an argument that is just too perfect ” It was articulated recently by Professor Nicholas Bagley of the University of Michigan on his Incidental Economist blog and has been attributed as well by a big proponent of the ACA to Professor David Super of Georgetown University.  I’m going to quote it here, leaving Professor Bagley’s hyperlinks intact so that you can get a sense of at least some of the authorities on which he relies. (Obviously, his blog post (like mine) is not a brief or a law review article, and I am by no means contending that his links were insufficient).

Even without an appropriation, health plans still have a statutory entitlement to cost-sharing payments. What that means in non-legalese is that Congress has promised to pay them money—whether or not there’s an appropriation. And health plans can sue the government in the Court of Federal Claims to make good on that promise. (Congress has undeniably appropriated the money to pay court judgments.)

Now, before we go further, note that this may not exactly be a legal argument.  That is, Professor Bagley could well be right that the lawsuit is kind of pointless if the insurers get paid in the end, but  the House could still be right that the Obama administration acted unconstitutionally by paying insurers without compelling them to go through those extra hoops. But this ignores, of course, the expressive value of the lawsuit which is that the Obama administration is acting lawlessly in implementing the ACA. (It is consistent, though, with some people’s view that, whatever its merit and whatever the importance of the principles at stake, the lawsuit is, in today’s political environment, misguided because cutting off cost sharing reductions is going to anger a lot of people and Republican fingerprints are all over the lawsuit).

Whether Professor Bagley is making a legal or pragmatic argument,  (or both), however, I think it is just a little too perfect.  It assumes its own conclusion.  If it were true that a beneficiary of a federal program — here, poor little insurance companies — could recover in the Court of Federal Claims when Congress failed to appropriate any money for their welfare program, then there would be far less point, really, in Congress ever making appropriations. It would change the Constitution to say something like, “The Executive may draw money from the Treasury except where prohibited by Congress.”  The presumption would have changed from giving Congress the power of the purse,  which is what I thought the Constitution meant, to giving those powers to the President, which I thought was kind of more like a monarchy.

Moreover, there is a decent reason that  we separate passage of a bill from funding of its programs.  And it is well illustrated by the ACA.  Consider the cost sharing reductions.  They were enacted in March, 2010 when the ACA passed.  But they were not to take effect until January 1, 2014. It could well be that, between passage and effect, budgetary priorities shift.  Perhaps we need more money for relocating refugees than we did at the time the original legislation was enacted, or perhaps we became more concerned about an ever growing multi-trillion dollar national debt. But Congress thought, if we ever do have the money, this cost sharing reduction program is a pretty good idea.  And so, the solution is to say, as we have, and as Judge Collyer did, that passage of a bill, generally speaking, is different than appropriation of funds. Congress can enact laws and then not fund the “promises made therein” at least for some period of time.  I do not think Congress had to formally repeal cost sharing reductions in order to put the program on hold and then reenact the program when money became available.

Now, I can imagine Professor Bagley at this point rejoining, “but Congress did appropriate the money by creating a permanent appropriation for judgments rendered in the Court of Federal Claims. ” But if that were true, Congress would have to, each time it did not wish to appropriate funds for a program it has enacted, create an exception to the permanent appropriation for judgments rendered in the Court of Claims.  In addition to converting one provision of the US Code into a trash compactor for discarded legislative ideas, such a requirement would seem to violate the whole idea, at least of Judge Collyer, that  “the absence of a restriction … is not an appropriation. ”

Does Slattery v. U.S. mean that Bagley is actually right? (No)

I will confess that my own above arguments were more thoroughly persuasive to me until I looked at Slattery v. U.S., 635 F.3d 1298 (Fed. Cir. 2011), which involves the Tucker Act. There, the Federal Circuit abrogated a prior doctrine announced in Kyer v. U. S., 369 F.2d 714 (Ct. Cl. 1966),  under which, if there was an agency of the United States, such as army post exchanges (PX) that operated without use of appropriated funds but on the basis of other revenues, there was a jurisdictional bar against the Court of Federal Claims hearing the case and thus no ability of the plaintiff to recover absent a seldom-obtained explicit consent to suit from the otherwise sovereignly immune United States.

Slattery itself involved a claim by the shareholders of a bank against the FDIC which, apparently, did not receive federal funding but which is a federal instrumentality.  Supposedly, in the course of coaxing the bank to have another failing bank merged into it, the FDIC had created contractual assurances that the method of accounting and capitalization standards for the assuming bank would be, for lack of a better term, fairly mellow.  Later, in apparent violation of the contract, the FDIC imposed stricter standards and the bank ran into problems as a result. The court held that the fact that the FDIC did not receive an appropriation did not prevent the Court of Federal Claims from hearing the case.

We conclude that the source of a government agency’s funds, including funds to pay judgments incurred by agency actions, does not control whether there is jurisdiction of a claim within the subject matter assigned to the court by the Tucker Act. The jurisdictional criterion is not how the government entity is funded or its obligations met, but whether the government entity was acting on behalf of the government. … Thus we confirm that Tucker Act jurisdiction does not depend on and is not limited by whether the government entity receives or draws upon appropriated funds.

So, one might be tempted to run with this language and say that, indeed, the insurance companies can sue in the Federal Court of Claims for the money the government “should” have paid them  under the cost sharing reductions (except of course that the Obama administration has paid them.) The fact that no money was appropriated doesn’t matter.  But, I don’t think this is quite right.  For one thing, Slattery is about jurisdiction, not about the merits. All it is really saying is that the fact that the federal entity was not funded by Congressional appropriations does not, in and of itself, create an automatic bar to the court hearing the case.  It does not say that, if the federal agency was acting way outside its authority that the federal government must pay the claim out of the permanent appropriation.  Moreover, in the Slattery case itself, the basic idea was that the FDIC had not honored the deal under which it persuaded one bank to take on a problem bank, not that the FDIC had no authority whatsoever to assist with bank mergers.

Moreover, if you look at the language of Slattery very carefully, the issue is “whether the government entity was acting on behalf of the government.”  Here, I say, it sure looks like the Treasury was not acting lawfully in paying insurers for cost sharing reductions out of money that was supposed to go for tax refunds. And so, it may well be that the Treasury was not acting on behalf of the government but on behalf of the extra-legal objectives, however meritorious or well intentioned they may have been, of the President.  Thus, although as a lawyer for HHS I would certainly be citing Slattery a lot, it does not address the issue in the current case.

And one more thing

Could we also think for a bit about how strong the insurers’ claims in the Court of Federal Claims would really be?  My heart bleeds for insurance companies perhaps more than most, but I have trouble working up a great deal of sympathy here. Insurers surely  became aware at some point before the beginning of 2014 that Congress had not appropriated any money for the cost sharing reduction program.  They would certainly be aware of a problem if the court rules in this case that payments to them are illegal!  And, yet, knowing this, they would seek to sue for making contracts with limited cost sharing available to policyholders at discount prices?  Its not quite the same thing as suing to enforce a contract  where you knew the money to pay you had been embezzled, but it is not that far off either.



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Court creates big problems for stability of Obamacare

Judge Rosemary Collyer of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled this afternoon that the House of Representatives could pursue a legal action — had “standing” to use legal parlance — against a representative of the Obama administration for illegally spending money to fund a key part of the Affordable Care Act: cost sharing reductions. The judge did not decide the merits of the claim brought by the House of Representatives, noting that the Obama administration hotly dispute the allegations made by the House.

