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California bill mandating standard benefit designs for all managed care plans sold outside exchange marketplace conflicts with existing state law

Earlier this year, California’s health benefit exchange marketplace, Covered California, exercised an option under its enabling legislation to standardize benefit designs for health plans sold on the exchange, consistent with its active purchaser role.

Pending legislation, SB 639, would require plans sold off the exchange marketplace to also employ standard benefit designs. (The measure would apply solely to managed care plans and not insurance products.) SB 639 would do so by adding California Health & Safety Code Section 1367.008 mandating standardized product designs for all managed care plan products at each of the metal tier actuarial value rating levels.  It does so with language barring the sale of any product at each of the metal tier levels “unless it is a standardized product consistent with [Health & Safety Code] Section 1366.6.”

But therein lay a conflict. Section 1366.6(e) requires health care service plans not participating in the exchange “offer at least one standardized product that has been designated by the Exchange,” provided the Exchange exercises its authority to require standardized benefit designs. At least one obviously does not encompass all plans offered outside the exchange marketplace.  (Emphasis added)

SB 639 awaits approval on the floor of the California Senate.

Health insurer worried that loophole could lead to adverse selection against exchange

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.

California could opt to offer Medicaid “bridge plans” on exchange rather than expand Medicaid eligibility

Despite the assumption that California would opt to expand Medicaid eligibility to households with incomes between 100 and 133 percent of federal poverty guidelines as permitted under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the policy question remains open in the Golden State.  A number of sticking points remain as detailed in this story in today’s Los Angeles Times.  Chief among them is Gov. Jerry Brown’s expectation that since counties would benefit from the expansion through a reduced burden of caring for indigents not currently eligible for Medi-Cal as it’s called in California, they should help Sacramento shoulder the state’s future federal Medicaid cost share.

According to The Times, the Brown administration is also concerned that allowing people to enroll in Medi-Cal online could encourage fraud.  California is rushing to ready an online enrollment system, the California Eligibility, Enrollment and Retention System (CALHEERS), to implement the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that individuals and families be offered enrollment for both government insurance programs like Medi-Cal and private coverage offered through its health benefit exchange thorough a single, streamlined application process.  The unresolved policy question of whether to expand Medi-Cal eligibility poses significant potential to complicate an already complex process to prepare the online system and to provide enrollees what state officials expect to be a customer-friendly “no wrong door” experience.  Problems integrating the state’s legacy Medi-Cal eligibility computer software with CALHEERs have already delayed plans to have it functional by the October 1 pre-enrollment date for 2014 coverage until January 1, 2014.

While the Brown administration’s concerns over expanding eligibility for Medi-Cal have stalled legislation that would do so, the administration is sponsoring pending legislation, SBX1-3, that would authorize commercial Medicaid managed care “bridge plans” per federal guidance issued in December, 2012 for those earning up to 200 percent of federal poverty.  The plans would be available through the state’s exchange marketplace, Covered California.

Since the Affordable Care Act deems households with incomes of at least 100 percent of federal poverty eligible to buy coverage through the exchange marketplace, the bridge plan option provides policymakers an alternative to expanding Medi-Cal eligibility to 133 percent of federal poverty.  Some states that have declined to expand Medicaid eligibility including Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma are negotiating with the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to obtain waivers to allow their Medicaid eligibles to purchase commercial coverage on their exchanges. Absent a near term political agreement to expand Medi-Cal eligibility, California could soon be among them.

If the trend continues, it could lead to a bifurcated Medicaid system: basic, legacy Medicaid for those households with incomes below 100 percent of federal poverty guidelines and a “super Medicaid” system of federally subsidized coverage for households with incomes above the poverty line that wouldn’t otherwise qualify for Medicaid.  It would also have fiscal implications for the states electing to “expand” Medicaid eligibility via Medicaid bridge plans sold on their health benefit exchange marketplaces since it would reduce their future federal Medicaid cost share burden, shifting subsidization fully to the federal government in the form of advance income tax credits.

