Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the payment amounts that some insurers owe and some insurers will receive through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) risk adjustment program. As the law’s implementation moves forward, it is increasingly clear that the controversial risk adjustment program presents a fundamental trap, a sort of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. To the degree that risk adjustment works, insurers individually lack the incentive to enroll the young and healthy people needed for the ACA’s complicated structure to survive. To the degree that risk adjustment doesn’t work, large arbitrary transfers between insurers occur that produce significant uncertainty in the market.
The risk adjustment program is budget neutral—within each state insurers with healthier enrollees pay the aggregate amount that insurers with less healthy enrollees receive—and is intended to make insurers more-or-less indifferent to the health status of their enrollees. The Obama administration appears to recognize the importance of risk adjustment for the ACA’s future as HHS recently convened a day-long conference and released a 130-page paper on the subject. This conference was partially motivated by the strong complaints, particularly by newer and smaller insurers, that the program unfairly benefits large, established insurers.
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