The judge’s ruling today is of great significance to the future of the Affordable Care Act.   If the House of Representatives prevails on the merits of its claim — which is that Congress appropriated no money to pay insurance companies billions of dollars to provide about 6 million  Americans with policies with much richer benefits than they otherwise would have been entitled to —  the future of the ACA will be cast in doubt.  It will likewise label members of the Obama administration as having undermined the Constitutional structure  and, as I have discussed elsewhere, conceivably expose those spending  and receiving the money illegally to criminal penalties. Success by the House in this lawsuit will not just threaten policies in states that failed to establish their own Exchanges, but health insurance policies purchased on Exchanges in all 50 states. The kicker is that many individuals had believed that the “standing barrier” was pretty strong but that, if it could ever be pierced, the House had a very strong case on the merits.The language of Judge Collyer in her opinion fortifies the House’s position.

I have written about this issue several times. See here and here.  Let me provide a summary. From all appearances, Congress did not directly appropriate money for a critical part of Obamacare that keeps premiums low: the cost sharing subsidies created by section 1412 of the law and now codified at 42 U.S.C.  § 18071.  The idea of this provision is that poorer purchasers can purchase a policy for “Silver” prices that ordinarily would have 30% cost sharing, but receive a policy that provides anywhere from “Silver plus” (27%) to “Platinum-plus” (6%) levels of cost sharing.  This way, lower-middle-class people can get a policy that they might be able to afford without much of its purpose being undone by hefty deductibles and copays.

It appears clear that Congress at least strongly contemplated that provision of these extra benefits to the poor would come not from higher prices for policies paid by wealthier purchasers on the individual exchange.  Instead, the federal treasury would pay the insurers for the extra costs they incurred in offering these more generous variants of the policy. And it appears that the Obama administration has been making such payments to insurers, even if the amount of the payments — potentially in the billions —  has not been made clear.  The problem, as outlined at some length in Judge Collyer’s opinion, is that Congress never actually made a specific appropriation to fund the cost sharing reductions.

What Judge Collyer says quite clearly in her opinion in United States House of Representatives v. Burwell  is that mere contemplation to fund is not enough.

Appropriation legislation “provides legal authority for federal agencies to incur obligations and to make payments out of the Treasury for specified purposes.” Id. at 13. Appropriations legislation has “the limited and specific purpose of providing funds for authorized programs.” Andrus v. Sierra Club, 442 U.S. 347, 361 (1979) (quoting TVA v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153, 190 (1978)). An appropriation must be expressly stated; it cannot be inferred or implied. 31 U.S.C. § 1301(d). It is well understood that the “a direction to pay without a designation of the source of funds is not an appropriation.” U.S. Government Accounting Office, GAO-04-261SP, Principles of Federal Appropriations Law (Vol. I) 2-17 (3d ed. 2004) (GAO Principles). The inverse is also true: the designation of a source, without a specific direction to pay, is not an appropriation. Id. Both are required. See Nevada, 400 F.3d at 13-14. An appropriation act, “like any other statute, [must be] passed by both Houses of Congress and either signed by the President or enacted over a presidential veto.” GAO Principles at 2-45 (citing Friends of the Earth v. Armstrong, 485 F.2d 1, 9 (10th Cir. 1973); Envirocare of Utah Inc. v. United States, 44 Fed. Cl. 474, 482 (1999))

Judge Collyer also appears clear that Congress never appropriated any money for the Cost Sharing Reductions.

Finally on January 17, 2014, the President signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2014, Pub. L. 113-76, 128 Stat. 5 (2014). That law similarly did not appropriate monies for the Section 1402 Cost-Sharing Offset program.8 Indeed, the Secretaries have conceded that “[t]here was no 2014 statute appropriating new money” for the Section 1402 Cost-Sharing Offset program. 5/28/15 Tr. at 27.


And all of this spells big time trouble.  Judge Collyer emphatically rejected the argument that the executive branch could increase its power by spending money Congress had not actually appropriated by using “standing doctrine” to prevent anyone from challenging the increased spending.

Once the nature of the Non-Appropriation Theory is appreciated, it becomes clear that the House has suffered a concrete, particularized injury that gives it standing to sue. The Congress (of which the House and Senate are equal) is the only body empowered by the Constitution to adopt laws directing monies to be spent from the U.S. Treasury. See Dep’t of the Navy v. FLRA, 665 F.3d 1339, 1348 (D.C. Cir. 2012) (“Congress’s control over federal expenditures is ‘absolute.’”) (quoting Rochester Pure Waters Dist. v. EPA, 960 F.2d 180, 185 (D.C. Cir. 1992)); Nevada v. Dep’t of Energy, 400 F.3d at 13 (“[T]he Appropriations Clause of the U.S. Constitution ‘vests Congress with exclusive power over the federal purse’”) (quoting Rochester, 960 F.2d at 185); Hart’s Adm’r v. United States, 16 Ct. Cl. 459, 484 (1880) (“[A]bsolute control of the moneys of the United States is in Congress, and Congress is responsible for its exercise of this great power only to the people.”), aff’d sub nom. Hart v. United States, 118 U.S. 62 (1886). Yet this constitutional structure would collapse, and the role of the House would be meaningless, if the Executive could circumvent the appropriations process and spend funds however it pleases. If such actions are taken, in contravention of the specific proscription in Article I, § 9, cl. 7, the House as an institution has standing to sue.

(emphasis added)

So, we shall see. There is more to the Judge’s ruling and more to the lawsuit.  Today’s ruling, however, revives the specter of the judicial branch reducing the likelihood that the Affordable Care Act can achieve the objectives of its supporters.


Note:  Kudos to Sarah Kliff and Andrew Prokop, who, though I do not think they share my views on the ACA generally, have nonetheless written (really swiftly!) a good article on today’s ruling.

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Obama administration increases insurer subsidies

The Obama administration announced earlier today that it would increase the  rate of subsidy provided insurers under the transitional reinsurance program established by the Affordable Care Act.  This program, in effect for the policies sold in 2014, 2015, and 2016 on one of the individual insurance exchanges fostered by the ACA,  provides free specific stop loss reinsurance to insurers, something insurers would otherwise have to pay a lot of money to obtain.  The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services  (CMS) announced today that instead of taxpayers giving insurers  80% of the losses on any individual for their claims between $45,000 and $250,000, it would now pay a full 100% of these losses.

The higher rate of reinsurance should not be interpreted as a sign that claims were lower than insurers expected — something that would run contrary to many of the recent insurer rate hike filings or the losses reported by many insurers.  It is not a sign of the success of Obamacare; rather it is an artifact of its problems.  If, for example, there were 14% fewer people enrolled in Obamacare than at the time the reinsurance rates were initially determined (7 million vs. 6 million), reinsurance payments could be, as here, yet more generous to insurers even if claims were 10% higher than originally projected.

There are several implications of today’s announcement.  First, it means that, on a percentage basis, the ACA is subsidizing exchange insurers for 2014 even more than regulations enacted under it had heretofore prescribed.  Since this same money paid to insurers could instead have been used to provide greater subsidies to poorer and middle class individuals trying to purchase health insurance, the candy distributed today to insurers is a bit troubling. Second, because CMS says it will actually have money left over from 2014 even after the increase in reinsurance rates,  and because enrollment in Obamacare remains considerably lower than was estimated at the time of its enactment, there is an increased likelihood of reinsurance payments to insurers being higher than originally authorized in 2015.

We can get some sense of the magnitude of the changes announced today.  To do so, I use data embedded in the Actuarial Value Calculator, a document produced by CMS for the purposes of figuring out whether various insurance plans met the standards for bronze, silver, gold and platinum policies.  For an average silver policy, for example, the reinsurance that would have been provided prior to today would have been expected to save insurers about 11% in expenses, and, quite likely, premiums.  With the new reinsurance parameters, the transitional reinsurance program will save insurers selling the same silver policies about 14%.