Changes in the individual market, adverse selection to have largest impact on 2014 premiums, Milliman projects

One month after it produced a projection of factors affecting 2014 premiums in California’s individual health insurance market segment for the Golden State’s health benefits exchange, Covered California, the actuarial consulting firm Milliman has issued a similar study with a national focus.  Like its analysis of the California market, Milliman’s review examined the impact of new coverage requirements under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as well as individuals opting to “buy up” to plans with richer benefits, premium and benefit subsidies and the underlying upward trend in the cost of medical treatment.  It was commissioned by America’s Health Insurance Plans.

Milliman’s national study took into account additional factors including new taxes and fees on health plan issuers and premium stabilization programs including a transitional reinsurance program to protect plans from unexpectedly high care costs.  It concludes “average individual market pre-subsidy premiums are anticipated to increase significantly from what standard rates are today.”  It adds advance tax credit premium subsidies for coverage purchased through state benefit exchanges for those earning 400 percent or lower of the federal poverty level will produce “significant reductions from current premium levels.”

The Milliman study projects that Affordable Care Act changes in the individual risk pool and adverse selection — largely due to the law’s ban on medical underwriting of individuals looking to purchase or upgrade coverage — will have the largest impact on premiums.  Those factors including the potential for younger, healthier individuals to remain in plans issued prior to 2014 and sicker people opting for 2014 plans with more extensive coverage could increase premiums by 20 to 45 percent, according to Milliman.

The study raises a red flag over the law’s restriction on the use of age as a rating factor for older individuals, predicting it will boost premiums for younger people and thus potentially drive adverse selection if they opt to forgo coverage until they need it — notwithstanding the Affordable Care Act’s tax penalties for not having some form of health coverage. “For the individual market risk pool to remain a stable market in 2014 and beyond, it is vital that young and healthy individuals enter and remain in the insurance market in addition to individuals with an immediate need for healthcare services,” the study concludes.

California appears headed toward bifurcated individual health insurance market in 2014

California’s individual health insurance marketplace is shaping as a bifurcated one for 2014 and beyond based on household income and whether coverage is purchased through the state’s health benefit exchange marketplace, Covered California, or outside of it.

California households earning 400 percent or less of federal poverty level will be eligible for advance tax credit subsidies that can be applied toward Covered California plan premiums.  While those with incomes above this level ($45,960 for singles; $92,200 for a family of four) can purchase unsubsidized coverage thorough state exchanges, health plans appear to be preparing to offer plans outside the exchange aimed at households earning above 400 percent of federal poverty.  Without directly referring to the Covered California plans, Charles Bacchi, executive VP of the California Association of Health Plans, said there may be more variation among these plan products than Covered California plans, which are based on standard benefit designs for each of the metal tier plan values (bronze, silver, gold and platinum).  Bacchi, who spoke on a panel of speakers at the annual State of Health Care Conference held earlier this week in Sacramento, added there may be “certain advantages” to plans purchased outside of Covered California but didn’t elaborate.

Bacchi’s comments came the same day Covered California Executive Director Peter V. Lee reported at the organization’s board meeting that plan issuers were invited to submit alternative benefit designs and those alternative plans differed significantly from the standard plan designs Covered California adopted in February, 2013.  Plan issuers and Covered California continue to negotiate to the terms of the contract that will govern qualified health plans sold in the Covered California marketplace for coverage effective in 2014.  The Covered California board has scheduled a special meeting in Sacramento for May 7 to discuss the contract.

A 2011 paper by The Commonwealth Fund warned of the possibility of higher cost individuals concentrating in the exchange market, noting that exchanges could face adverse selection if predominantly high-risk individuals and groups enroll in the exchange while younger, healthier people and groups purchase coverage in the individual or small-group markets outside of it:

This type of market-level adverse selection would primarily stem from the existence of different rules for health plans inside and outside of the exchange. If non-exchange plans are permitted greater flexibility around benefit design and rate setting, those plans could offer lower prices to attract lower-risk individuals.

While the Affordable Care Act consolidates individuals and small employers into a single state risk pool, thus barring plan issuers from segmenting their exchange population risk, adverse selection against the exchange marketplace could reduce plan issuers’ interest in exchange participation despite tax subsidies for individuals and potentially jeopardize the market’s long term viability.

