A Blue Shield of California executive is urging California lawmakers in an op-ed article in today’s Sacramento Bee to close a loophole sanctioned by federal regulations that could front load the exchange marketplace with high cost individuals and families. That could leave plans participating in California’s exchange marketplace, Covered California, carrying an inequitable cost burden in the first year of its operation, asserts Janet Widmann, the health insurer’s executive vice president of markets. It would do so by allowing plans to elect to continue to operate into 2014 under current rules that allow plans to medically underwrite applicants and reject those with potentially costly medical conditions. Unless the loophole is closed, Widmann warns, all health plan issuers would be tempted to exploit it since they could still medically underwrite and select applicants for plans sold off the exchange marketplace so as to not initially end up with a disproportionate share of high cost insureds. Widmann explains:
Since these loophole policies will enroll only those who are healthy enough to obtain coverage under the current discriminatory system, policies that meet the requirements of the new law will be left to cover a disproportionate number of less healthy people. As a result, premiums for coverage offered through the insurance exchange will be significantly higher. Even insurers that have supported reform and want to see the exchange succeed will be pressured to sell the loophole policies to avoid losing healthy customers to competitors.
Plans sold in the Covered California marketplace would be unable to exploit the loophole under policy adopted by Covered California last week requiring qualified health plans with which it contracts to terminate plans they currently offer that are not compliant with the Affordable Care Act as of December 31, 2013. The “level playing field” provision is at section 3.04(b) of the Covered California QHP Model Contract:
(b) Contractor agrees that, to the extent not already required to do so by law, effective no later than December 31, 2013, it shall terminate or arrange for the termination of all of its non-grandfathered individual health insurance plan contracts or policies which are not compliant with the applicable provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Contractor agrees to promote ways to offer, market and sell or otherwise transition its current members into plans or policies which meet the applicable Affordable Care Act requirements. This obligation applies to all non-grandfathered individual insurance products in force or for sale by Contractor whether or not the individuals covered by such products are eligible for subsidies in the Exchange. All terminations made pursuant to this section shall be in accord with cancellation and nonrenewal provisions and notice requirements in California Health and Safety Code Section 1365, California Insurance Code Sections 10273.4, 10273.6 and 10713, and relevant state regulations and guidance.
Last week, California enacted two bills, ABX1-2 and SBX1-2, establishing 2014 market rules for the individual and small group markets and conforming state law to Affordable Care Act provisions. The measures did not include a provision that would close the loophole. Widmann suggests legislation mandating all non-grandfathered health plans (those not in effect when the Affordable Care Act was enacted in March 2010) play under the 2014 market rules barring medical underwriting of applicants. That would require new special session or urgency legislation that would take effect before the end of 2013.
“Loophole” has potential to delay health insurance market rules, disrupt exchange marketplace in 2014
Health insurers could have the option to take an extra year to overhaul their individual and small group offerings to meet Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requirements effective in 2014 and to decide if they want to participate in the state exchange marketplace. Such are the startling implications of a Los Angeles Times story early this month that reported that some health plan issuers are considering waiting until 2014 to revamp their plans to comply with the law. The Times story cites “a little-known loophole” in the Affordable Care Act “that enables health insurers to extend existing policies for nearly all of 2014.” The story quotes Timothy Stoltzfus Jost, a law professor and health policy expert at Washington and Lee University as saying that insurers have discovered the loophole, raising the question of “how many will try to game the system.”
The likely loophole? The Affordable Care Act qualifies certain health plan requirements as applying in “plan years beginning on after January 1, 2014.” So when does a plan year – the key operative term – begin? 45 Code of Federal Regulations 144.103 defines “plan year” relative to employer-sponsored coverage (such as would be offered through the exchange marketplace Small Business Health Options Program) as follows:
Plan year means the year that is designated as the plan year in the plan document (emphasis added) of a group health plan, except that if the plan document does not designate a plan year or if there is no plan document, the plan year is—
(1) The deductible or limit year used under the plan;
(2) If the plan does not impose deductibles or limits on a yearly basis, then the plan year is the policy year;
(3) If the plan does not impose deductibles or limits on a yearly basis, and either the plan is not insured or the insurance policy is not renewed on an annual basis, then the plan year is the employer’s taxable year; or
(4) In any other case, the plan year is the calendar year.
