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Risk Pool

Obamacare and its boosters are trying to come to grips with several new blows. Last month, United Health Care (UHC) announced that it would not participate in the Obamacare exchanges in the 2017 plan year. The announcement offers confirmation that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is plagued by adverse selection on the exchanges it authorized, and the spiral will only get worse. This is emphasized in “Five Things ACA Supporters Don’t Want You To Know“: other carriers are struggling and will be forced to accept UHC’s adverse risk pool;  premiums must increase; more carriers will bail out; and quality of coverage will continue to decline because the ACA effectively punishes more comprehensive coverage.

Those insurers would have bailed sooner if not for subsidies they’ve been receiving from the federal government on individuals with incomes up to various multiples of the poverty line. However, the funding of a portion of those subsidies was ruled unconstitutional in federal appeals court in May. A deposition from a senior IRS official indicates that the Obama Administration was warned in early 2014 that it had no authority to make the payments, advice that it summarily dismissed. That’s on top of new lawsuits by insurers who say they were shorted by a wide margin on “risk corridor” payments owed to them by the federal government under Obamacare. The risk corridors, which supposedly cover a portion of aggregate losses on health exchange business, will expire after this year, just one the reasons to expect large premium hikes for next year.

As insurers drop out of the Obamacare exchanges, consumers will be forced to deal with a less competitive landscape. About half of the so-called coops on the exchanges had failed by the end of last year. A consequence of this attrition is that the range of coverage available to consumers will shrink:

One BlueCross BlueShield subsidiary in Virginia has already filed plans to get out of the bronze plan, according to Inside Health Policy, and other insurers will follow suit if BCBS succeeds. That will destabilize the markets further, as one analyst told Leslie Small at Fierce Health Payer, because most of the younger and healthier participants in these risk pools have chosen bronze plans – and would likely bail out rather than pay higher premiums for insurance that they hardly ever use.

Obamacare also fosters monopolization in the delivery of medical care. A pernicious effect is that local health-care markets are increasingly dominated by a single so-called “non-profit” hospital organization:

Researchers at Johns Hopkins and Washington and Lee Universities report that seven of America’s 10 most profitable hospitals are officially not for profit. … That status entitles them to huge state and federal tax breaks — whose value has doubled in recent years — for ‘charity care and community benefit.’ …  A for-profit outlet will pay taxes and returns to investors. Nonprofits wind up paying huge sums to executives — and plowing cash into gaining more market share.

Non-profit status does not preclude monopolistic behavior. These institutions possess:

… enormous leverage when setting prices and negotiating reimbursement from private insurers — whose hands are tied because they need those hospitals to be part of their network to attract paying customers. … As Dr. Marty Makary of Johns Hopkins wrote in The Wall Street Journal back in 2014: ‘When you’re the only game in town, you call the shots.’

It’s no coincidence that Obamacare rewards consolidation of health care providers through so-called Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). That’s helped to drive the disappearance of independent physician practices in recent years. Those physicians are Increasingly employed by hospitals at which they can meet standardized quality measures more easily. The medical establishment maintains that ACOs will “bend the cost curve”… someday. But in the meantime, it’s not happening: the quality measures don’t provide good measures of health outcomes, and they inhibit innovation.

For one thing, outcomes themselves are not easy to measure. An 80-year-old goes to the doctor with back pain. What is the best outcome? No pain? That’s probably impossible to achieve with even the highest quality care. Less pain? Maybe. But what does that mean and how do you measure it from patient to patient?

Then there is the matter of adjusting those scores for the severity of the disease and the social and economic status of the patient. This matters because low-income patients often struggle to manage their follow-up care or may be unable to afford medications. Such ‘risk adjustment’ is even harder to do with older adults with multiple chronic conditions.

Even worse, while Obamacare seeks to broaden the market for health care to include those for whom good health coverage is otherwise out of reach, there is evidence that it is not truly improving access to health care. First, the kinds of policies that have been mandated provide relatively “thin” coverage, with high deductibles and copayment rates. Even when subsidized on the exchanges, many of the insured find actual health care payments to be prohibitive. Little wonder that emergency room utilization (where care must be provided regardless of ability to pay) has climbed under Obamacare, contrary to the early assertions of proponents. Second, many of the newly insured are covered by Medicaid, but low physician reimbursement rates have diminished the number of physicians willing to serve that market. Finally, while Obamacare increases the demand for provider services, it does not bring forth its own supply. A provider shortage is expected to continue to grow more severe over the next ten years.

The dual markets for health coverage and health care itself are becoming less competitive under Obamacare. The central planning inherent in the law effectively tossed the most potent forces available for reducing health care costs and expanding coverage: market competition and innovation. Higher prices represent only one avenue for the release of pressures created by mandates; shortfalls in access and the quality of care are others. While the medical establishment and regulators insist that safeguards are in place, it’s a safe bet that monopoly and central planning will have their usual dire effects.