Tag Archives: individual mandate

Coverage on January 1, 2014 matters

Contrary to the views of some, the number of people who have insurance coverage through the Exchanges as of January 1, 2014, matters to everyone.  It matters because the pool that exists on that date will determine, at least for a while, whether the premiums charged by insurers in the Exchange are likely to be stable and the extent of the federal government’s multiple obligations to subsidize plans purchased on the various Exchanges. It is not as if insurers get a claims paying holiday simply because more and healthier people may enroll later in the year. It also matters because a major point of the Affordable Care Act was to increase in an efficient and relatively painless way the net number of people who have insurance or social protection against significant illness.  If the numbers in the Exchanges and in the expanded Medicaid program do not way more than offset the number of persons who lose their insurance as a result of the ACA, or if the cost of extending health protection in this fashion proves too high, the ACA will not have accomplished its goals.

Given the chaos that has erupted as procrastination strains Exchange infrastructure and deadlines are repeatedly extended, it is difficult to tell right now whether the ACA is performing as hoped. A few things are clear, however. The first thing is that the Obama administration is not releasing the sort of information from which an objective assessment could be made.  Platitudes such as “Millions of Americans, despite the problems with the website, are now poised to be covered by quality affordable health insurance come New Year’s Day,” from President Obama at his last press conference are just not a substitute for knowing how many people have enrolled in the plans in the various Exchanges, and more importantly, have paid for coverage. What are their ages? How about some real numbers as a Holiday present?

Second, the Obama administration is acting as if a large number of enrollees in the aggregate is the measure of success. This is simply not true. Putting aside the problem of it being paying customers rather than mere enrollment that ultimately matters, meeting or exceeding projections in some states does not compensate for deficiencies in many other states.  Because the pools are state-based, Texas insurers and insureds are not helped if enrollment in New York or Connecticut exchanges ultimately equals or exceeds targets. The insurance market in Texas and many other states will still be unstable with some insurers likely pressing for significant premium increases, contemplating withdrawal from the Exchanges, and demanding larger subsidies from the federal government via Risk Corridors and other programs.

Third, even those who have been on the more pessimistic side of matters, must acknowledge that there has indeed been a surge in many state Exchanges and in many states covered by the federal Exchange. On December 11, I wrote: “With a decent last minute kick, it is not unimaginable that California could make 1/3 of its total by the December 23, 2013 deadline and get closer to its ultimate goal by the end of March.” With enrollments at 17,000 per day, California may in fact be there. Colorado, which previously had dismal enrollment numbers, reports 33,356 enrolled as of Monday, which puts it at of the 136,000 projected enrollment for 2014 and 52% of the way towards the Obama administration’s projections for this time of the open enrollment season. (33356/(0.47 x 136000)). Other states such as New York and Connecticut, which previously were doing better than most, have also reported a high pace of enrollment.

Whether that surge has been as large in many other states remains to be seen. Proponents of the ACA like to cherry pick their states with at least as much zest as opponents do. Perhaps both sides share the belief that insurance enrollment is at least much a social phenomenon as a purely economic one. Numbers for large states (with large numbers of uninsureds) such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana,  Illinois, North Carolina and Florida have yet to report any numbers that I have seen.   And, as mentioned above, even if California and New York and some other states have enrollment sufficient to forestall premium instability and possible entrance into an adverse selection death spiral, that will not greatly help states in which enrollment ends up being less than half of that projected.

Finally, we need to look beyond the last minute holiday rush for health coverage and see what happens between now and March 31, 2014. The carrot of the ACA has basically been eaten for 2014.  If you wanted health care coverage and could afford the prices on the Exchange it made little sense to wait until after the December deadline to acquire it.  This is all the more true given that the President has permitted people to game the system by simply enrolling in a plan now and deciding until January 10, 2014, whether to pay.