For individual coverage:
Policy Year means in the individual health insurance market the 12-month period that is designated as the policy year in the policy documents (emphasis added) of the individual health insurance coverage. If there is no designation of a policy year in the policy document (or no such policy document is available), then the policy year is the deductible or limit year used under the coverage. If deductibles or other limits are not imposed on a yearly basis, the policy year is the calendar year.
Here’s my read on how the loophole might come into play. The italicized text basically allows plan issuers to define the plan or policy year as they choose. Theoretically, they could issue coverage on December 31, 2013 and designate it for plan or policy year 2013, thereby avoiding Affordable Care Act requirements for plan years beginning on or after January 1, 2014.
If health plan issuers opt exploit the loophole, there could well be litigation over how the relevant provisions of law are to be interpreted and applied, creating uncertainty and delay in the application of the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance market rules as well as the planned rollout of the exchange marketplace in 2014. The uncertainty also has the potential to complicate contract negotiations currently underway between “active purchaser” state exchanges and health plans seeking qualified health plan status with those exchanges. Plan issuers could opt to exercise the so-called loophole and issue “plan year 2013” coverage as late as December 31, 2013 if they are unable to reach negotiated contracts with these exchanges.
A study prepared for the health plan industry group America’s Health Insurance Plans by the actuarial consulting firm Milliman would appear to support the notion of having plans designated plan year 2013 still in force in 2014 and exempt from Affordable Care Act provisions such as offering essential health benefits (EHB) and minimum actuarial value of 60 percent of projected claims costs. “The final market and rating regulation released by the (federal) HHS at the end of February made clear that individual policies can stay in place until their scheduled renewals in 2014 instead of requiring all individual plans to convert to an ACA-compliant EHB plan on January 1, 2014,” Milliman opined in its projection of factors affecting premium rates in 2014 dated April 25, 2013.
An underlying economic principle of the health benefit exchange marketplace that kicks off this fall with open enrollment for 2014 is demand aggregation in the individual health insurance market. Individuals and families who would otherwise have no negotiating power with health plan issuers will be able to pool their purchasing power via the government-chartered purchasing mechanism of the state exchanges. That power will be strongest in those states – California, Oregon, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont according to an April 1 Kaiser Family Foundation compilation – that have opted to be “active purchaser” exchanges. Those exchanges will act as gatekeepers, using an actively managed competitive selection process to determine which plans will be offered on their exchanges — and which will not.
As voluntary markets, neither health plan issuers nor individuals are required to transact individual coverage through the state exchanges. Therefore to help concentrate the purchasing power of individuals in the exchange marketplace, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act provides for subsidies in the form of advance tax credits applied toward plan premiums to create incentive for individuals and families not covered by employer or government-sponsored plans to purchase coverage through the exchanges.
Those subsidies are not offered for individual coverage sold outside state exchanges. And as I recently blogged, the subsidies are unavailable to those earning more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level. Those individuals and families would have little incentive to purchase coverage in the exchanges, thus reducing the exchanges’ potential purchasing power relative to health plan issuers and by extension, their ability to bargain with plans for lower premium rates.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see how this policy manifests in states with active purchaser exchanges. Will it lead to a bifurcated individual market where plan issuers offer products exclusively outside the exchanges aimed at a higher income demographic such as high deductible, health savings account compatible plans? Or plans that bundle pre-paid direct primary care with insurance to cover high cost care? (Such plans would likely also have sold in the exchanges since the Affordable Care Act specifically recognizes them as qualified health plans eligible for sale through the exchanges.)