We can do the same exercise for platinum, gold and bronze policies.  The results are not much different.  The table below shows the results.

Metal Level Original subsidy New subsidy
Bronze 11% 13%
Silver 11% 14%
Gold 11% 13%
Platinum 10% 12%

Two foootnotes

1. This is actually the second time CMS has made the transitional reinsurance program for 2014 more generous.  Originally, the reinsurance would “attach” at $60,000.  If an individual’s claims were below that amount, no reinsurance would kick in. Leter, CMS changed the attachment point to $45,000.

2.  How could I do this computation so swiftly?  I’ve been preparing for testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee on, among other things, the effect of the transitional reinsurance program on insurer rate changes and I’ve been working on a talk on a similar topic for the R in Insurance Conference later this month.  So, all I had to do was plug the new parameters into my model, and out came the results. Be prepared.

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Why net premium increases will often be even larger than you think

I’ve written before that net premium increases for many individuals purchasing policies under the ACA will be higher than gross premium increases.  I’ve gotten some emails expressing puzzlement over this conclusion.  So, in this post I want to explain in some detail why this is the case.

An example

Consider five Silver policies on an Exchange. In 2015, here is a table showing their gross premiums

1. $4,161.55

2. $3,881.27

3. $4,338.10

4. $4019.11

5. $3550.64

So, the second lowest silver policy is Policy 2, which has a premium of $3,881.27. Suppose our individual can contribute $1,000 per year based on their income.  If they had purchased policy 2 their tax credit would have been $2,881.27 and their net premium would have been $1,000.  If our individual purchases policy 4, however, which has a gross premium of $4,019.11, their tax credit is still $2,881.27, so they will end up having a net premium of $1,137.84

Now, suppose the gross premium increases average about 6.33% but are distributed as follows among our 5 insurers.

1. 11.38%

2. -2.57%

3. 7.26%

4. 10.28%

5. 5.29%

The new gross premiums for 2016 are thus as follows:

1. $4,634.99

2. $3,781.70

3. $4,652.87

4. $4,432.30

5. $3,738.41

The new second lowest premium is Policy 2, which has a gross premium of $3,781.70.  Suppose now our individual has essentially the same income such that the amount they are deemed to be able to contribute is still $1,000.  This means the 2016 tax credit is $2,781.70. What if our individual wants to keep his health plan and stick with Policy 4. Maybe our individual likes the practitioners in the Policy 4 network.   The new difference between the new gross premium for Policy 4 ($4,432.30) and the tax credit of $2,781.70 is $1,650.60.

Thus, although the gross premium for the policy has gone up 10.28% (bad enough) the net premium has gone up 45.06%.

So, did I concoct some bizarre set of numbers so that the ACA would look bad?  I did not. The result you are seeing is baked into the ACA.

An experiment

Let’s run the following experiment.  Suppose premiums are normally distributed around $4,000 with a standard deviation of $500.  And suppose the gross premium increase is uncorrelated with premiums and is normally distributed around 5% with a standard deviation of 5%.  Assume there are five policies at issue. We can then calculate for each of the five policies,  the gross premium increase and the net premium increase in the same way we did in the example above. We run this experiment 100 times.

The graphic below shows the results. The horizontal x-axis shows the size of the gross premium increase (in fractions, not percent).  And the vertical y-axis shows the size of the net premium increase. The dotted line shows scenarios in which the gross premium increase is the same as the net premium increase.  What we can see is that for the larger gross premium increases, the net premium increases tends to be larger than the gross premium increases and for the smaller gross premium increases (or for gross premium decreases), the net premium increase tends to be smaller than the gross premium increase. Thus, about half the population will experience net premium increases larger — and sometimes way larger —  than they might think from reading the news.



Is this result an artifact of, say, having our policyholder being deemed by the government to be able to contribute $1,000 based on their income?  Not really.  The graphic below runs the same experiment but this time assumes our individual is poorer and is thus deemed able to contribute only $500.


What we can see from the graphic is that the result is even more dramatic.  The poor will see drastic divergences between gross premium increases and net premium increases. Many, for example who have gross premium increases of say just 5% experience net premium increases of over 30%.

And what of the less subsidized purchasers, those who, for example, are deemed able to contribute $3,000 towards a policy?  The graphic below shows the result.


Now we can see that the gross premium increases and net premium increases are clustered pretty tightly together.  Indeed, for the wealthier purchasers, net premium increases more often than not are smaller than gross premium increases.  However, since most purchasers of Exchange policies tend to be those receiving large subsidies, the graphic above is not representative of the situation for most purchasers.

Did I rig the result by assuming that the income-based contribution stayed the same.  No.  Here’s a graphic showing gross versus net premiums first, under the assumption that income-based contributions remain the same and second, under the assumption that income-based contributions wander, sometimes going up, sometimes going down.



What you can see is there is not much difference between the yellow points — income based contribution remains the same — and the blue points — income based contribution wanders.

And, although I won’t lengthen this post with yet more graphics, the basic result generalizes to situations in which there are more than 5 Silver policies.  The pattern is the same.


It really is true. Net premium increases will often be larger than gross premium increases, particularly for the poor. The sticker shock some received on seeing the gross premium increase figures recently released at will, in many instances, be little compared to the knockout blow that will occur when people start computing their new net premiums.

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No, New York Times, “guesswork” is not the reason ACA premiums are rising

The New York Times, whose editorial board has long been a strong supporter of the Affordable Care Act, published an article on its front page yesterday in which the headline read, “Seeking Rate Increases, Insurers Use Guesswork.” And, lest there be much doubt that the article suggested that speculation — the sort that regulators might understandably reject as a basis for premium hikes — rather than hard facts were leading to the frightening premium hikes, here are some quotes selected by author Reed Abelson for publication:

“But many insurers, including those seeking relatively hefty increases below 10 percent, say they are asking for higher premiums because they remain unsure about the future and what their medical costs will be.”

“It’s the year of actuarial uncertainty, and actuaries are conservative,” said Dr. Martin Hickey, chairman of the National Alliance of State Health CO-OPs and the chief executive of the New Mexico exchange. “The safest thing to do is to raise rates.”

Yes, to be sure, there was the suggestion in other parts of the article that higher than expected claims were part of the problem, but both the headline and remaining comments suggest that the high rates of increase were the result of unsupported speculation.

Wrong, New York Times! If you actually read the justifications for the premium increases submitted by insurers and their accompanying actuarial memoranda, you can see there are two dominant themes: (1) higher than expected claims expenses and (2) diminution of federal subsidies to the insurance industry.  You can also see lengthy memoranda containing facts and figures explaining their experience last year and the basis for their trending those experiences into the future. And, while one need not invariably take the insurance industry at its word or at face value, this is an instance where they have to make the best case possible for their rate increases. Regulators will scrutinize insurers’ work. Misstatements or rank guessing would seem to be against the insurance industry’s interest.

So instead of quoting people, who might themselves be guessing, let’s look at what the insurers actually said. I am going to bore you with 17 representative filings from across the nation. I do so because I want to make clear that the evidence is overwhelming. Most of these are contained in or accompanied by lengthy memoranda containing elaborate tables justifying the increases. I’ve attempted to be diverse in my selection of insurers to avoid repetition of, for example, the Blue Cross position or the Aetna position.

1. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama

BCBSAL proposes an average 28% increase to rates for the products offered in 2015. The main drivers of the need for a rate increase are as follows:

• Single risk pool experience which is significantly more adverse than that assumed in current rates

• Medical inflation and increased utilization as indicated in Section 5: Projection Factors

• Expected increases in the average population morbidity of the Individual Market, also described in Section 5: Projection Factors

• Reinsurance program changes, described in Section 9: Risk Adjustment and Reinsurance

BCBSAL determined that the following items did not contribute significantly to the need for a rate increase:

• Taxes and fees: Minimal changes in the amount needed for taxes and fees, described in Section 10: Non-benefit Expenses and Profit & Risk

• Benefit changes: No changes to offered benefits for 2016

2. HealthNet of Arizona

The projected claims experience was developed using calendar year non-grandfathered 2014 experience. If our rate request is approved, the expected premium for the entire risk pool is $313.91 PMPM. This represents an increase of 24.7% in average premium. 2014 premiums received were $127,867,744. Claims paid were $171,764,569. Since 2014 medical costs are increasing with an annual trend of 5.5%. Prescription drug costs are increasing with an annual trend of 10.3%. Claims costs are 85.1% of premium. Administrative costs are 14.5% of premium. Profit is -4.8% of premium.

3. Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company (Connecticut)

The most significant factors requiring the rate increase are:

Changes in Medical Service Costs: The increasing cost of medical services accounts for the majority of the premium rate increases. Cigna anticipates that the cost of medical services in 2016 will increase over the 2015 level because of prices charged by doctors and hospitals and more frequent use of medical services by customers.

Transitional Reinsurance Program Changes: The federally mandated transitional reinsurance program is in effect for three years (2104, 2015, and 2016). The amount of funding available to issuers under the reinsurance program to offset adverse claim experience decreases each year ($10B in 2014, $6B in 2015, and $4B in 2016). Additional premium is required to compensate for the reduced reinsurance support in 2016.

Morbidity (Risk Pool) Adjustments: The marketplace for non-grandfathered individual plans is affected by provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the Affordable Care Act) that became effective in 2014, including:
guarantee issue and renewal requirements
modified community-rating requirement
federal premium subsidies for low and moderate income individuals.

The effects of these 2014 changes when coupled with previous regulatory changes and overall utilization experienced in 2014 suggest that it is appropriate to increase the overall claim level assumption reflected in the premiums for individual plans in Connecticut.

4. Aetna Health, Inc. (Florida)

Why We Need to Increase Premiums
Medical costs are going up and we are changing our rates to reflect this increase. We expect medical costs to go up 10%. Medical costs go up mainly for two reasons – providers raise their prices and members get more medical care.
For policies issued to individuals in Florida, some examples of increasing medical costs we have experienced in the last 12 months include:
· The cost for an inpatient hospital admission has increased 8.0%.
· The average cost for outpatient has increased 8.4%.
· Costs for pharmacy prescriptions have gone up 8.0%.
· The use of outpatient hospital services has increased 4.5%.

What Else Affects Our Request to Increase Premiums
Several requirements related to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) impact these rates. These include:
· “Keep What you Have” and its impact on the population that will enroll in the plans covered by this filing
· Enhanced network access standards – which limit our ability to control the cost and quality of medical care
· Changes to required taxes and fees
· Phase-out of the Transitional Reinsurance Program which increases rates for plans issued to individuals

5. Humana Employers Health Plan of Georgia, Inc. (Georgia)

Many factors influence this rate calculation. The primary factors include
‐ Population health‐ Expected changes in the aggregate health level of all individuals insured by all carriers in the individual health insurance market.
‐ Claims cost trend‐ Changes in expected claims costs associated with changes in the unit cost of medical services, changes in Humana’s contracts with hospitals, physicians, and other health care providers, and the increase or decrease in utilization of medical services including changes in the severity and mix of services used.
‐ Plan Changes‐ Changes to plan designs due to changes in federal requirements.

6. Wellmark Health Plan of Iowa, Inc. (Iowa)

Reason for Rate Increases The effective average rate increase for these products is 28.7%, varying by plan as listed in the table above. The primary drivers of the proposed rate increases include, but are not limited to:

• Adverse Experience/Risk Adjustment Transfer: The risk of the market is more adverse than what we had assumed in the current rates; which leads to a significant projected risk adjustment transfer payment to other carriers.

• Medical and Drug Inflation: Both increased utilization and increased cost per service/script contribute to projected claims trend.

• Phase out of Federal Transitional Reinsurance Program: As this program phases out over three years, the expected receivables from this program are smaller for 2016 than they were for 2015.

7. CareFirst of Maryland (Maryland)

The main driver of the financial performance of these products and the proposed rate increase is the very significant increase in average morbidity between 2013 (the pre-ACA pool which underwent underwriting) and 2014 (the post-ACA guarantee-issue pool). The allowed claims per member per month (PMPM) increased from $197 in 2013 to $391 in 2014, a much higher and faster increase than anticipated.

8. HealthPlus Insurance Company

The biggest driver of rate change is 2014 claims experience that is more adverse than assumed in current rates. Another driver is due to the lower Federal reinsurance recoveries.

9. Coventry Health & Life Insurance (Missouri)

Why We Need to Increase Premiums
Medical costs are going up and we are changing our rates to reflect this increase. We expect medical costs to go up 9.4%. Medical costs go up mainly for two reasons – providers raise their prices and members get more medical care.

What Else Affects Our Request to Increase Premiums
We offer individuals in Missouri a variety of plans to choose from. We are changing some benefits for these plans to comply with state and federal requirements.
Several requirements related to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) may also impact these rates. These include:
• Changes to our expected projected average population morbidity and its relationship to the projected market average for risk adjustment.
• Changes to required taxes and fees
• Phase-out of the Transitional Reinsurance Program which increases rates for plans issued to individuals

10. Aetna Health Inc. (Nevada)

Why We Need to Increase Premiums
Medical costs are going up and we are changing our rates to reflect this increase. We expect medical costs to go up 10.6%, excluding the effect of benefit changes described below. Medical costs go up mainly for two reasons – providers raise their prices and members get more medical care.

For Individuals in Nevada, some examples of increasing medical costs we have experienced in the last 12 months include:
• Primary Care Physician visits have increased by 124.2%.
• Inpatient bed days have increased by 51.0%.
• Expenses for emergency treatment have increased 22.7%.

What Else Affects Our Request to Increase Premiums
A prominent hospital system in Nevada moved from participating to non-participating in 2014 and is expected to stay that way into 2016. This has an adverse impact on claims costs since the more favorable lower-cost in-network reimbursement rates no longer apply.

Several requirements related to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) also impact these rates. These include:
• Enhanced network access standards – which limit our ability to control the cost and quality of medical care
• Changes to required taxes and fees
• Phase-out of the Transitional Reinsurance Program which increases rates for plans issued to individuals

11. Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Mexico (New Mexico)

[E]arned premiums for all non-grandfathered Individual plans during calendar year 2014 were $84,497,659, and total claims incurred were $105,605,811.

After application of the ACA federal risk mitigation provisions, the total BCBSNM Individual non-grandfathered block of business experienced a financial loss of 17% of premium in 2014.

The proposed rates effective January 1, 2016, are expected to achieve the loss ratio assumed in the rate development.

Changes in Medical Service Costs:

The main driver of the increase in the proposed rates is that the actual claims experience of the members in these Individual ACA metallic policies is significantly higher than expected. After application of the ACA federal risk mitigation provisions, the total BCBSNM ACA block of business experienced a loss of 19% of premium in 2014.

