MLR

Less than one year ago, in February 2020, I wrote a lengthy post about a great idea that New Mexico was attempting to put through which, had it succeeded, would have generated up to $125 million per year to be used primarily for reducing individual market premiums:

New Mexico would raise a state health-insurance tax and dedicate the new revenue to programs intended to make health care more affordable under a proposal that passed the state House on Sunday.

Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, described the legislation as an unusual opportunity to generate more revenue for health care without increasing the total amount consumers now pay.

The increased state tax would partially replace a federal tax that’s being repealed, she said, meaning health insurance carriers would actually be charged less in taxes than they are now, even after the state increase.

The legislation, House Bill 278, would raise about $125 million in annual revenue when fully phased in — the bulk of it dedicated to a new fund for health care affordability, according to legislative analysts.

I've written at least a dozen explainers about what I've termed the Risk Corridor Massacre over the past five years, starting with this one from 2015, and I pray to God that this is the last time I have to do so. Here we go:

  • The Affordable Care Act made massive changes to many parts of the U.S. healthcare system, but by far the most radical changes were made to the individual, or "non-group" market. This is health insurance for people who aren't covered by Medicare or Medicaid but who also don't have coverage through their employer (or who are self-employed, as I am).
  • Before the ACA, individual market carriers could cherry-pick their enrollees, either denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, covering them but charging massively higher rates for doing so, or covering them but exempting themselves from coverage of the very conditions which were most in need of treatment.

Yesterday I posted a long, wonky explainer about the fallout of the ACA's Health Insurer Tax (HIT) being repealed in December 2019.

As I explained, the HIT is one of a several taxes/fees which were originally included in the Affordable Care Act which have either never actaully been enforced or whcih have only been enforced sporadically, and which have now been completely eliminated going forward.

The impact of repealing these taxes on the federal deficit/federal debt is obviously not good...this will collectively increase the already-runaway national debt by several hundred billion dollars over the next decade. That's a whole separate discussion.

In the short term, however, this raises a fascinating one-time opportunity for states to step in and generate some much-needed revenue to be used to reduce healthcare costs for tens of thousands of their residents.

Back in December, Congress passed, and Donald Trump signed, a $1.4 Trillion federal spending package which included, among other things, the permanent elimination of several taxes which had been established to help fund the Affordable Care Act:

The Cadillac Tax: As Newsweek reported in 2017, the so-called "Cadillac tax" would have capped the tax deductions individuals could claim based on their health insurance benefits. It would have imposed a 40 percent excise tax on employer-sponsored plans that exceeded $10,000 in premiums per year for a single person or $27,500 for a family. The Cadillac tax was set to take effect in 2022.

Believe me, I was certain that I had finally gotten this year's Medical Loss Ratio (MLR) rebate project out of my system. I really was.

However, there was one other MLR-related issue which I've wondered about for years: The ACA requires that carriers who sell policies in the Individual and Small Group markets spend at least 80% of the premium revenue on actual medical claims (limiting them to a 20% gross margin), and 85% on the Large Group market (limiting them to 15% gross).

That accounts for around 165 million people, give or take...roughly 50% of the total U.S. population...but what about the other private (or at least semi-private) insurance markets? I'm referring, of course, to privately-administered Medicare and Medicaid plans...aka Medicare Advantage and Managed Care Organizations (MCOs).

 

The CSR Lawsuit Saga has been a continuous rollercoaster ride since 2014 at this point, with the original lawsuit (brought by John friggin' Boehner) seeing twists including one of the plaintiffs becoming one of the named defendents, and the named defendent changing at least three times as the Trump Administration went through several HHS Secretaries over the course of a few months.

The extremely short version, again: Donald Trump attempted to sabotage the ACA exchanges by pulling the plug on Cost Sharing Reduction reimbursement payments...but in doing so, unintentionally ended up:

  • NOT hurting the very people he was trying to hurt (low-income enrollees);
  • HURTING the very people he supposedly wasn't trying to hurt (middle-income enrollees), and as an added bonus...
  • INCREASING federal spending by a projected $20 billion dollars per year in increased premium subsidies

Nearly 100 insurance carriers who were stiffed by Trump out of a couple billion dollars owed to them for 2017 sued the federal government, and the judges in the cases ruled in their favor, ordering the feds to pay up. This much was completely expected and not at all out of the ordinary.

 

Over at Inside Health Policy (paywall), Amy Lotven has an update regarding the eyebrow-raising decisions a few weeks ago by federal judges in several of the Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) reimbursement payment lawsuits.

The general thinking at the time was that the judges would simply rule in the carriers favor and order the Trump Administration to pay the carriers the money owed to them from the last three months of 2017 (over $2 billion nationally, although the amounts at stake for each individual carrier suing is generally kmore along the lines of seven figures each). If this had been what happened there likely wouldn't have been much more to the story.

Instead, all three judges ruled--on behalf of dozens of carriers, since at least one of the cases is a class action suit--that the government owes them CSR payments for not only Q4 2017, but all twelve months of 2018 as well, assuming the carriers wanted to demand those payments.

*(OK, that's hyperbole...unsubsidized enrollees are still left holding the bag for thousands of dollars in unnecessary premium payments for at least another year or so, and there's still no guarantee of the final ruling...see below...)

Almost exactly a year ago, Donald Trump, after 9 months of bluster about doing so so, finally pulled the trigger on his threat to cut off Cost Sharing Reduction reimbursement payments to insurance carriers for the deductibles, co-pays and other out-of-pocket expenses which they agree to cover every month for around 7 million low-income ACA exchange policy enrollees.

Trumps stated goal in doing so was, of course, to "blow up" the ACA, to cause it to "implode" (which is actually the opposite of blowing something up, but that's a different discussion) and ultimately fail in the process.

A couple of days ago, the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation posted an important new analysis (actually a follow-up version of an earlier one they did in May) which proved, in several different ways, that after years of turmoil, the ACA's individual market had finally stabilized as of 2017...or, at least, it would have if not for the deliberate sabotage efforts of one Donald J. Trump and several hundred Congressional Republicans. This included hard numbers for the first quarter of 2018 which showed the trend continuing in a dramatic fashion.

Following up on that, they went further yesterday and posted a whole bunch of handy raw individual market data for the 2011 - 2017 calendar years at the state level, including the average gross profit margin per member per month as well as the share of premiums paid out as claims in every state (except, frustratingly, California).

via Christopher Snowbeck of the Star-Tribune:

Positive Blue Cross results trigger rebates to consumers
It is legally required to return about $30 million of its 2017 profit to subscribers.

After three years of losses in the state’s market where individuals buy health insurance, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota made so much money last year that it has to give some back.

The Eagan-based carrier, which is the state’s largest nonprofit health plan, disclosed last week that it expects to provide $30 million in consumer rebates as required by rules in the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Analysts said that Blue Cross likely isn’t alone in having overshot with rates last year, since insurers across the country have been struggling to figure out how much premium revenue they need to cover the cost of medical bills in the individual market.

In Minnesota, rebates driven by big margins are a surprising cap to a year that started with fears that mounting losses would cause a market collapse.

One of the least-known but most important aspects of the Affordable Care Act is the Medical Loss Ratio:

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) includes several provisions that change the way private health insurance is regulated in an effort to provide better value to consumers and increase transparency. One such provision – the Medical Loss Ratio (or MLR) requirement – limits the portion of premium dollars health insurers may spend on administration, marketing, and profits. Under health care reform, health insurers must publicly report the portion of premium dollars spent on health care and quality improvement and other activities in each state they operate. Insurers failing to meet the applicable MLR standard must pay rebates to consumers beginning in 2012.