Why The Obamacare Exchanges Are Failing

Submitted by Devon Herrick via The National Center for Policy Analysis,

I reported earlier this week that the Obamacare Marketplace is slowly failing. Three days later the largest health insurer in America, UnitedHealth Group, announced it expects to lose $500 million on exchange plans next year and may exit the market in 2017.

The issue for many insurers is they were encouraged to participate in the exchange in return for a temporary risk sharing program called Risk Corridors. Under this program, all insurers paid into a pot of money and the firms suffering excessive losses were to share the funds based on a formula. However, a budget deal passed late in 2014, the ‘Cromnibus’ Spending Bill, required the program to be budget neutral. The losses far exceeded the pot of money collected by the program. Insurers have only received about $0.13 cents on the dollar of what they would have gotten under an opened-ended program.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has affirmed insurers will get their money. But the question is: where it is going to come from? CMS has $363 million to divvy up while insurers have requested $2.87 billion.

Why are insurers losing so much money? In my original article, I stated the exchange plans are suffering adverse selection due to the perverse regulations which drive up costs – making health coverage a bad deal for all but the sickest enrollees. The only people enrolling are those who are eligible for the most generous subsidies. Consider what Larry Levitt, a health insurance analyst with the Kaiser Family Foundation, told Bloomberg.

“The ACA marketplaces are not yet profitable for most insurers,” “It’s going to take enrollment growth, especially among healthy people, to make it an attractive market for insurers. If enrollment stagnates, we could very well see insurers thinking twice about their participation.”

The solution cannot be gouging healthy people so runaway costs are covered. The Affordable Care Act was support to slow the growth in health expenditures. Just about any economist will tell you the current system is not accomplishing that. Slowing spending requires appropriately-designed health plans with positive incentives among enrollees. The ACA’s cost-control mechanisms are the opposite of that; they’re akin to pouring gasoline on a fire in hopes it will put it out.

Why not scrap the perverse ACA regulations and admit it was a pipe dream to ever assume young, healthy people could be coerced into paying several times their expected costs to cover other people’s excessive spending. Young people already have a lower demand for health coverage because they don’t expect to need care. As I reported earlier in the week, healthy people also know they’re getting a raw deal when they are expected to pay $5,000 for health plans that require an additional $6,000 in spending before the plans will begin to pay claims. Justice Roberts called the penalty a “tax.” I know people spending $5,000 for health plans they get no benefit from. They certainly think in terms of their $5,000 premiums as another Obamacare tax they can ill afford.

*  *  *

In addition to this disaster, and on top of enrollment projections that are proving way off, perhaps the biggest immediate crisis facing the Obama administration's signature health reform measure, as Eric Boehm (via reason.com) notes,  is the utter collapse of many of the so-called cooperatives that were set up by states as part of the 2010 law.

The Consumer Operated and Oriented Plan, or Co-Op, portion of the health care law established nonprofit health insurers that would receive federal funding and were intended to compete with private, for-private insurers on the exchanges as a way to lower prices. They were supposed to be small-scale single-payer systems that would be free from the profit motive; a progressive's dream solution to the problem of providing health insurance for all.


Instead, they've turned into a nightmare. So far, 12 of the 23 co-ops have failed, defaulting on more than $1.2 billion in federal loans. Only two have been able to break even so far, and most of the remaining co-ops are eyeing massive premium increases—as high as 40 percent in some cases—to stay solvent.


A government program being poorly run is nothing new, of course. But the co-ops established under the health care law were subject to a series of regulations that make you wonder how they were ever supposed to succeed in the first place.


"It should be no surprise that so many of them are going belly-up," said John Davidson, director of health policy for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, on the latest edition of the Watchdog Podcast. "The rules that they put on these co-ops almost set them up to fail."


For starters, the co-ops were barred from hiring anyone who had served at an executive level at any health insurance company in the country.


Think about that for a second. This was essentially a brand new business venture that was prevented from relying on the expertise of anyone who might have the slightest idea what they were doing.


Another regulation prevented the co-ops from raising any capital aside from what was provided via those federal loans. Other rules prevented the co-ops from being allowed to turn a profit, and if one happened to accidentally make money anyway, it wasn't allowed to use its profits to help it grow.

It's the kind of business plan that would be laughed out of a business school classroom. "The co-ops were essentially amateur exercises," said Davidson.