12. Medical Mutual of Ohio (Ohio)

Medical Mutual of Ohio is proposing an overall rate increase of 16.9% for plans effective January 1, 2016. This increase will potentially impact the 37,673 existing MMO members. The rate change ranges from 7.4% to 26.0%, varying by plan, age, change in tobacco user status, change in family composition, and the geographic area where the member resides.
The experience of MMO Individual ACA plans was not favorable in 2014. MMO has paid nearly $167 million claims and only received $114 million in premium. In 2014, MMO lost about $42 million dollars on its individual ACA business alone. With the rate increase implemented for 2015 and proposed for 2016, MMO’s experience is expected to improve, becoming profitable in 2016.
The following items are the main drivers for the proposed rate increase:
1. The transitional reinsurance recovery decreased from the 2015 level and will have a smaller impact offsetting the total claims.
2. The increase in the medical and drug cost is about 6.2% annually. Out of that increase, 40% is due to the change in unit cost, 31% is due to the change in utilization and the rest is due to the change in the mixture of services.
3. We expected the morbidity and demographics to improve in 2016 due to increased penalty of non-compliance, a greater understanding of the ACA law, and a reduction in the amount of pent-up demand for services. This alleviates the rate increase needed based on the experience.
4. There’s no changes in benefit from 2015 to 2016.
5. The administrative cost and commission will decrease $2.51 per member per month. The profit and risk will increase $7.92 per member per month. The taxes and fees will increase $4.51 per member per month.

13. Geisinger Quality Options (Pennsylvania)

Geisinger Quality Options has proposed an overall base rate increase of 58.36% for Individual PPO members renewing in the Marketplace effective January 1, 2016 through December 1, 2016. The overall increase is largely due to the claims experience in ACA compliant individual market plans being much higher than what was assumed in current rates. Other contributing factors include annual claims trend, federally-prescribed ACA fees and reduced benefits in the Transitional Reinsurance Program.

14. Pacific Source Health Plans (Oregon)

This filing requests an aggregate increase of 42.7 percent over the rates approved in our 2015 Oregon Individual filing. The proposed rates are based on PacificSource’s historical Oregon Individual claims experience adjusted for PacificSource’s historical average risk compared to the market average risk, anticipated medical and pharmacy claims trend, expected change in market morbidity from 2014 experience period to 2016 projection period, changes in benefits, and expected state and federal reinsurance recoveries. The proposed rates also reflect changes in the taxes and fees imposed on health insurers for 2016. The range of rate increases is 23.4 percent to 60.4 percent and impacts PacificSource’s 8,216 Oregon Individual members. The variation in rate increases is driven by some changes in benefits i.e. copays, deductibles, OOP max, as well as adjustments to geographic area factors. The overall average impact of benefit changes on the requested rate increase is 0.0 percent.

The increase in rates from 2015 to 2016 is primarily driven by a dramatic worsening of claims experience in 2014 as compared to 2013, and the reduction of expected reinsurance recoveries in 2016. Note that this is the first rate filing where a full year of post ACA experience data was available. This data shows that the overall increase in morbidity from PacificSource pre ACA experience to post ACA market experience is much greater than originally projected in our 2014 and 2015 rate filings. The combined medical and pharmacy annual trend used in this filing is 7.0 percent, which reflects expected changes in costs, changes in utilization, and the impact of leveraging. The primary driver of the annual trend assumption is specialty drug cost and utilization, particularly Hepatitis C drugs. Administrative expenses and margin are budgeted to decline compared to the 2015 rate filing.

Over the calendar year 2014, the Oregon Individual block earned 30.2 million in premium and incurred an estimated 50.0 million in claims, for a raw medical loss ratio of 165.2 percent. Premium and claims expenses are shown before the impact of reinsurance, risk adjustment, and risk corridor. At this time we do not expect risk corridor payments to be made to issuers. After expected risk adjustment and state and federal reinsurance recoveries, we estimate a 2014 loss ratio of 116.5 percent. Combined administrative expenses, commissions, taxes, and assessments were approximately 24.6 percent of premium.

15. Scott & White Health Plan (Texas)

The Scott & White Health Plan is requesting an average rate increase of 32.3% to the Individual HMO Rating Pool. There are 24,294 covered individuals as of January 2015. 10.0% of the 32.3% increase is due to health care cost inflation, 14.3% of the increase pertains to changes in Risk Adjustment and Reinsurance assumptions, 2.7% is due to changes in fees, and the remaining 5.3% is due to actual and expected unfavorable experience.

16. Optima Health Plan (Virginia)

The rate increase is the same for all members in the same plan. Where the 2016 plan is different than the 2015 plan these members will be automatically enrolled into the 2016 plan shown. Premium rates are effective January 1 2016.
Claims expenses were very high in 2014 relative to earned premium. However payments from the federal transitional reinsurance and risk adjustment programs are expected to help significantly.
The federal reinsurance program is only temporary and while it is continuing into 2016 the amount of reinsurance per claim is less than in 2014 and 2015. As such premium rates will be increased to account for this impact. Additionally the risk adjustment program alone does not appear to provide sufficient relief to enable the Company to meet its pricing targets.
It is anticipated that 2014 had some amount of higher claims due to new members having pent-up demand for services and less healthy people tending to be the first to sign-up for ACA-compliant plans given the new rating and underwriting rules. Because of this we do not assume that 2016 will necessarily be as high a claim level as seen in 2014 but some of what has been experienced will remain.
These reductions from 2014 levels will be countered by upward pressure on costs from other sources such as medical trend as described below.
The proposed rate increase is intended to account for expected claims activity in 2016 given historical experience and changes in morbidity as well as any expected assistance from the federal reinsurance and risk adjustment programs. With the proposed rate increase the anticipated loss ratio is 80 percent.
Medical trend for these products is anticipated to be an average of 7 percent per year on paid claims for example after member cost sharing or a total of 14.5 percent over the period from 2014 to 2016. This was developed based on historical experience as well as consideration for information available on general medical inflation trends. Medical trend includes a combination of utilization and costs of services. This increase in cost is included in the calculation of the rate increase.

17. Security HealthPlan of Wisconsin (Wisconsin)

The biggest driver of the rate change is SHP’s underlying claims experience used in developing the projected index rate. We used SHP’s 2014 individual non-grandfathered, ACA allowed claims as the basis for claim development. The 2014 claims and membership distributions indicate experience is worse than we priced for in 2015 rates. Further, based on a Wisconsin risk score analysis conducted by Milliman, we are projecting no risk adjustment transfer payment. This assumption of no payment results in higher rates in 2016 since we had projected SHP would receive money from the risk adjustment pool when developing the 2015 rates.

Another driver of the rate change is due to the lower federal transitional reinsurance recoveries in 2016. The recoveries assume in 2016 SHP will receive 50% of all SHP’s individual members’ per member per year incurred claims between $90,000 and $250,000. In 2015, rates were priced assuming recoveries to be 50% of claims between $70,000 and $250,000 based on the federal parameters in place at the time of pricing.

The projection of claims from the experience period to the effective period assumes 5.0% annual medical and drug trend. These trends were estimated based on data from SHP, conversations with SHP senior management, Milliman research, general industry knowledge, and our judgment of recent trends.


So, does this sound like “guesswork” to you?  It does not to me.  All of these insurers are lying or mistaken about what is causing their requests for premium hikes? I don’t think so.  Of course, there is “trending” in which insurers approximate how previous increases will continue to the future and this requires some art on the part of insurers.  Of course, insurers may want to present their requests for rate hikes in a way more likely to be approved. But what they have presented is no more “guesswork” here than the work of any insurer in setting rates for almost any form of insurance. It is the sort of actuarial projections that are generally approved by regulators.

