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Vox carried an excellent Dylan Scott interview with Avik Roy this week. Roy is a health care policy expert for whom I have great respect. Among other health care issues, I have quoted him in the recent past on the faulty Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections for Obamacare enrollment, which have consistently overshot actual enrollment. In this interview, Roy explains his current views on the health care insurance reform process and, in particular, the American Health Care Act (AHCA), the bill passed by the House of Representatives last month. The interview provides a good follow-up to my “musings” post on Sacred Cow Chips earlier this week.

Roy provides good explanations of some of the AHCA’s regulatory changes that have merit. These include:

  1. relaxation of Obamacare’s community rating standards, meaning that insurers have more flexibility to charge premia based on age and other risk factors, thus mitigating the pricing distortions caused by cross-subsidies on the individual market;
  2. a rollback in the required minimum actuarial value (AV) of an insurance plan (the ratio of plan-paid medical expenses to total medical expenses);
  3. elimination of federal essential benefits requirements.

Roy provides context for these proposed changes relative to Obamacare. For example, regarding AV, he says:

[In] the old individual market, prior to Obamacare, the typical actuarial value of a plan was about 40 percent. Obamacare drives that up effectively to 70 percent. That has a corresponding effect on premiums; it makes premiums a lot more expensive. In the AHCA, those actuarial value mandates are repealed. Which should provide a lot more opportunity for plans to design more affordable insurance policies for individuals.

Even with Obamacare’s high AV requirements, an insurer could make money by virtue of the law’s “risk corridors”, which were intended to cover losses for insurers as they adjusted to the new regulations and as the exchange market matured, but those bailouts were temporary, and development of the exchanges did not go exactly as hoped. Insurers have been ending their participation in the exchange market, leaving even less than the limited choices available under Obamacare and little competition to restrain pricing.

On essential benefits, Roy reminds us that every state has essential benefit regulations of its own. These mandates create an unfortunate obstacle to interstate competition, as I discussed in March in “Benefit Mandates Bar Interstate Competition“. Nevertheless, the federal mandates have created additional complexities and added costs to cover risks that a) are not common to the risk pool, or b) cover benefits that are not risk-related and therefore inappropriate as insurance.

Roy also defends the AHCA’s protection of individuals with pre-existing conditions. One fact often overlooked is that burdening the individual market with coverage of pre-existing conditions made Obamacare less workable from the start, simultaneously driving up premiums and sending insurers for the hills. These risks can and should be handled separately, and the AHCA offers subsidies that should be up to the task:

… if you look at Obamacare, the mechanisms in Obamacare’s exchanges that served as a way to fund coverage for sick people, they were spending $8 billion a year on that program. If you look at it that way, if $8 billion was enough under Obamacare, then maybe $15 billion a year is enough. I really don’t think that’s the problem with this bill.

Roy contends that the big weakness in the AHCA is inadequate assistance to the poor in arranging affordable coverage. While highly critical of the CBO’s wild estimate of lost coverage (24 million), he does believe that the AHCA, as it stands, would involve a loss. He favors means-tested subsidies as a way of closing the gap, but acknowledges the incentive problems inherent in means testing. With time and a growing economy, and if the final legislation (and the purported stages 2 and 3 of reform) is successful in reducing the growth of health care costs relative to income, the subsidies would constitute a smaller drain on taxpayers.

As for Medicaid reform, Roy defends the AHCA’s approach:

You start with the fact that access to care under Medicaid and health outcomes under Medicaid are very poor, far underperforming other health insurance programs and certainly way underperforming private insurance. Why does that problem exist? It exists because states have very little flexibility in how they managed their Medicaid costs. They’re basically not able to do anything to keep Medicaid costs under control, except pay doctors and hospitals less money for the same amount of care. As a result of that, people have poor access. By moving to a system in which you put Medicaid on a clear budget and you give states more flexibility in how they manage their Medicaid costs, you actually can end up with much better access to care and much better coverage.

One point that deserves reemphasis is that a final plan, should one actually pass in both houses of Congress, will be different from the AHCA. From my perspective, the changes could be more aggressive in terms of deregulation on both the insurance side and in health care delivery. The health care sector has been overwhelmed by compliance costs and incentives for consolidation under Obamacar. Nobody bends cost curves downward by creating monopolies.

I’ve hardly done justice to the points made by Roy in this interview, but do read the whole thing!