Rest and Repair: ACA and market stabilization

Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) might have wished for a kinder, gentler, headline from the Reno Gazette Journal, but he got this one: “After weeks of waffling, Heller votes ‘yes’ on failed ‘skinny repeal’ of Obamacare.”  Rest assured, he’s promised to work on health insurance reform as part of his duties on the Senate Finance Committee.   This would be as good a time as any for him to demonstrate his knowledge of the insurance sector.

Heller Plays the Bail Out Card: Game One 

Let’s track back a couple of paces in time to review how Senator Heller presented his ‘moderate’ credentials on economic concerns.  While Nevada was in the throes of the Great Recession brought on by the Wall Street Casino machinations, Senator Heller was touting his opposition to the Dodd-Frank Act to insert some common sense regulation of the banking industy, casting it as follows: “Heller mentioned he was the only member of the Nevada delegation to vote against the bank bailout. He called the Dodd-Frank bank regulation bill “cover for those who voted for the bank bailout.”  In short,  that “cover” was the regulation of some of the practices that caused the collapse of the investment banks in the United States.  Senator Heller calculated that the use of the phrase “bailout” would be sufficiently negative to thoroughly obscure his support for the deregulation of the banking sector and the Wall Street Casino players therein.  There’s little reason to doubt he’ll try this play again in 2018.

McConnell Tees Up the Bail Out Card: Game Two

After the “skinny bill” failed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell provided the framework for the next time Senator Heller might want to play the Bail Out card:

“Now, I think it’s appropriate to ask, what are their ideas? It’ll be interesting to see what they suggest as the way forward. For myself I can say — and I bet I’m pretty safe in saying for most on this side of the aisle — that bailing out insurance companies with no thought of any kind of reform is not something I want to be part of. And I suspect there are not many folks over here that are interested in that. But it’ll be interesting to see what they have in mind.”  (emphasis added)

If Senator Heller didn’t mind obfuscating the purpose of the Dodd Frank Act (by calling it a bail out), he’ll certainly not mind playing the same game with the attempts to improve our health insurance system.  It would be very tempting for him to try this play one more time to cover his opposition to the very proposals that would stabilize the individual health care insurance markets in this country.  For the record, I’m assuming that if a proposal helps an insurance corporation, then Senator Heller will be sure to call it a “bail out.”   Or, in the immortal words of President George W. Bush, “There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, ‘Fool me once, shame on…shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.’

Making Mountains from Mole Hills

There are justifiable questions about the stability of the individual health insurance market, but before we launch major proposals in this direction it’s important to note that for all the palaver about the collapse, demise, descent or whatever of the Affordable Care Act, that individual market has been stabilizing on its own.  The Kaiser Family Foundation released its report on this market:

“Large premium increases, typically granted by state regulators, in 2017 contributed to the improved financial performance, as insurers adjusted for a sicker-than-expected risk pool, the analysis finds. However, data on hospitalizations suggest that the risk pool was not getting progressively sicker as of 2017, supporting the notion that the large increases were necessary as a one-time market correction.

Slow growth in claims for medical expenses also played a role in insurers’ financial improvements, according to the analysis.”

So far so good, but there are issues to be faced.

“Although the analysis finds the market is stabilizing, it notes that ongoing uncertainty over payment of cost-sharing subsidies to insurers and enforcement of the individual mandate could lead insurers to leave the market or charge higher premiums in 2018.”

We can now safely assert that when Senator McConnell (and perhaps Senator Heller) speak of “bailing out” insurance companies they may be referring to proposals to provide more certainty to the insurance corporations that the administration will, in fact, make good on those promises to come through with cost-sharing subsidies.  That’s truly stretching the definition of a bail out, but it may prove a highly convenient hook on which to hang Republican rhetoric.

The previous post mentioned the Three R’s — risk adjustment, risk corridors, and reinsurance.  Here’s one proposal for the last on the list:

“Senator Kaine and Senator Tom Carper of Delaware on Wednesday introduced legislation to create a reinsurance program to help insurers offset the cost of covering older, less healthy customers. That type of program—which provides payments to insurers that enroll high-cost individuals—was originally part of Obamacare until it expired last year, and Republican legislators in Minnesota and Alaska have embraced the idea as a way to stabilize insurance markets in those states. “That’s something that should have some bipartisan appeal,” Kaine said. [Atlantic]

Reinsurance was in place until 2016 in order to ease any problems with corporations insuring a high number of risky policy holders, such as those with pre-existing medical conditions.  Re-establishing it would serve the same stabilization purposes today.   The Kaiser Family Foundation provides an explanation of risk adjustment and risk corridors which don’t require an MBA to understand. Neither of these constitute any form of “bail out.”

Conflation Projection 

Conflation is too often a vehicle for obfuscation.  For example, one of the Republican objections to the ACA continues to be the incantation: Socialized Medicine!  There’s no hint of socialized medicine in the ACA, it’s a full bore market based system of encouraging  affordable health insurance policies sold by PRIVATE companies to PRIVATE CONSUMERS for use to pay PRIVATE HEALTH CARE PROVIDERS.  However, this doesn’t prevent Republicans from speculating on the ulterior motives of Democratic advocates of expanding access to affordable health insurance policies.

“Soon, they’ll want a public option!” And, then they’ll want Single Payer…and there you have it Socialized Medicine.

Let’s stop here before the fog gets too thick, and explore other options for improving health care access in another post.

*Thanks to @Karoli and Mark Stufflebeam for suggestions and references. 

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