Health insurers now have a decent feel what it is going to cost them to participate in Obamacare.  And these insurers have a pretty common perspective: the whopping increase are driven by  greater utilization than expected among those electing coverage  (adverse selection and moral hazard), increases in the cost of medicine, and reduction of federal subsidies.

Exactly what some people predicted.

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Many will experience premium hikes even larger than requested rate increases

Yesterday, the federal government released its list of proposed gross premium increases for health insurers selling policies on the Exchanges. To many, particularly supporters of the ACA, the results released at were jaw dropping. The median increase requested in New Mexico was 59%. In Pennsylvania, Highmark Health Insurance, the state’s “Blue Cross” insurer requested rate increases on many of its plans over 35%.  In Illinois, Coventry Health Care, an Aetna subsidiary, requested rate increases of over 30% on several of its plans. In Oregon, PacificSource, the state’s third largest health insurer, sought increases of 29% and higher on several of its plans. In short, in many states, very large increases in gross premiums were requested by a diverse set of major and minor players.

Pundits, including me, have pointed out that one should not leap from a view of these numbers to the conclusion that policyholders in the Exchange markets should invariably expect double digit increases.  The only companies in the data released yesterday are those requesting more than a 10% increase.  As Larry Levitt, a top executive at the influential Kaiser Family Foundation, said, “Trying to gauge the average premium hike from just the biggest increases is like measuring the average height of the public by looking at N.B.A. players.”

In fact, however, the math of Obamacare means that many purchasing policies on the Exchange will actually experience larger net premium increases than even the huge ones proposed by many insurers. This is so because of the way the Affordable Care Act computes the net premium paid by policyholders.

Let me take a quick example to illustrate the reason net premiums are going to go up even more than the numbers from suggest.  Take an individual who has an individual policy for which the gross annual premium is $4000.  And suppose that the premium increase for that plan, as is proposed in many places, 25% up to $5,000.   But suppose that the second lowest priced plan in the state, which was also charging $4,000 goes up only 5% to $4,200.  What happens to net premiums.?  Let’s make our individual a typical Exchange purchaser with an income equal to 250% of the federal poverty level.  In 2015, that individual would be paying about $2,334 in net premiums.  In 2016, because net premiums are pegged to the price of the second lowest silver plan, that individual would be paying about $3134 in net premiums.

In short, the policyholder experiences an increase not of 25% — bad enough — but of 34%, even worse. If the policyholder wants to keep its plan, and perhaps the network of medical practitioners that have developed an understanding of the policyholder’s medical conditions, it is going to require the policyholder to pay 34% more.  To be sure there are complications that might tweak that number a bit, but the basic math is right.

It will be even worse for some.  We know that in some states, a few plans are proposing reductions in their gross premiums.  In our prior example, if the second lowest plan went down by 2%, the net premium of the plan the individual actually purchases will go up to $3414 per month, an increase of 46%.

Or, keep the assumption that the second lowest silver plan goes up by 5%, but have the purchaser have a income not of 250% of FPL but of 175% of FPL.  Policies are supposed to be affordable for them too. Formerly they would have paid $1021 per year in net premiums.  Now, they will pay $,1821 per year in net premiums, an increase of 78%. It turns out that keeping your healthcare plan is going to be an extremely expensive proposition.

So, yes, in some sense the gross premium increases released yesterday by the federal government are unrepresentatively large.  But in terms of what people actually pay, they are, in many instances, unrepresentatively small.  Of course, many people will be unwilling to pay increases of 34% or 46%  or 78%.  But to avoid those increases, they will increasingly need to flock to the second lowest silver plan.  Doing otherwise will prove ever more expensive. And so, the promise of “choice” in healthcare plans contained in the ACA may be fulfilled significantly less than its proponents anticipated when the bill was passed.  The architecture of Obamacare may induce yet more purchasers to converge on Silver HMO plans.

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Government data shows potentially scary ACA premium increases for 2016

Under the implementation of the Affordable Care Act promulgated by the Obama administration, the federal government publishes a list each June 1 of health insurers seeking to increase their premiums by over 10% from one year to the next.  Today, the Obama administration released their data for 2016. There are a lot of insurance plans and a lot of very high requested increases on the list.

My examination of the data this afternoon shows 661 insurance plans in which a rate increase of over 10% is being requested.  And the increases requested by these insurers is often way over 10%.  The median increase requested by insurers on the list it varies from a low of 12% in New Jersey to 59% in New Mexico.  Median means half the numbers are below the median and half are above the median.  Thus a median increase of 32% in Pennsylvania means that half the insurers there on the list are asking for more than a 32% increase in premiums.

An aggregation of the data is also revealing. If one looks at the median increase in each state, the “median of the median” is 19%. Half of the states are seeing median increases of less than 19% and half are seeing median increases of more than 19%.

Most of the analyses of this data thus far have looked at particular states and found them troubling.  Taken as a whole, however, the widespread significant increases should be disturbing to those who were confident that the Affordable Care Act would continue to result in low premiums.

Moreover, the median figures cited above are by no means the maximum increases requested by insurers. Let us start with some heavily populated states and take a look at some representative high increase requests.  In Texas, Time Insurance is requesting a 65% increase. In Florida, Time Insurance is asking for 63% on one of its products; the better known UnitedHealthcare is asking for 31%.  In Illinois, Blue Cross is asking for a 38% increase on one of its plans; Coventry, also a good sized player, is asking for 34% on another.  In Pennsylvania, a Geisinger plan is asking for 58%; Geisinger is a significant player in that state.  The list goes on and on.

The table

The table below shows the data I was able to mine from on the rate increases.

State Number of plans reporting Median Rate Increase (Conditional on Rate Increase > 10%) Rank
Alabama 14 24 13
Alaska 13 24 14
Arizona 24 20 17
Arkansas 3 21 16
California 0 N/A
Colorado 0 N/A
Delaware 26 16 28
District of Columbia 8 14 38
Florida 13 18 25
Georgia 27 16 29
Hawaii 6 18 22
Idaho 57 19 20
Illinois 16 15 31
Iowa 30 25 11
Kansas 15 35 3
Kentucky 0 N/A
Louisiana 15 18 26
Maine 0 N/A
Maryland 8 30 6
Massachusetts 0 N/A
Michigan 12 15 33
Minnesota 0 N/A
Mississippi 6 26 10
Missouri 13 16 30
Montana 12 34 4
Nebraska 12 15 32
Nevada 25 14 36
New Hampshire 11 44 2
New Jersey 7 12 40
New Mexico 3 59 1
New York 0 N/A
North Carolina 17 26 8
North Dakota 3 18 23
Ohio 15 14 34
Oklahoma 8 28 7
Oregon 23 20 18
Pennsylvania 51 32 5
Rhode Island 0 N/A
South Carolina 10 24 12
South Dakota 18 17 27
Tennessee 12 14 35
Texas 22 26 9
Utah 31 19 21
Vermont 0 N/A
Virginia 19 14 37
Washington 24 13 39
West Virginia 14 19 19
Wisconsin 12 18 24
Wyoming 6 23 15


All of that said, the figures should not be misinterpreted.  The following caveats must be considered.

1. The data only lists those insurers that requested an increase of more than 10%.  There are many plans that requested increases less than that amount.  So it is incorrect to say that the average or median increase in insurance prices is going to be 19%. If a lot of big insurers are requesting increases less than 10%, the average increase will be less than 19%.  On the other hand, if the big insurers are over 19% and it is mostly small insurers that are submitting rate increase requests of under 10%, then the 19% figure is too low.