Now, however, the first surge is likely over.  Will there be the needed second surge? All that really remains is the stick: the individual mandate tax penalty.  Many people, including me, believe that even before the events of last week, it was too small in 2014 to achieve its goal of inducing enrollment by those in good or average health.  The number of people for whom insurance would not be a good deal at, say, $2,000 a year net but for whom it would be a good deal at (effectively) $1,705 per year ($2,000 – the $295 per person tax penalty) is not likely to be enormous. This is so because ACA premiums often depart greatly from actuarial risk by their prohibition on medical underwriting, accurate age rating, gender rating and their — shall we say — loose enforcement of tobacco rating.

Moreover, with the administration exempting last week upwards of half a million people from the individual mandate, the number of people who need fear the stick got even smaller.  So, yes there are mega-procrastinators or people who have been stymied by the dysfunctionality of various Exchange website in obtaining coverage. There are former skeptics who see their neighbors helped by health insurance coverage under the ACA and who now enroll just as there may be some turned off by whatever problems emerge in administration of the plans.  On balance, I would not be surprised to see modest increases in enrollment between now and the middle of March.  I remain highly skeptical, however, that there will be a second surge equivalent to what has occurred this past week.  As they say, however, only time will tell.

Personal Note

I am enjoying a family vacation in the Colorado mountains this winter holiday.  It’s snowing outside my window as I write this and the beauty of a quiet snowfall can eclipse what may seem so important at other times. So please continue to read ACA Death Spiral periodically, but don’t expect a huge amount of activity for about the next week.  I’m confident we’ll be back exploring issues in the new year.


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Just read Avik Roy this morning

Avik Roy has saved me a lot of time this morning with a brilliant post on the Forbes website. Read it.

Or at least read these excerpts.




Request for readers

1. The healthcare.gov web site does not even let one access Catastrophic plans if one is over the age of 30.  The shadow website, thehealthsherpa.com does not permit one to do so either probably because it was thought that the number of persons qualifying over 30 would be extremely small. When I just tried to chat with healthcare.gov and get the answer, I was told ” Sorry, Health Insurance Marketplace Live Chat isn’t available right now. We’re having technical problems.” I have thus not yet been able to figure out what the prices are for someone over 30 with one of the new “hardship” exemptions.  If anyone can figure out what prices over-age hardship exemption folks pay for a section 1302 Catastrophic Plan, please contact me.

2. How many people have purchased these Catastrophic plans anyway?  The federal government has not released metal tier distribution data, but the data from a few states suggests that it is an extremely low number.  Many under the age of 30 can stay on their parents plans and others find that it is not much better than a Bronze Plan or, under some circumstances, a worse deal.  I would bet that  the overall number of Catastrophic Plan enrollees thus far is less than 20,000. There is no subsidy for Catastrophic Plans. What would actually happen if people took advantage of the Secretary’s hardship exemption and instead of just pocketing the tax savings, these older insureds purchased these Catastrophic Plans.  Could be the over 50s could end up being a greater number than the under 30s. We will see if I ever get an answer to question 1 above, but I suspect the insurance industry did not price the policies on the assumption that older enrollees would predominate.



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Obama administration shocking decision to drop individual mandate — but only for some

I’m going to have to wait until tomorrow to say much more, but the Obama administration issued a shocking decision late today to exempt those who had individual policies cancelled this year from the individual mandate contained in the Affordable Care Act.  The Wall Street Journal apparently broke the story.  Here is the New York Times article.  Here is a Washington Post article from a strong Affordable Care Act supporter. Here is the Huffington Post article. Here’s Fox News. (CNN has yet to publish anything I can find on the subject) Not surprisingly, the insurance industry has already protested the apparent move. “This latest rule change could cause significant instability in the marketplace and lead to further confusion and disruption for consumers,” said Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s main trade group.

A copy of the decision, made thus far only in a letter from Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to six senators (all of whom are apparently facing tough re-election battles) is here.

Excerpt from Sebelius letter to senators
Excerpt from Sebelius letter to senators


The purported legal basis for the exemption comes in 26 U.S.C. 5000A(e)(5), which reads:

(e) Exemptions

No penalty shall be imposed under subsection (a) with respect to— …

(5) Any applicable individual who for any month is determined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services under section 1311 (d)(4)(H) to have suffered a hardship with respect to the capability to obtain coverage under a qualified health plan.

