Concerns about whether insurance sold on the individual Exchanges under the Affordable Care Act will succumb to an adverse selection death spiral have focused mainly on the shortage of younger enrollees into the system. This shortage is potentially a problem because, due to section 1201 of the ACA, premiums for younger enrollees must be at least one third of that for older enrollees even though actuarial science tells us that younger enrollee expenses are perhaps just one fifth of those for older enrollees. Younger enrollees are needed in large numbers to subsidize the premiums of the older enrollees. But at least premiums under the ACA respond at least somewhat to age.
The lesser studied potential source of adverse selection problems, however, is the fact that medical expenses of women for many ages are essentially double those of men and yet the ACA forbids rating based on gender. In a rational world, one would therefore expect women of most of the ages eligible for coverage in the individual Exchanges to enroll in plans on the Exchange at a higher rate than men. But, since the women have higher than average expenses than men, premiums based on the average expenses of men and women will prove too low, creating pressure on insurers to raise prices. And, of course, there could also be some disproportionate enrollment by older men who have higher medical expenses than women of equal age. While I welcome contrary arguments in what I regard as a fairly new area of study involving the ACA, gender-based adverse selection would certainly appear to be a real problem created by the structure of that law. To me, it looks to be potentially as large a problem as age-based adverse selection. It is certainly one that needs continuing and careful evaluation.
I see only three limited factors that reduce what would otherwise appear to be a significant additional source for significant adverse selection. As set forth below, however, I do not believe that any of these factors are likely to materially reduce the problem.
The first is ignorance. Adverse selection emerges only if individuals can accurately foretell their future medical expenses with some accuracy. To the extent, therefore, that men and women are ignorant of the effect of gender on their projected medical expenses, adverse selection is potentially diminished. I say “potentially,” however, because of a subtlety: people don’t have to know why their expenses are what they are in order for adverse selection to emerge; they only have to be somewhat accurate in their guess. Thus, even if men and women don’t make the cognitive leap from seeing lower (or higher) medical expenses to issues of gender, but they still on balance get it right, adverse selection can exist. Thus, I end up doubting that ignorance of the correlation between gender and medical expense is going to retard adverse selection problems very much.
2. Correlation between gender and expense is lower for those 50-65.
The second factor that might reduce adverse selection based on gender is, curiously enough, adverse selection based on age. The difference between male and female medical expenses diminishes as one exits the middle 40s and heads into the 60s. Indeed, somewhere in the late 50s, the rates cross and men have slightly higher average medical expenses than women. Therefore, to the extent that it is the 50-65 set that is disproportionately purchasing coverage in the individual Exchanges, the potential for gender-based adverse selection is diminished — but only somewhat . I say “but only somewhat” because if males over the age of about 55 or 58 enroll at higher rates than women of similar ages there will actually be adverse selection pressures due to the higher medical expenses of men that age. On the other hand, to the extents efforts are made to reduce age-based adverse selection by promoting coverage to the younger (potentially child-bearing) set, the potential for most forms of gender-based adverse selection increases.
3. Gender-correlated risk aversion
The third factor that could in theory reduce adverse selection problems is if men are more risk averse than women with respect to medical expenses and therefore purchase health insurance at equivalent rates even though their risk is objectively lower. Men could conceivably be somewhat more risk averse due to prevailing gender roles in the economy: on average it is possible that health problems among men may affect the family’s income more than health problems among women. Although as an academic I feel I would be remiss in failing to at least mention this possibility, in the end I doubt it amounts to very much. The roles of men and women in the family economy are complex and variegated. And the sources of risk aversion with respect to health are likewise multifold, having a lot to due with individual psychology, family history and family structure. And, of course, it could be that middle aged men are less risk averse than women, in which case the effects of adverse selection are worse.
How do we know about the effects of gender? The graphics below show two studies on the topic. The first is from the Society of Actuaries and was relied on by the Kaiser Family Foundation in its recent study of the effect of age rating. Look at the solid blue (male) and pink (female) lines. (Cute, Kaiser). One can see that until age 18, the costs for men and women in the commercial market has been about the same. By the time we get to, say, age 32, the cost for women is about 2.5 times that for men. The gap then shrinks so that by the time we get to age 58 or so, men’s costs actually start to somewhat exceed women’s.
A study by the respected Milliman actuarial firm, although differing in detail, shows roughly the same pattern. At age 30 or so, female expenses (blue) and about double those of males (green). The gap shrinks until about age 55, at which point male expenses exceed female expenses. (I’m not sure why Milliman shows female expenses being so much higher than male expenses for the age bracket marked “to 25” unless by “to 25” they mean ages 18-25.)
Is Gender-Based Adverse Selection Actually Happening?
As to whether the theoretical possibility of gender-based adverse selection is actually materializing, there is yet strikingly little evidence. I have scoured the Internet and found almost nothing on the gender of enrollees. In some sense this is not surprising since, unlike age, on which we have a trickle of data from CMS, which somehow is just unable to compile and release more complete information, gender is completely irrelevant to premium rates. On the other hand, as shown below, the federal application asks about gender, as do a few other state applications such as California, Kentucky and Washington State. So, in theory we should be able to get the information at some point. In the meantime, if anyone has information on this issue, I would love to see it. What we really need is a breakdown of enrollees based on both age and gender because the ratio’s role varies depending on whether enrollees below age 55 or so are involved or whether enrollees above age 55 are involved.
Two other notes
1. Someone might, I suppose, think that since the role of gender reverses at about age 55, the effects of gender on adverse selection cancel each other out. This would be totally wrong. If women have higher medical expenses than men up to about age 55 and if women therefore enroll at higher rates, that can cause adverse selection and premium pressures for enrollees of those ages. And if men have have higher medical expenses than women after about age 55 and if men therefore enroll at higher rates, that can cause adverse selection and premium pressures for enrollees of those ages. The effects are cumulative and not offsetting.
2. Does this mean I am opposed to unisex rating? No, not necessarily. First, women face higher medical expenses than men from about 20 to 50 significantly because of childbearing expenses. A family law expert on my faculty confirms what I suspected, which is that there is certainly no routine cause of action by the pregnant female against the prospective father for prenatal maternity expenses. We currently ascribe these expenses to the woman even though a male generally has contributed to those expenses through consensual sex. One could argue that unisex rating offsets this proxy for responsibility.
Second, if there are adverse selection problems caused by unisex rating, they can, in theory, be addressed by programs that that subsidize insurers for female enrollees. Impolitic as it might be to say so, one could treat being a fertile woman as a “risk factor” in the same way that section 1343 of the ACA currently treats medical conditions such as heart disease. The cost of the subsidies resulting therefrom could be seen as compensating somewhat for the transaction costs of figuring out which childbearing expenses the male partner has contributed to as well as tracking down the male partner and trying to hold him financially responsible.
What I am concerned about, however, is ignoring the issues created by unisex rating. Since it is not currently corrected for by section 1343 of the ACA and corrected for only in a very indirect and partial way by sections 1341 and 1342 of the ACA, there is the potential for the absence of gender rating to destabilize and ultimately shrink the insurance markets in ways that do few people any good. Wishing that a problem would go away or hoping that people don’t see the opportunities to optimize their behavior is seldom a recipe for successful government programs.