adverse selection


Where’s the Administration’s Cost Estimate?

The latest numbers from the Medicare actuary puncture the health care spin

Yesterday, the chief actuary for Medicare released a memorandum providing cost estimates for the final health legislation passed by Congress and signed by the president.

Amazingly, the HHS Secretary tried to suggest that the memo confirms that the legislation will produce the favorable results that the legislation’s backers have touted for months.

That’s nothing but spin. In truth, the memo is another devastating indictment of the bill. It contradicts several key assertions by made by the bill’s proponents, including the president.

For starters, the actuary says that the legislation will increase health care costs, not reduce them — by about $300 billion over a decade. Yes, that’s over a very large base of spending (more than $35 trillion). But the president and his team have talked incessantly of painlessly cutting $700 billion or more of wasteful spending. Nothing in the bill comes close to making that happen. Overall health spending will continue to rise very rapidly after the bill is implemented.

The actuary also says that the financial incentives in the bill will lead many employers to stop offering coverage altogether. That means about 14 million people with job-based insurance today will lose it. Moreover, he estimates that the cuts in Medicare Advantage will reduce enrollment by 7 million people. So much for keeping the Democrats’ other mantra of “keeping the coverage you have today.”

The memo says the Medicare cuts will total nearly $600 billion through 2019, and that they will almost certainly jeopardize access to care for seniors by driving scores of institutions into financial distress.

Employers will pay taxes totaling $87 billion over a decade for not offering qualified coverage, and individuals who don’t sign up with approved insurance will pay another $33 billion in fines over the same period.

The various taxes and fees on insurers and producers of drugs and devices will largely get passed on to consumers, says the memo. In other words, these taxes will hit the middle class hard and drive their premiums up, not down.

The actuary says the new long-term care insurance program created in the bill faces “a significant risk of failure” due to adverse selection — meaning that the program will attract the kind of enrollment that will require higher costs than can be covered by the premiums collected. That, however, did not stop the Democrats from double-counting the program’s $70 billion in premiums as an offset for the massive health entitlement program. So not only did the bill use a budget gimmick to hide the costs of the health expansion, it also set taxpayers up for another bailout when the long-term care program runs aground.

By longstanding practice, the administration uses the health care cost estimates produced by the chief actuary when putting together the president’s annual budget submission in February and an update in mid-summer.

But the estimates that the actuary has produced for the health bill so clearly contradict what the president has said the bill will do that the administration is in an awkward position, to say the least. So awkward in fact that the administration has stamped every memo put out by the actuary during the entire health debate with this disclaimer: “The statements, estimates, and other information provided in this memorandum are those of the Office of the Actuary and do not represent an official position of the Department of Health and Human Services or the Administration.”

Which raises the question: If the actuary isn’t producing the administration’s health care cost projections, who is?

posted by James C. Capretta | 8:00 pm
Tags: chief actuary, costs, adverse selection, spin
File As: Health Care

On Rosy Premium Scenarios

As the Senate starts its debate of the health-care bill introduced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the back-and-forth has intensified over what the legislation would do to insurance premiums and rising costs in the coming years.

Over the Thanksgiving break, M.I.T. economist Jonathan Gruber released a short paper in which he claimed the Reid bill would reduce premiums for people buying insurance in the individual market. It was clear from a story in Politico that the Obama White House was gearing up to argue the Gruber analysis was proof positive of the virtues of the Senate legislation. Unfortunately for Team Obama, Gruber’s paper was quickly shot down by a new study from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). CBO estimates that the Reid bill would drive premiums up, not down, in the individual market — by 10 to 13 percent compared to current law. For family coverage, the Reid bill would increase premiums by, on average, $2,100 in 2016, according to CBO. So much for the argument that Obamacare will cut premium costs across the board. It clearly won’t.

But even this CBO analysis is terribly optimistic. For weeks, experts have been warning that the Senate legislation would lead to serious “adverse selection” in the individual and small-group insurance markets. Adverse selection occurs when, on average, the pool of insured lives becomes less healthy over time compared to a relevant comparison group. The Senate bill would require insurers to take all comers, with heavily regulated rates. These rules would help those with chronic conditions get less expensive coverage. But they would also drive up premiums for the young and healthy. If the healthier people left or stayed out the insurance risk pool, premiums for those who remained would go up quite dramatically. Indeed, that’s exactly what Wellpoint, a large national insurer, predicted would occur under the bill prepared by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, which formed the basis of much of the Reid plan. The Wellpoint actuaries estimated that, under the Baucus bill, premiums for a person at the average age and in average health would go up by more than 50 percent in the individual insurance market in California, and by more than 20 percent in the small-group market.

CBO argues that risk selection problems will be mitigated by the presence of new insurance subsidies, penalties for those who don’t get coverage, a once-a-year enrollment window which will limit the opportunity to come back into insurance, and the tendency for people to comply with mandates even if they are costly. But, as others have shown, even with subsidies, the cost of coverage for many low and moderate wage families will be very substantial. Many people could reduce their costs if they paid the penalty instead of premiums and signed up with insurance only when they really needed it. Would the fact that they might have to wait a few months before getting insurance be enough to keep them in coverage all year? Hard to predict. In fact, as pointed out here, it appears that none of most-cited models used to estimate the impact of health-reform plans, including CBO’s, has an explicit capacity to calibrate insurance take-up rates based on the penalties imposed on those who go without coverage. Apparently, the premium estimates are based as much on judgment as analytics, and CBO’s judgment is clearly on the optimistic side. But what if they are wrong? What if adverse selection is more pronounced, as many experts are predicting? At a minimum, before any votes are cast, CBO should make it clear how sensitive their premium estimates are to their assumptions about the risk pool. That way Senators could decide for themselves what to believe.

posted by James C. Capretta | 6:11 pm
Tags: CBO, Reid bill, Jonathan Gruber, adverse selection, risk pools
File As: Health Care