Aetna is pulling out of 11 of the 15 states it serves on the Obamacare exchanges. Longtime readers of this column will be unsurprised at the reason: It’s losing substantial amounts of money on its exchange policies.

That’s not necessarily the only reason, of course. Companies in heavily regulated industries — and health care is now probably our most heavily regulated sector outside of nuclear power plants — spend a lot of time engaging in n-dimensional chess games with the various government entities that have jurisdiction over their operations. Public statements and market moves may be exactly what they look like. Or they may be part of a complicated strategy involving some third, fourth or eighth factor that does not, at first glance, appear to be much related.

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Aetna’s decision to pull back from ObamaCare is fueling new questions about the long-term viability of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

When UnitedHealthcare announced in April that it was leaving most ObamaCare marketplaces in 2017, supporters of the law argued against drawing broad conclusions, calling it one company’s decision.

But since then two other large insurers, Humana and Aetna, have said they are slashing ObamaCare offerings due to heavy financial losses from the plans.

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Canceled health insurance plans, shrinking networks, surging premiums and failed co-ops resulting from President Obama’s 2010 health law are only hiccups compared to Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

Unlike other major parts of the law, Medicaid expansion is covering more people than intended. This is terrible news for taxpayers, and it will only get worse with the next economic downturn.

Most of Obamacare’s health insurance coverage gains result from expanding Medicaid–a welfare program previously reserved for the elderly, the disabled, pregnant women and impoverished families with children–to millions of working-age, able-bodied, childless adults. Medicaid expansion is paid for with billions in new federal deficit spending.

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Aetna the nation’s fourth-largest health insurer, just decided to stop offering plans on Obamacare’s exchanges in all but four states in 2017. The firm says that it was losing roughly $300 million per year on these policies. And it projected that its losses would only increase, since the share of covered individuals “in need of high-cost care” was growing, according to CEO Mark Bertolini.

Aetna isn’t the only insurer giving up on Obamacare. UnitedHealth, America’s biggest insurer, will sell plans in just three states next year, down from 34 this year. Humana will offer coverage in just 156 counties in 2017, 88 percent fewer than this year.

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Talk about climate deniers, just how much worse does it need to get before all of the Obamacare defenders are ready to concede this isn’t working.

This has been an awful summer for Obamacare.

Here are just a few of the headlines:

Aetna has been a stalwart of confidence for Obamacare. That confidence took an abrupt and sudden turn this week when it cited unsustainable losses as the reason it was cutting back from 15 states to only four. Aetna reported Obamacare losses of $200 million in just the second quarter and more than $430 million since January of 2014. They expect full-year exchange losses of $320 million in 2016 alone.

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Increasingly, there are two ObamaCares.

There’s the one in coastal and northern areas, where the marketplaces include multiple insurers and plans. And there’s the one in southern and rural areas, where there is often little competition, a situation that can lead to higher premiums.

“There’s really two kind of stories that are playing out,” said Cynthia Cox, who studies insurer competition at the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF).
The trend is likely to be accelerated by the departure of Aetna and UnitedHealthcare from ObamaCare marketplaces in 2017. The loss of those insurers won’t affect all parts of the country equally, experts say.

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Aetna’s retreat from most ObamaCare marketplaces this week is rippling across rural America, starting with Pinal County in Arizona.

The county, which has a population of about 400,000, no longer has any insurers planning to sell coverage through ObamaCare next year.

State regulators still have until Aug. 23 to try to lure other companies into the marketplace, but it could be a tough sell after one of the nation’s largest insurers decided to pull back because of costs.

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Last November, when UnitedHealth Group said it expected to post big losses on its Obamacare policies in 2016, rivals such as Anthem and Aetna signaled their Affordable Care Act businesses were doing fine. The Obama administration used that as evidence to refute claims that systemic problems were brewing in its landmark insurance program.

Now, there’s no denying it. The four biggest U.S. health insurers admit they’re each losing hundreds of millions of dollars on their Obamacare plans. Rather than expand coverage, many are pulling out of the exchanges that were set up by the ACA so people can shop for insurance plans, often with the help of government subsidies.

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Donald Trump and other Republicans Tuesday cast a decision by a major insurer to sharply cut back participation in Affordable Care Act exchanges as evidence that the new system is collapsing and should be replaced.

Democrats continued to defend the law as much better than the old system, but said the news that  Aetna Inc. will withdraw from 11 of the 15 states where it currently offers plans could create an opening for changes proposed by Hillary Clinton, such as her proposal for a government-run option to compete with private insurers.

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The decision by the nation’s third-largest health insurer to pull out of the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges in nearly a dozen states is a double whammy to President Barack Obama’s signature health law, increasing financial strains on the program while dragging the debate over its merits into the presidential campaign.

Republicans opposed to the law immediately pointed to  Aetna Inc.’s decision, which followed similar moves by other major insurers, as evidence that the law isn’t working as intended and sought to rally voters. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign labeled the Aetna move a sign that “this broken law…is slowly imploding under its regulatory red tape.”

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