The Obama administration is now apparently interpreting having to comply with the mandate itself — but only after one’s individual insurance policy was cancelled — as the requisite hardship. A prior regulation issued on July 1, 2013, by HHS had taken a narrower view of what the requisite hardship was:

(g) Hardship—(1) General. The Exchange must grant a hardship exemption to an applicant eligible for an exemption for at least the month before, a month or months during which, and the month after, if the Exchange determines that—
(i) He or she experienced financial or domestic circumstances, including an unexpected natural or human-caused event, such that he or she had a significant, unexpected increase an essential expenses that prevented him or her from obtaining coverage under a qualified health plan;
(ii) The expense of purchasing a qualified health plan would have caused him or her to experience serious deprivation of food, shelter, clothing or other necessities; or
(iii) He or she has experienced other circumstances that prevented him or her from obtaining coverage under a qualified health plan.

I look forward to hearing from others, and in particular from people with a commitment to the rule of law who previously have supported the ideas behind the ACA, but it is not clear to me that any of the pre-existing bases contained in this regulation for claiming a hardship exemption would apply to having a predicted cancellation in one’s individual insurance policy. Maybe at this late hour there are arguments and other documents I am not considering. Surely, however, the existence of the ACA itself can not be the human-caused event creating the hardship. Moreover, I have trouble seeing how the cancellation of a plan makes it more difficult for these individuals — as opposed to others in similar circumstances — from obtaining coverage under a qualified health plan.  I can well imagine cynics saying that the only real hardship involved here is having believed President Obama when he said that if you liked your health plan you could keep it and thus not having saved up for the higher prices that often exist in policies with “Essential Health Benefits.” Of course, if , as the Obama administration has claimed, many of these cancelled policies were junk that the policyholder should be glad to be rid of, it becomes yet more challenging to see much of a hardship at all in being offered real insurance coverage with all of its greater benefits.

In any event, it does not take a fertile imagination to foresee legal challenges to this limited exemption from those not fortunate enough to have had health insurance in the past but who are not being given a similar exemption from the individual mandate. I can easily see challenges based on failures of administrative procedure and equal protection.

The Death Spiral

I and others will need to think hard about the issue of magnitude. Obama administration officials are reported as having stated at a briefing that all but 500,000 of those with canceled policies will be enrolling in policies under the Exchange. This claim, however, is impossible to reconcile with existing enrollment statistics and assertions that millions of individuals have had their individual policies cancelled.  It is difficult to see how this decision would not exacerbate at least somewhat the risk of an adverse selection death spiral overtaking the Exchanges in many states.  The tax created by the mandate has always been justified as necessary to induce people of low or moderate risk to join those of higher risk in purchasing policies on the Exchange. By now exempting perhaps millions of people from this requirement — and, in particular, people who are most likely to have satisfied medical underwriting in the recent past — the Obama administration decision will likely diminish enrollment, at least somewhat, in the insurance Exchanges and, correlatively increase price pressures and insurer losses during 2014. To the extent that insurers systematically lose money as a result of this apparent decision, the federal government will be spending millions more — perhaps hundreds of millions more — in payments under the Risk Corridors program.


There’s one more implication we need to think about.  Although experts vary greatly on the magnitude, clearly a number of small businesses are going to lose their health insurance policies this coming year for failure to conform to the new ACA requirements.  This is the “second wave” that is sometimes spoken about. Are the significant number of employees and dependents who are thus subject to a risk of loss of coverage likewise going to receive an exemption from the individual mandate?

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The Two Million Scenario: What if the Affordable Care Act enrolls a lot fewer people in the Exchanges than predicted?

People can be blinded by dreams in many spheres
People can be blinded by dreams in many spheres

Many people who remain basically positive about the Affordable Care Act are viewing the enrollment statistics like the football fan whose team is 2-6 and who point out that the team could win 7 out of its 8 remaining games and still probably make the playoffs.  Yes, getting off to a really bad start doesn’t preclude a happy ending. Success may still be mathematically possible. But unless there’s good reason to think that the fundamental factors such as poor coaching,  poor game plans or unexpected injuries that have led to the bad start no longer apply, the more reasonable prediction is that things will continue more or less as they have.

