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The lack of interstate competition in health insurance does not benefit consumers, but promoting that kind of competition requires steps that are not widely appreciated. Most of those steps must take place at the state level. In fact, it is not well known that it is already legal for states to jointly create interstate “compacts” under Obamacare, though none have done so.

The chief problem is that states regulate insurance carriers and the policies they offer in a variety of ways. Coverage mandates vary from state to state, as do rules governing the coverage of pre-existing conditions, renewability, dependents, costs, and risk rating. John Seiler, writing at the Foundation for Economic Education, offers a great perspective on the fractured character of state regulations. Incumbent insurers within a state have natural advantages due to their existing relationships with local providers. Between the difficulty of forming a new network and the costs of customizing policies and obtaining approval in multiple states, there are significant barriers to entry at state lines.

Federalism is a principle I often support, but state benefit mandates and other regulations are perverse examples because they restrict the otherwise voluntary and victimless choices available to a state’s consumers. Well, victimless except perhaps for in-state monopolists and their cronyist protectors in state government. Many powers are reserved to states under the Constitution, while the powers of the federal government are strictly limited. That’s well and good unless state governments infringe on the rights of individuals protected by the Constitution. In particular, the Commerce Clause prohibits state governments from obstructing the flow of interstate commerce.

Here is a bit of history surrounding the evolution of state versus federal control over insurance markets, as told by Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner Teresa Miller (as quoted by reporter Steve Esack):

Since the 1800s, the U.S. Supreme Court held individual states, not Congress, had the power to regulate insurance companies. The high court overturned that precedent, however, in a 1944 ruling, United States v. South-Eastern Underwriters, that said insurance sales constituted interstate trade and Congress could regulate insurance under the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

But states cried foul. In response, Congress passed and President Harry S. Truman in 1945 signed the McCarran-Ferguson Act to grant a limited anti-trust provision so states could keep regulating insurance carriers. The law does not preclude cross-border sales. It means insurance companies must abide by different sets of rules and regulations and laws in 50 states.

Congress obviously recognized that state regulation of health insurance would create monopoly power and restrain trade, even if states place bridles on insurers and impose ostensible consumer protections. The solution was to exempt health insurers from broad federal regulation and anti-trust prosecution by the Department of Justice.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would repeal McCarran-Ferguson for health insurers. However, that would do little to encourage cross-border competition as long as the tangle of state mandates and other regulations remain in place. The regulatory landscape would have to change under this kind of federal legislation, but how that would happen is an open question. Could court challenges be brought against state regulators and coverage mandates as anti-competitive? Would anti-trust actions be brought against incumbent carriers?

Robert Laszewski has strong objections to any new law that would allow interstate sales of health insurance as long as state benefit mandates remain in place for “local legacy” carriers. In particular, he believes it would encourage “cherry picking” of the best risks by market entrants who would be free of the mandates. Many of the healthiest individuals would jump at the chance to purchase stripped down, catastrophic coverage. That would leave the legacy carriers under the burden of mandates and deteriorating risk pools. Would states do this to their incumbent insurers without prodding by the courts? Would they simply drop the mandates? I doubt it.

No matter the end-state, there is likely to be a contentious transition. Promoting interstate competition in the health insurance market is a laudable goal, but it is not as simple as some health-care reformers would have us believe. Real competition requires action by states to eliminate or liberalize regulations on benefit mandates, risk-rating and pre-existing conditions. Ultimately, the cost of coverage for high-risk individuals might have to be subsidized, whether means-tested or not, through a combination of support from the states, the federal government, and private charities. And of course, interstate competition really does requires repeal of the health insurance provisions of McCarran-Ferguson.

Governments at any level can act against the well-being of consumers, despite the acknowledged benefits of decentralized governance over central control. Benefit mandates, whether imposed at the federal or state levels, are inimical to consumer choice, competition, efficient pricing, and often to the very concept of insurance. Those aren’t the sort of purposes federalism was intended to serve.