Barack Obama’s signature health-care law is struggling for one overriding reason: Selling mispriced insurance is a precarious business model.
Aetna Inc. dealt the Affordable Care Act a severe setback by announcing Monday it would drastically reduce its participation in its insurance exchanges. Its reason: The company was attracting much sicker patients than expected. Indeed, all five of the largest national insurers say they are losing money on their ACA policies and three, including Aetna, are pulling back from the exchanges as a result.
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So much for choice. In many parts of the country, Obamacare customers will be down to one insurer when they go to sign up for coverage next year on the public exchanges.
A central tenet of the federal health law was to offer a range of affordable health plans through competition among private insurers. But a wave of insurer failures and the recent decision by several of the largest companies, including Aetna, to exit markets are leaving large portions of the country with functional monopolies for next year.
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Tennessee’s insurance regulator approved hefty rate increases for the three carriers on the Obamacare exchange in an attempt to stabilize the already-limited number of insurers in the state.
The rate approvals, while a tough decision, were necessary to ensure that consumers around the state had options when open enrollment begins in November, said Julie Mix McPeak, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee is the only insurer to sell statewide and there was the possibility that Cigna and Humana would reduce their footprints or leave the market altogether.
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All but the most hardened partisans understand that the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges are in serious trouble. In 2010, the Congressional Budget Office predicted that 21 million people would have exchange-based coverage in 2016; the real number was about 12 million. As insurers head for the exits, the gap between initial hype and final reality will widen.
The tragedy is that this was entirely avoidable. The ACA’s exchanges were fundamentally flawed in their design, something that private-sector experts tried to point out at the time. In October 2009, PricewaterhouseCoopers published a report projecting that by 2016, the ACA would cumulatively increase individual-market health insurance premiums by 47 percent.
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When Aetna decided last week to drop 70% of its health plans in the Affordable Care Act markets, CEO Mark Bertolini publicly blamed the exits on the poor risk pool, as well as “the current inadequate risk-adjustment mechanism.”
The federal government’s decision to block Aetna’s acquisition of Humana also factored heavily into Aetna’s exchange exodus, as Bertolini warned in a July letter that was obtained by the Huffington Post.
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The Obama administration is moving to end duplicate coverage for tens of thousands of people who are enrolled in Medicaid and simultaneously receiving federal subsidies to help pay for private health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
In the last few days, consumers around the country have received letters warning, in big black type: “People in your household may lose financial help for their marketplace coverage.”
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An Arizona county is poised to become an Obamacare ghost town because no insurer wants to sell exchange plans there.
Aetna’s recent announcement that it would exit most of the states where it offers Obamacare plans leaves residents of Pinal County, Arizona, without any options to get subsidized health coverage next year, unless regulators scramble to find a carrier to fill the void between now and early October.
About 9,700 people in Pinal signed up for Obamacare plans this year, according to administration data.
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Some of the Affordable Care Act’s insurance marketplaces are in turmoil as the fourth open enrollment season approaches this fall, but what’s ahead for consumers very much depends on where they live.
Competition on these exchanges will be diminished next year when three of the nation’s largest health insurers — Aetna, UnitedHealthcare and Humana — will sell individual plans in many fewer markets. So too will several Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans in various states. That’s on top of the 16 nonprofit co-ops that have closed since January 2015.
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Health insurance companies are bailing and co-ops are failing as Obamacare barrels down the road to collapse.
Grace-Marie Turner, president of the free-market Galen Institute, said Aetna’s decision is surprising because the company’s leadership has been so supportive of the Affordable Care Act. But she said the firm, like others, has found it difficult to stay profitable amid rising costs caused by regulations under the law and loopholes that allow customers to game the system.
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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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