It’s time to start thinking realistically about what happens if a core component of the Affordable Care Act, subsidized, non-underwritten health insurance available from private insurers, essentially fails to provide many with better access to medical care. This might not happen in every state — there might be a few whose Exchanges can be deemed “successful” — but it is looking more and more to me as if we are heading for enrollments in many states well, well short of that on which the arguments for the ACA were significantly premised. Indeed, some supporters of the ACA have started moving the goal posts, revising history to say that the real goal of the Act wasn’t to reduce the number of uninsureds but to have an actuarially sound pool. (So the purpose of the Act was to help insurance companies stay afloat?) And it hardly helps enrollment when President Obama urges his allies to hold back enrollment efforts so the insurance marketplace does not collapse this coming week under a crush of new users even after he earlier assured the nation  healthcare.gov  was supposed to be working much better by this time.

For purposes of this blog entry, I’m going to assume that enrollment in the Exchanges ends up being about 2 million for 2014 instead of the projected 7 million.  I can’t rigorously justify that number — but, of course, neither could the pundit who is now saying 4 million. And, if I had time and space I’d prefer to do this analysis under a variety of scenarios, but, for now, the 2 million figure feels about right. And if I were betting on which side of the 2 million we will fall, it would be the lower side. What are the consequences? I can’t address all of them in a single blog entry — and trying to predict matters past 2014 gets very treacherous — but here are some.

And, for those of you who don’t want to read further, here’s the headline:

Insurance sold through Exchanges without medical underwriting — a central promise of the Affordable Care Act — is likely to implode in a significant number of states by 2015 while limping along in several others but providing little net desired decrease in the number of people without quality health insurance.  The silver lining in this failure will be that the program will likely cost less than projected due to fewer number of people receiving subsidies, although this reduction will be partly offset by higher-than-projected subsidies to the insurance industry. Expect significant pressure to grow among supporters of the Affordable Care Act to use these net savings to increase the subsidies available to people buying coverage through the Exchanges and to lure insurers in the problem states back into the Exchanges.

1. The number of people without private health insurance may actually grow

This is so because, if 2 million obtain insurance through the Exchanges but more people (3.5 million is a prevailing estimate from sources ranging from Forbes to Jonathan Gruber) lose their current individual health insurance, that’s a net decrease in the number of insured.  And if we add in the loss of 100,000 or so people from the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan that likewise is terminated or those who heretofore were in various state high risk pools, there is a serious risk that the Affordable Care Act will have decreased the number with private health insurance.

In fairness, I have not taken Medicaid expansion into account. Some may see it as unfair to count just the number of people with private health insurance rather than the number with access to health care through private insurance or public schemes such as Medicaid. And, indeed, in those states in which Medicaid has been expanded — one can’t blame President Obama too much if other states choose not to participate — enrollment has outpaced enrollment in private plans at about a 4-to-1 ratio. This suggests, by the way, that people are willing to use a web site, even some clunky ones, to sign up for health care if they think the price is right.

The rejoinder to the argument that we should consider Medicaid, however, is that an awful lot of political energy and an awful lot of monetary investment has been predicated on healthcare reform benefiting more than just the poor but the middle class too. If it turns out the middle class has, net, been hurt by the 2014 features of Affordable Care Act or has paid a large investment for the 2014 features of a law that, net, does provide little marginal benefit, it’s fair to criticize the 2014 features of the Act for their architectural shortcomings. And, yes, I know all about staying on your parents’ policy until you are 26 and limitations on rescissions, but none of those pre-2014 “achievements” should count in assessing the 2014 record.

2. The number of people with quality health insurance may stay about the same

Yes, there will be people who formerly had no health insurance or who had rotten health insurance who, thanks to the 2014 aspects of the ACA, now have health insurance that covers more.  There are many news accounts from pro-ACA forces providing evidence of this. Here’s one (although all the “success stories” are likely to have high medical claims); here’s another (notice again that the successes are likely to have high medical claims).