We are the 401%: Middle class households ineligible for exchange subsidies could reignite health reform

March 30, 2013 1 comment

A little more than three years ago, steep premium increases in California’s individual market sparked outrage from Sacramento to Washington, providing a political tipping point for the enactment of the then-moribund Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). This fall and into 2014, those without government or employer-sponsored health coverage who earn more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) ($45,960 for singles; $92,200 for a family of four) may find themselves outraged yet again by sharp double digit premium increases.  Under the PPACA, those earning in excess of 400 percent of FPL are ineligible for income tax subsidies available for qualified health plans purchased through state health benefit exchanges.  They will bear the full amount of higher premiums on their own.

Projections of the impact of the PPACA individual market reforms issued this week by the Society of Actuaries (on the medical cost impact of those newly insured under the law) and the actuarial consulting firm Milliman (on premiums in California) suggest premiums for plan year 2014 will rise significantly for these relatively higher income middle class households.  The Society of Actuaries estimates the PPACA individual market reforms will drive up claims costs by an average of 32 percent nationally by 2017 and by double digits in as many as 43 states.  The Milliman study commissioned by the California exchange, Covered California, estimates those currently insured with incomes exceeding 400 percent of FPL purchasing the lowest cost “bronze” rated plan covering 60 percent of expected costs can expect a 30.1 percent premium hike for 2014.   “Currently insured individuals with incomes greater than 400% of FPL will experience the largest increases,” the Milliman study notes.

Those in this income range likely to be hit with the biggest increases are middle class people in their 50s and 60s – the large Baby Boomer demographic not yet Medicare eligible and not covered by employer-sponsored plans.  A major potential implication of higher premiums on top of the already relatively high rates paid by this age group (new age rating rules under the PPACA will provide some relief) is many of them may find even bronze-rated coverage unaffordable and go uninsured, contrary to the policy goal of the PPACA to increase affordability and access to coverage.

If 2014 rate increases for 401+ percent FPL households boost the price of the cheapest plans too high, tax penalties built into the law for those without public or private coverage won’t provide incentive for these individuals to purchase coverage.  The PPACA’s individual mandate expressly exempts those who have to spend more than eight percent of their incomes to purchase the cheapest bronze plan offered in their geographic rating region. The law also provides for a financial hardship exemption.

Because of the sheer size of the Boomer demographic and Boomers’ willingness to seek political redress of their grievances, if the premium increases for the 401 percenters predicted indirectly by the Society of Actuaries and directly by Milliman materialize, it could create impetus for further reforms in 2014.

Market forces marshal as start of exchange marketplace draws nearer

The rest of this year and next will reveal in greater detail how competing market forces under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) play out in the individual and small group market segments.  Health plans are making their opening gambit by warning in a Wall Street Journal story published this week that premiums will rise in response to new market rules that take effect in January 2014 requiring them to offer specified categories of benefits and use community-based rating instead of medical underwriting.

The PPACA’s managed competition scheme for these market segments will create countervailing downward pressure in addition to the reinsurance and risk adjustment mechanisms mentioned in the WSJ story to offset pressure for higher rates to account for taking on higher risk populations under community rating.  That scheme is based on concentrating much of the market in state health benefit exchanges that will aggregate the purchasing power of individuals and small businesses, spurred along in the individual segment with generous income tax subsidies for those with adjusted gross incomes at 400 percent and lower of the federal poverty level.  Small employers won’t get these subsidies (enhanced income tax credits will be available for very small, low wage employers) but would be able to pool their market power into one large purchasing entity, the exchanges’ Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP).

The test of that aggregated market power will begin over the next few months in about a half dozen states where the exchanges have opted to actively screen and select which plans can participate in their individual and SHOP marketplaces.  Of these, the most illustrative market is the nation’s largest health insurance market — California — where that state’s exchange, Covered California, has established standardized benefit designs and cost sharing levels for plans it will offer.  Covered California is utilizing a competitive bidding and negotiation process based on these standard designs that provides incentive to plans to moderate premiums.

Also part of the PPACA managed competition model and designed to boost competition to exert downward pressure on premiums are the large Multi-State Plans administered by the federal Office of Personnel Management.  Multi-State Plans will also be sold on the state exchange marketplaces, initially available in 60 percent of the states once introduced.  The PPACA mandates at least two Multi-State Plans be offered in each state exchange and be available in all state exchanges by 2017.  Plus the PPACA allows cooperative health plans owned and operated by consumers to compete in the exchange marketplaces with investor-owned commercial health plans.

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