2. The data is not weighted by the number of policies sold by an insurer.  With all respect to small insurers (and small states), in the grand scheme of things it does not matter much if a small insurer in a small state is raising its rates 40%.  Of course it will affect the people involved, but it is not a good bellwether of the performance of the ACA.  On the other hand, if a big insurer in a big state, like Scott & White in Texas, is requesting increases (as is the case) of 32%, that is a very big deal. Until we have an estimate of the number of policies sold by each insurer, a secret that seems to be more tightly guarded than many diplomatic communications, it is hard to know perfectly what the numbers in the list actually mean.

3. The data for some important states is missing.  We have no data for New York and California, for example, and no data from about seven other states. Does that mean that there are no insurers there requesting more than a 10% increase, that the data is just delayed, or is there another explanation?  Until this mystery is resolved, it’s hard to know fully what the numbers published today imply.

4. Ask does not equal get. All we have right now are the rate increases requested by insurers.  There now follows a review process in which the reasonableness of the rate increases are examined.  If the federal government or, in some instances, the states find the rate increases unreasonable, then they do not go into effect.  Of course, insurers who see their rate increases denied, may decline to sell the policies, which results in less competition and leaves many insureds without any continuity in coverage. Yes, it is possible that some insurers are bluffing and requesting pie in the sky.  The risk in calling that bluff by denying or modifying a rate increase is that the insurer may pull out.

5. I basically did this analysis by hand because CMS has not released the data in a form (such as Excel, CSV, JSON or others) that would facilitate machine analysis.  I tried to do the work carefully, but I am an imperfect human.  I am doubtful, however, that any errors materially affect the conclusions here.



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The Cons of the ACA

Recently, I was honored to speak before the PIAA, a group of insurance professionals, at the organization’s annual conference in Las Vegas.  The idea was that I would speak on the problems with the ACA and Ardis Hoven, M.D., past president of the the AMA, would speak on positives about the ACA.  I thought the format worked well and I appreciated the high level of discussion and civility of Dr. Hoven.

Here’s what I had to say. Since you can’t use footnotes or hyperlinks in a speech, I’ve provided a few additional annotations here to show the source of some of the information.

The Speech

I’m here to talk about the architecture of the ACA and its problems.

The ACA takes a bold risk.  It places our economy and our health on an metaphorical aircraft whose ability to fly is challenged by history. It proceeds on the assumption that, whereas almost all community rating systems in health insurance have crashed in ugly adverse selection death spirals, the craft engineered by the Obama administration and its consultants is so sophisticated that it will avoid such a fate.  Many will tout what they see as the success of the ACA thus far in reducing the number of uninsured and the absence of many catastrophic failures as evidence that the ACA flies.  But we have not seen turbulence. It is an open question whether, long term, the ACA can survive in its present form.

Let us now talk about how the ACA flies.  It uses a variety of mechanisms to keep it aloft.  The problem is that almost every one of them has the potential for being undermined.

Individual Subsidies

The ACA depends desperately and in perpetuity on taxpayer funded policy subsidies provided directly to the insured. There is a premium subsidy based on household income. And there is another effective premium subsidy achieved through what is termed a “cost sharing reduction program” but this really amounts to people getting gold, platinum or diamond — my term — policies but only having to pay the silver price.  These subsidies have been crucial to the touted success of the ACA.  They have brought low risk individuals into the pool. Without the subsidies, the insurance market would need to depend solely on risk aversion to achieve price stability and escape the death spiral.  Prior experiments relying only on risk aversion alone have been notoriously unsuccessful.

For better or worse, the subsidy has had an immense effect. A recent study conducting by Avalere shows that 83% of Exchange enrollees have incomes at 250% or less of the federal poverty level for their households. The take up rate among those eligible for ACA exchange policies falls from 76% for those earning 100-150% of FPL down to just 16% for those earning 300-400% of FPL. Take up then plummets to 2% for those earning more than 400% of FPL and who are thus ineligible for subsidies.

This elasticity in the demand for health insurance is precisely why the forthcoming Supreme Court decision in King v. Burwell is of such great importance.  If the Supreme Court issues a square holding that the federal government lacks authority to pay the premiums where the state itself has not directly established an Exchange, and neither Congress nor the states does anything to fix the matter, expect insurers in those states rapidly to stop offering individual health insurance on the Exchanges. Indeed, clause IVB in the contracts those insurers negotiated with the federal government precisely in anticipation of King v. Burwell would permit those insurers not just to exit the market next year but to cancel existing policies midstream.

A side point, but one that might trouble this audience.  Every insurer that I know of is accepting payments from the federal government for cost sharing reductions.   But those payments are almost certainly illegal. Congress never appropriated any money for Cost Sharing Reductions.  So, under the law as written, insurers who want to play in the Exchanges are really supposed pay for cost sharing reductions themselves.

Of course, to my knowledge, that’s not happening. The money now landing in insurer’s bank accounts is coming from a fund set up for tax refunds that is, by law, dedicated exclusively to that purpose.  That, I believe is unlawful and, should another party ever control the Executive branch and want to look for a villain or want to extort various favors from someone whom they have over a barrel, might it not chase insurers for receipt of diverted funds?  There is a 1938 Supreme Court decision saying the Government can recover funds paid illegally and a 1990 Supreme Court decision saying that a claim of estoppel can not lie against the federal government.   So, before insurers become accessories or before they count as money on their balance sheets that they might have to pay back, they might want to look at these cases.

Reinsurance subsidies

There are also less visible features of the ACA that are designed to improve the probability of the airplane staying aloft. The ability of the ACA to fly also depends substantially for 2014, 2015 and 2016 on premiums subsidized by free specific stop loss reinsurance given to insurers who agree to risk their capital in untested Exchange markets.  It is, however, a form of support that is going to flame out after 2016.

How much support does it provide? If you use the data from the 2016 draft actuarial value calculator produced by CMS, you can compute that the subsidy will still be about 3% of premiums for 2016.  It was higher in 2014 and 2015. How will the ACA continue when prices increase at least 3% more just due to the elimination of this single subsidy.  The naive might think that 3% is not all that much.  And, without taking adverse selection into account, I would expect the market to shrink only by about an equal percentage.  But if history and economics tells us anything — and it does — because of adverse selection, the actual price increase will be greater and the resulting decline in enrollment will be greater.

I would not expect Congress to do any sort of mid-flight refueling of reinsurance subsidies, to continue my airplane metaphor. The policy justification for specific reinsurance subsidies seems rather thin.  If reducing the overall risk to insurers was the issue, aggregate stop loss, perhaps available at an actuarially fair price, rather than free specific stop loss reinsurance would make more sense.  And if the government, and, derivatively, the insurance industry, was fearful of there being no market for reinsurance where the risk involved was so untested, Congress could have made a guess and established a fair price and reinsurance facility itself. Moreover, if uncoupling household income from the ability to obtain medical care was a primary goal of the ACA,  why would Congress not just increase individual premium subsidies instead of sending that money to enrich, sorry guys, insurance companies?  This form of corporate welfare helps people at 350% of federal poverty level or even people at 1000% of FPL buying unsubsidized policies on the Exchange as much as it helps the person earning 150% of FPL who might desperately need more assistance. If one accepts major premises of the ACA, one might seriously question why such is the case.

Risk Corridors: The Free Derivative

The ACA depends somewhat for 2014, 2015 and 2016 on another form of subsidies for the insurance industry.  It indirectly subsidizes premiums by providing insurers with a free financial derivative: risk corridors that reduce the amount of capital prudent insurers might otherwise need to stockpile or aggressive state regulators might require them to stockpile. This reduction occurs because Risk Corridors reduces the probability of insurers losing substantial amounts of money via participation in the Exchanges. To use a finance term, Risk Corridors reduces Value at Risk, which is a decent estimate of the amount of money participating insurers need to keep in more liquid and probably less lucrative investments.