But it may well be that for every such success story apparently to be catalogued by paid grants from the government, there is another who had health insurance tailored to their needs (such as policies for the 50 and over set that did not cover maternity expenses) who now find themselves priced out of the health insurance market with its Essential Health Benefits requirement (section 1302 of the ACA). Here’s a website inviting people to post their cancellation notices.  Here are some anecdotes relating such problems (although one always have to be very careful about exaggerations in this arena; see here for a discussion of a particular case by Consumer Reports).  Here’s another.

On balance, though, it’s quite believable that, many of the gains due to subsidization may be offset due to government offering only products that have more “features” than many people are willing to pay for.  To analogize, consider a law that prohibited people from owning either a clunker car (defined somehow) or a car without four-wheel drive. The theory behind the law was that clunkers were unsafe and that four-wheel drive is sometimes useful: even if you don’t need it right now, you might need it or have needed it at some point.  Fair enough. But such a law might not actually increase the number of people driving quality cars that fit their needs. Some people just can’t afford a new car.  And others, who could afford a respectable car without four wheel drive and didn’t think they needed it right then (urban Floridians, for example), might simply decide not to get a car rather than use scarce marginal dollars for cars with features they don’t need. While such a result need not occur — it depends on all sorts of factors — my sense is that this is where we are heading with the Affordable Care Act and its fairly demanding and undifferentiated requirements for coverage in policies sold on the Exchanges.

3.  Federal mandate tax payments may be a little bit bigger than expected for 2014

The Congressional Budget Office estimates this spring that the United States Treasury would receive about 2 billion dollars as a result of the individual mandate tax (26 U.S.C. § 5000A). That figure was premised, however, on a belief that 7 million people would enroll in the Exchanges.  If only 2 million people get insurance through the Exchange that’s roughly 5 million fewer than anticipated who will not. There thus could be as many as 5 million more people who will have to pay the individual mandate (26 U.S.C. §5000A) and could lead to something like another $500 million in revenue next year.

Before we spend the money of 5 million more Americans who might have to pay extra in tax, however,  we need to we need to subtract off two categories of people.  (1) We should subtract off those who acquire faux-grandfathered policies created by President Obama’s recent turnabout to let people who like their (potentially cruddy) coverage keep it under some circumstances and not have to pay the individual mandate.  (2) We should subtract off the small number of people who were projected to purchase policies on the Exchange but, because of poverty or otherwise, would not have had to pay the mandate tax had they failed to do so.

So, let’s say on balance that 3 million fewer people than projected pay the tax under 26 U.S.C. 5000A. It’s hard to know exactly what sort of tax revenue would be involved, but it is likely in excess of $285 million per year because each such person would have been responsible for at least a $95 per person penalty. (I know, I know, there are lots of complications because the penalty is difficult to enforce and because you only have to pay half for children, but then there are complications the other way in that $95 is a floor and one may have to pay 1% of household income). Why don’t we use round numbers, though, and say that the government might get about $300 million more in tax revenue for 2014 (although they may not get the money until 2015) due to lower-than-projected enrollments in the Exchanges.

4. Before the federal government subsidizes them, insurers in the Exchange will lose billions

4. Before consideration of various subsidies (a/k/a bailouts) of the insurance industry created by the Affordable Care Act, insurers could lose $2 billion as a result of having gambled that the Exchanges would be successful.  Here’s how I get that figure. No one knows for sure but, if the experience under the PCIP plan is any guide, when about 1/3 of the projected number of people apply to a plan that is not medically underwritten, expenses per person can be more than double that originally expected.  Even if we assume that experience under the PCIP is not fully applicable, given an enrollment 1/3 of that projected, it would shock me if covered claims were not at least 125% of that expected. If so, on balance that means that losses per insured could total roughly $1,000. If we multiply $1,000 per insured by 2 million insureds, we get about $2 billion. If the Exchanges lose money at the same rate as the PCIP, insurer losses could be upwards of  $7 billion. Again, I make no pretense of precision here. I am simply trying to get a sense of the order of magnitude.

