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Archive for April, 2012

Obesity drives health care spend more than previously estimated

A major contributing factor to the health insurance crisis is an epidemic of obesity that’s boosting the health care spend and accounting nearly a quarter of health care costs.  A Cornell University study published in the January issue of the Journal of Health Economics estimates obese patients incur medical costs that are $2,741 higher in 2005 dollars than if they were not obese. Nationwide, that translates into $190.2 billion per year, or 20.6 percent of national health expenditures, according to the research, which notes earlier estimates measured the cost of obesity at $85.7 billion, or 9.1 percent of national health expenditures.

While a major driver of health care spending, obesity is merely a distressing symptom of a larger dysfunctional set of American cultural economic and lifestyle choices that drive up health care utilization.  They include poor work-life balance (long workweeks, long commutes to obsolete office spaces and associated stress), lack of exercise (and sufficient time for sustained daily exercise), too little sleep, unhealthy diets (and their commercialization via the “foodie” culture) and the expectation that health issues can be “repaired” by medical treatment and the state of the art pharmaceuticals.

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California legislation limiting self-insured small employer medical stop loss coverage moves forward

April 27, 2012 1 comment

California lawmakers are concerned a trend of small employers self insuring their employee health benefits and purchasing stop loss coverage for cases when a given worker incurs high medical bills will play havoc with the state’s small group health insurance market.  The chief concern is the arrangement will further reduce an already shrinking and distressed market segment and foster adverse selection as the state prepares to bolster the market starting in 2014 with a Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) offered through the California Health Benefit Exchange.

Lawmakers are responding by imposing restrictions on medical stop loss coverage with SB 1431, legislation sponsored by California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones and approved this week by the Senate Health Committee setting higher attachment points for the insurance.  Stop loss coverage has been reportedly offered with attachment points as low as $10,000 to $20,000.  Combined with a $1,000 to $2,000 deductible, employers would be responsible for an employee’s medical bills in a relatively narrow window above the employee deductible and below the stop loss attachment point.  Stop loss insurance kicks in when an employee’s medical costs exceed the attachment point.

“SB 1431 is necessary to prevent the state’s small group market from falling victim to adverse selection and unsustainable premium levels and protecting California’s small businesses, its employees, and the success of the post-ACA (Affordable Care Act) insurance market,” the committee’s analysis notes.

California advances legislation requiring community-based rating in 2014 — sans individual mandate — over objections of health plans

California legislative health committees have approved legislation authored by their chairs that would require health plans and insurers to transition from medical underwriting to community-based rating in 2014.  The authors of the bills, AB 1461 and SB 961, said they would conform California law to a similar provision of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) that becomes effective that year.

The California Association of Health Plans (CAHP) opposes the bills unless they are amended to also mirror the PPACA’s requirement that all individuals be enrolled in a health plan or have health insurance.  If the PPACA’s so-called “individual mandate” is set aside as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court this year, CAHP fears without a similar requirement in California law, health plans will fall into the adverse selection death spiral and become actuarially unsustainable.

But putting teeth into any California requirement that all residents have some form of medical coverage could prove problematic since those teeth like the PPACA version would likely take the form of a penalty or excise tax.  As a new tax, it would require approval by two thirds of the California Legislature, which would be a near political impossibility as long as Republicans hold at least one third of the seats in either house.

CAHP also dislikes provisions in the bills that would bar health plans from considering smoking when setting an applicant’s rates, arguing it would lead to non-smokers subsidizing smokers.

California legislation states intent to enact PPACA if struck down by USSC

Various California officials have been signaling over the past month or so that the Golden State would implement health reforms similar to those of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) if the U.S. Supreme Court rules the law unconstitutional this summer.

One influential state lawmaker, Senate Health Committee Chairman Ed Hernandez, put that intent on record this week.  He amended his SB 1487 to state legislative intent “to enact into state law any provision of the Affordable Care Act that may be struck down by the United States Supreme Court and that is necessary to ensure all Californians receive the full promise of the act.”

Individual market not feasible replacement for employer-based coverage, survey concludes

April 20, 2012 1 comment

The individual health insurance market isn’t a feasible replacement for employer-based coverage.  So concludes the 2011 Commonwealth Fund Health Insurance Tracking Survey.  The survey of 2,134 U.S. adults found 25 percent experienced a gap in their health insurance in 2011, with a majority remaining uninsured for one year or more. Losing or changing jobs was the primary reason people experienced a coverage gap.

“The individual market has proven to be a weak stop-gap option for families who lose employer insur­ance,” the survey states.  It reported those who attempted to find coverage in the individual market reported substantial difficulties finding affordable coverage that met their needs. Almost half of those surveyed ended up going without coverage as a result, with affordability the most common reason for not purchasing a plan.

The daily commute to the office: Is it really worth price to health?

April 15, 2012 1 comment

In an information intensive economy, those who create, process, analyze and add value to information can do so from anywhere thanks to the proliferation of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) over the past two decades.  Yet paradoxically, many Americans still engage in a daily commute to the office as if it were the 1950s of Dagwood Bumstead or the 1980s that inspired the more modern day office place comic strip, Dilbert.  In those days, commuting to the office was necessary because that’s where the office equipment was — telephones, typewriters (and later, dedicated word processors), photocopiers and fax machines.  Not anymore.  Today, nearly any setting can function as an office where a knowledge worker can concentrate and be productive.

Nevertheless, on average Americans spend nearly an hour a day getting to and from an office that ICT has effectively rendered obsolete.  That adds up to a lot of wasted and often stress filled time piled on top of an increasingly sedentary culture that battles the rising health care costs of lifestyle-induced chronic conditions linked to a lack of exercise, poor diet, and inadequate sleep. For the time crunched trying to balance family obligations with work, avoiding these adverse health impacts is even more challenging.  Just look around any traditional office setting and chances are you’ll see plenty of stressed out, sleep deprived, and overweight people who are more likely use medical services and in turn increase their employers’ health care utilization costs.

What’s needed is a new model for traditional office-based work that can free up time for exercise, healthier home cooked meals and sleep that would otherwise be wasted on daily commuting.  Fortunately, such a model better suited to today’s highly connected, information everywhere economy exists: ROWE or a Results Only Work Environment.  A ROWE values getting the work done over daily office attendance.  Early indications are that workplaces that adopt ROWE can achieve better health status at a time when workplace wellness is getting increased attention to slow the nation’s unsustainable rise in health care costs. A University of Minnesota study issued in December 2011 found workers in a ROWE realized increased health-related behaviors of more sleep and exercise — behaviors that can go a long way toward maintaining health and reducing medical utilization.  ROWE is poised to become the successor to traditional “workplace wellness” programs that have been slow to demonstrate tangible progress in reducing employer health care costs.

Survey forecasts average health plan rate increase of 9.9 percent for 2012

Health plans are paring plan rates they boosted in 2011 to cover health reform mandates, reports Buck Consultants in its National Health Care Trend Survey.  That factor along with reduced medical utilization due to weak economic conditions resulted in the survey projecting a 9.9 percent average increase in 2012, the first time the figure fell below 10 percent since 2001.

Daniel Levin, a Buck principal and consulting actuary who directed the national survey of 129 insurers and plan administrators, noted that despite the lower expected increase this year,  “health care costs continue to outpace both general inflation and wage increases, creating real business challenges for organizations.”  Levin added that plan sponsors are showing increased interest in health insurance exchanges and accountable care organizations.

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