If you run the computations — ask me how — it looks as if Risk Corridors reduces the amount insurers need to charge for Exchange policies by a little less than 1%.  Again, you might say, in what I suspect would be a deprecating tone, big deal. And, I agree that, taken by itself, the ACA is unlikely to crash based on a 1% increase standing alone.  But it’s all cumulative and the problem with death spirals is that once you find yourself in their clutches they are a bit like a black hole, very difficult to escape.

Insurers may not have to wait until 2017 for Risk Corridors to disappear.  They are already in grave trouble.  Congress also never appropriated any money for Risk Corridors. And this wasn’t an accident. The statute, as written, depends on assessments on insurers based on a formula to magically equal payments out to insurers based on a formula over the 3-year span of the program.  We are already seeing, as many predicted, however that such an assumption was unwarranted.  Due perhaps to loss leader pricing and the predictable propensity of consumers to pick precisely those plans that were charging too little relative to actuarial risk, it appears that, on balance, at least after what I would hope would be clever but lawful accounting, that few insurers are making enough money under Obamacare policies to provide any funding to the many insurers who gained volume at the expense of profitability. So, when the Obama administration suggested it might lawlessly raid other government accounts to fund Risk Corridor deficits, Congress responded in section 227 of the Cromnibus bill by walling off the plump Medicare Parts A and B trust funds and CMS operating accounts as a source to repay obligations created by the Risk Corridor program.

Might deficits in early years of Risk Corridors be funded out of profits in later years as the Obama administration has suggested? The omens aren’t good. According to a review of 2014 industry filings by Standard & Poors, Risk Corridors will likely collect less than 10 percent of what industry is expecting to be reimbursed. 14% of insurers will likely pay into Risk Corridors.  56% expect money out. The absence of Risk Corridor money will be fatal to some insurers.

Already, we are seeing the death and near death of some less well capitalized insurers, particularly the co-ops capitalized, I might add, not so much by private investors but by $2.4 billion from the taxpayers in a less well publicized cost of Obamacare. Low premiums are not of terribly great value if they end up bankrupting private insurers on whom the success of Obamacare depends.

Individual Punishment

Thus far, I have spoken of the carrots to get even people of low risk to participate in the Exchange marketplaces.  Obamacare is fueled, however, not just by subsidies but by punishment. Obamacare chose a different punishment model than for programs such as Medicare Part B or Medigap.  In those programs, and in some Republican proposals for Obamacare reform, if you don’t select insurance when you are first eligible, you just pay a lot more for insurance if you elect coverage later.  No commerce clause problems, no tax. Obamacare, by contrast, increases administrative costs by potentially assessing  a penalty each year if you don’t have coverage. The ability of this punishment to stem a death spiral depends on the size of the punishment and the number of people who are subject to it.  And what I now wish to suggest is that even without its formal repeal, the Individual Mandate was weak to begin with and has been further enfeebled by administrative moves taken in response to political uproar.

Consider, for example, a slightly fictionalized version of one typical American. According to the Kaiser Foundation Calculator, a 45 year old non-smoking person making $48,000 per year would expect to pay $3,742 on average for a Silver Policy.  Suppose, however, that the individual considers themselves to be only 30 in health years. The individual thus considers its average expenses that would be covered by insurance to be $2,941.  Would the $746 difference in tax created by the mandate be sufficient to get that person to purchase an Exchange policy.  Not if that person was risk neutral.  $746 in tax is less than the $801 excess in medical expenses.

Alternatively, eliminate $3,000 from the person’s income. Now, because the premium the individual would have to pay is more than 8% of household income, the individual is exempt from the individual mandate. There are a significant number of uninsured people thus exempted from the mandate on grounds that they are simply too poor to purchase Obamacare.

But there’s more to make sure, as the CBO recently confirmed, that only one in six of the uninsured will actually be subject to the mandate.  There is the absurdly expanded hardship exemption. There’s the health sharing ministry exception mostly for evangelical Christians. And there’s the peculiar 3 months off exemption (26 USC § 5000A(e)(4)).

In short, one of the reasons Obamacare will have difficulty flying is that we are afraid of our inability accurately to determine whether people can really afford insurance and at what price.  For now, though, if one wants to rely on sticks, the stick is actually too weak and hits too few people.

The Employer Mandate

Another key component of the ACA has been the employer mandate.  Or, at least it was supposed to be a key component.  In fact, in what a lot of people, including me, think is a very dangerous precedent that will, one day, bite ACA proponents in the proverbial behind, the Obama administration simply decided, without any apparent discretion, to delay enforcement of the law for one year and, for the current year, to apply the statute only to employers with more than 100 employees, even though the number the statute picks is 50. If a change to the tax code is so complicated that it takes mid sized businesses with financial advisors 5 years to understand it, perhaps that’s a sign there is something more fundamentally wrong.

At any rate, the employer mandate is, for lack of a more sophisticated term, stupid. If it actually works, it keeps people off the individual exchanges, which is exactly what should not be happening. The employer mandate perpetuates both symbolically and literally the counterproductive tie between a poorly functioning and lumpy labor market and something as important as health.  It puts the employers’ decision as to what sort of coverage best suits the employee ahead of the ability of the individual to choose.  The tax deductibility of payments helps the wealthy more.  The lack of portability between jobs decreases the sort of continuity of care that might improve health. It is everything a good liberal should hate.  (Indeed, some have had the courage to note the many flaws with the current law.) And so I wonder if King v. Burwell comes out against the government, whether the employer mandate, which has barely made it on to the Obamacare Aircraft, might be abortively deplaned with eager Republicans and Democrats in need to save face actually coming together on this issue.  Indeed, if I were a Limbaugh-style Republican who wanted Obama to fail, I would actually insist on the employer mandate continuing as a way of starving the individual exchanges of healthy people who might stabilize their prices and of helping high income voters more.


One’s perspective on the ACA can’t be whether it helps insurers or whether it helps the medical profession.  In fact it shouldn’t even be on whether more people have health insurance.  The positive factor to be considered is whether it has improved health.  I will concede that, on balance, it probably has — slightly. Many medical interactions are beneficial and, although supply of medical practitioners has not increased much, there are 2-4% more such interactions thanks to the ACA.   In any event, whether the ACA marginally improves health is not the exclusive test.  These programs have to be paid for and they come at a heavy price.  The CBO now estimates the ACA will increase our budget deficit by $849 billion dollars through 2026. It is not, contrary to prior representations, paid for.

If you forget about Medicaid expansion and take the net increase the uninsured as a result of the ACA and divide that by the cost of providing coverage to them, it turns over 10 years to average with premium subsidies, cost sharing reductions, the 3Rs, and administrative costs about $7,600 per person.  And in addition to racking up our already bloated deficit, there will be be taxes, fees and subsidies that have their own perverse incentives. Some have estimated the cost of providing a currently uninsured person an additional year of a quality life at over $200,000 possibly over $1 million. That’s enough that we have to look hard at whether there might be some better and simpler alternatives.

As we move forward  ought to be looking not at Obamacare vs. The Bad Old Days Where Evil Insurers Deprived Sick People of Coverage but rather to a variety of alternatives ranging from, yes, Bernie Sanders Single Payer plan to, better,  libertarian plans to use market mechanisms more effectively  to perhaps better yet, lots in between.  Yes, Obamacare has gotten off into the air, but if they would honestly call “Mayday,” it is my hope that a variety of people would try to help out.

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