5. The federal government will subsidize insurers more than expected but insurers will still lose money

The Affordable Care Act creates several methods heralded as protecting insurers writing in the Exchanges from claims that were greater than they expected.  One such method, Risk Corridors under section 1342 of the ACA, could end up helping insurers in the Exchanges significantly. But, if, as discussed here, enrollment in the Exchanges for 2014 is 2 million persons, the cost of helping the insurance industry in this fashion will be another $500 million for 2014. Risk Corridors, which have recently been aptly analogized to synthetic collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), requires the government to reimburse insurers for up to 80% of any losses they suffer on the Exchanges.  It also imposes what amounts to a special tax (again of up to 80%) on profits that insurers may make on the Exchanges. The system was supposed to be budget neutral but, as I and others have observed, will in fact require the federal government to pay money in the event that insurer losses on the Exchange outweigh insurer gains. The basis for my $500 million computation is set forth extensively in a prior blog entry. It will only be more if, as discussed in another prior blog entry, the Obama administration modifies Risk Corridors to indemnify insurers for additional losses they suffer as a result of President Obama’s decision to let those with recently cancelled medically underwritten health insurance policies stay out of the Exchanges.

If claims are, as I have suggested 25% higher as a result of enrollment of 2 million, insurers will lose, after Risk Corridors are taken into account, about 9% on their policies. It would thus not surprise me to see insurers put in for at least a 9 or 10% increase on their policies for 2015 simply as a result of enrollment in the pools being smaller than expected.

The relatively modest 9% figure masks a far more significant problem, however.  It is just a national average. Consider states such as Texas in which only 2,991 out of the 774,662 projected have enrolled thus far.  If, say, Texas ends up enrolling “only” increasing its enrollment by a factor of 16 and gets to 50,000 enrollees, I would not be surprised to see claims be double of what was projected.  Even with Risk Corridors, insurers could still lose about 24% on their policies. A compensating 24% gross premium increase, even if experienced only by that portion of the insurance market paying gross premiums, could well be enough to set off an adverse selection death spiral.

Footnote: For reasons I have addressed in an earlier blog entry, one of those methods, transitional reinsurance under section 1341 of the ACA is best thought of as a premium subsidy that induces insurers to write in the Exchanges. Because the government’s payment obligations are capped, however, the provision is unlikely to help them significantly if the cost per insured ends up being particularly high throughout the nation.

6. The federal government might save $19 billion in premium subsidies

The Congressional Budget Office assumed that premium subsidies would be $26 billion in 2014, representing a payment of about $3,700 per projected enrollee.  If the distribution of policies purchased and the income levels of purchasers are as projected, but only 2 million people apply, that would reduce subsidy payments down to $7.5 billion.  And if the policies sold in 2014 cost a little less than projected, that might further reduce subsidy payments.  I think it would be fair, then, to estimate that low enrollment could save the federal government something like $19 billion in premium subsidies in 2014. This savings coupled with heightened tax revenue under 26 U.S.C. §5000A — could we round it to $20 billion — would be more than enough to cover insurer losses resulting from the pool being smaller and less healthy than projected.

The Bottom Line

I suspect my conclusion will make absolutist ideologues on the left and right equally uncomfortable.  What I am wondering is if the Affordable Care Act might not die in 2015 with a giant imploding bang but rather limp on with a whimper. On balance, what we may well see if only 2 million enroll in Exchanges pursuant to the Affordable Care Act is a system that fails to function in some states and remains fragile and expensive elsewhere. On the one hand, it will be an expensive system because of the enormous overhead incurred in creating a highly regulated industry that provides assistance to a relatively small number of people. On the other hand, precisely because it will be helping far fewer people than projected, it might well cost significantly less  than anticipated. I would expect this departure from what was projected to lead to two sorts of pressures:

(1) There will be a claim from ACA supporters that we can use the savings to increase subsidies or the domain of the subsidies beyond the 400% of Federal Poverty Line cutoff  and thereby reduce the adverse selection problem that will already be manifesting itself.

(2) There will be a claim from ACA detractors that all of this confirms that, apart from ideological considerations, the bill is an expensive turkey and that, if  the only way to save it is to impose more and more regulation and spend more and more money, it ought simply to be repealed.

Complicating factors


There are many factors that could result in the estimates provided in this entry being quite wrong.  I do not want to fall into the same trap as others who have ventured into this field and claim that there are not very large error bars around all of these numbers.  And I do not believe the system is necessarily linear. It may be that small changes have cascading effects. Here are several reasons my estimates might be wrong.

1. The rules change in 2015. There are at least three significant rule changes in 2015.

a. The tax under 26 U.S.C. 5000A for not having government-approved health insurance increases significantly, going from the greater of $95 per person or 1% of household income to the greater $295 per person or 2% of household income. Insurers may therefore assume that enrollment will be greater in 2015 than in 2014.  Some people will be pushed over the edge by the higher tax rate into purchasing health insurance. If so, insurers may feel less pressure to increase prices because they believe their experience in 2014 will not be repeated in 2015.

b. The employer mandate will presumably not be delayed again by executive order which may have two offsetting events: employers reducing the number of full time employees thereby adding more to the Exchanges or employers maintaining health insurance thereby reducing the potential pool for the Exchanges.

c. As discussed in an earlier blog entry, there will be a decline in transitional reinsurance now provided free to insurers in the Exchange which, in and of itself, will put significant pressure on premiums


Finally, this is a field where events just frequently overtake predictions.  All of these predictions go out the window, for example:

a. if there is a major security breach in the government computer systems and people’s personal information is disclosed;

b. healthcare.gov continues to seriously malfunction during the critical pre-December 23 sign up period

c. if the yet-to-be-built payment system for insurers does not function and people become dissatisfied as a result;

d. if people find, as some are projecting (here and here), that the set of medical providers available in the Exchange policies is drastically reduced over what they expected; and

e. there is a major sea change in legislative power in Washington.

f. other





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What happens if just some states enter the death spiral?

The Affordable Care Act does not establish a uniform national pool for persons purchasing Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum policies on the Exchanges. Rather, it creates at least one such pool for each of the states involved in the program .  And that is true even if multiple states use the same “Exchange” — the one in Washington D.C. — to establish coverage.

This fracturing of the pool and of the administrative apparatus creates an architectural problem: what happens if, as may well be the case, insurers in the Exchanges muddle through in a few states but suffer massive losses in many others? Most likely, insurers in the problem states will exit from the Exchanges or require significant premium hikes on top of rates that already give many potential customers sticker shock. But this reaction by profit-motivated insurance companies could lead more Americans to complain that imposition of a uniform individual mandate tax under 26 U.S.C. § 5000A throughout the nation is unfair. And, if the increases are large enough and a large enough number of people stick with the Exchanges — because they don’t see another choice — this  could increase the cost of premium subsidies to the federal government and its taxpayers beyond the substantial numbers already projected.

The key point I want to make here is that even the best and brightest people often fall into the trap of thinking that the Affordable Care Act Exchange-based system for reducing the number of uninsureds will either succeed or fail.  Either the system will fall into an adverse selection death spiral or it will not. Perhaps that is the case. But this binary thinking probably is not right.  It’s kind of like quantum physics: the Exchanges could both succeed and fail at the same time.  It just depends what state you’re in. (Physics pun intended).

Here’s how. Although it is too early to tell for sure — and the persistent failure of healthcare.gov and many of the state exchange sites such as Maryland and Oregon hinders augury — it looks as though the Affordable Care Act is having somewhat more success in some states than others. Proponents of the ACA like to point to California experience where it is claimed that 70,000 people have made it through at least some more advanced state of the enrollment process.  The gloomy point to Oregon where apparently no one has successfully enrolled or Texas, which, despite having the largest number of uninsureds, had only 2,991 enrolled in a plan last time anyone counted. (Here’s the handy chart in the Washington Post.) Both the optimistic and pessimistic point to Kentucky where the number of enrollees is proportionately higher than in many states but in which the population of insureds seems disproportionately old.

So, in a few months it could be that Exchange insurance in some states such as California where the technology has worked better and the political environment is more sympathetic to the ACA is able to persist into 2015 without major rate hikes or insurer withdrawals. In those states, there remains some considerable logic to imposing a tax of what will be 2% of household income or roughly $325 per household member (kids count as half) for failure to buy health insurance.  But what might we do in states such as Texas or Mississippi or West Virginia or perhaps many others where the insurers experience severe adverse selection that even Risk Corridors (42 U.S.C. § 18062) is unable to cure adequately? If the result is, as one would expect, a reduction in the number of insurers continuing to participate in the Exchange and an increase in rates, the Affordable Care Act is likely to become even less popular in those jurisdictions.  This would be all the more true for those people — a small group, but still people nonetheless — whose income is such that the rates remain less than the 8% of household income level that would otherwise excuse them under 26 U.S.C. § 5000A(e)(1) from having to buy the expensive policies.

Fixing such a problem will be extraordinarily difficult. If Congress remains in gridlock with some finding the ACA so abhorrent that reform of even its worst excesses is unacceptable and others divided on the merits of any particular reform, Congress will have little ability to address the genuine problems of those in the failure states.  And would Congress be willing to write a statute that excused people in some states from paying an individual mandate tax while insisting that it continue in others? What criterion would be used to distinguish the tax paying from the tax exempt states?  If Congress tries, expect some heavy duty litigation on the constitutionality of such a non-uniform tax: “all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.” (U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, clause 1). Would Congress be willing to adjust “Risk Corridors” or “Risk Adjustment” (section 1343 of the ACA) to give special preference to insurers in states whose Exchanges have effectively failed? If Congress can not relieve the difficulties of the death spiral states, expect pressure to grow yet further for repeal of the entire law.

Again, we are left with a design problem in the Affordable Care Act.  Blinded by the dream of reducing the number of uninsureds and providing healthcare to a broader segment of American society, it creates a system in which, conceivably, under just the right circumstances it might work, but in which even small departures from desired assumptions risk plunging that system into a “basin of attraction” aptly known as “the death spiral.” We end up torn asunder in a black hole of insurance market failure from which there is no escape. Worse, it is constructed in a way such that state-by-state adjustments, even with a less dysfunctional Congress, will prove difficult indeed.


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The aim of this blog

This blog is going to chronicle what I believe will be the implosion of the Affordable Care Act.  I do not believe the Exchange based system of providing health insurance without medical underwriting is likely to work or that, if it does, it will not need far more massive propping up from federal taxes than is conventionally recognized. We’ll be looking at current events, the history of the Act, important court cases, and regulatory developments. Our tools will be a careful review of primary documents, some graphical and mathematical analyses, and references to important and insightful articles written by others.

Also, there is more to the Affordable Care Act than the Exchanges.  There is more than the individual mandate. There is the employer mandate, the complex systems of federal reinsurance needed to backstop the Act, the reintroduction of medical underwriting under the “wellness label” and so much more.  We’ll try as time permits to take a look at developments in these important areas too.

I recognize that many are writing on this topic and that it will be hard to stay a pace of such a fast moving target.  But I do feel that there is a need for some hard and at least somewhat scientific look at what is going on.  It will be my goal and burden to try to provide that in the months ahead.

Oh, and who am I?  I’m Seth Chandler, a law professor at the University of Houston Law Center.  I’ve taught insurance law, including life and health insurance law, for many years, been a co-director of the Health Law & Policy Institute, and done considerable work on the economics of insurance and its regulation.  I’ve been very active using Mathematica, a system for doing mathematics by computer, and have shown how this tool can be used to analyze legal systems and many issues in insurance law such as adverse selection, moral hazard, correlated risk and a variety of issues in life, health, property and casualty insurance.

I should also add that the views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Houston.


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