Health Insurance Info for Colorado

news & commentary on health insurance and benefits

NEWSFLASH: Colorado Health OP

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The Colorado Division of Insurance moved swiftly to remove Colorado HealthOP from the list of approved insurers in Colorado and through the Connect 4 Health Colorado Marketplace Exchange. See the news release here.

The Federal “health care tax” revealed

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Many people are puzzled by media reports that center on “the doc fix” and other aspects of the Medicare and Medicaid programs, and this is to be expected, given that media outlets do a spectacularly poor job of explaining any aspect of federal health care policy, in my opinion. I’m writing this article in an attempt to broadly illustrate a basic tenet of federal health care spending, namely, price controls, and the cost-shifting to private patients that occurs because of centralized price-fixing at the federal level. I submit that this centralized pricing, which purchases on demand and without contract, health care at below-market prices, is a hidden tax passed directly to all Americans who purchase health care, or health insurance, and is a major driver, if not THE major driver, in ever increasing health care costs.

[Disclaimer: federal health care spending is so complex and obtuse that it’s extremely easy for the average person to get “lost in the weeds”, a situation tailor-made for policy wonks who feel we are all too ignorant to draw basic conclusions without their help.  This article is intended to cut through the chaff and provide a common-sense rationale for much of the current premium pricing debacle that we face. Frankly, given the behavior of regulators at the federal level, it’s astonishing to me that private insurers aren’t forced to demand double digit premium increases yearly from private payors just to stay in business.]

This column is in direct response to a clients’ question: how is the federal government purchasing health care at below-market rates? The client asked me to send him additional information on this topic, since I brought it up in a meeting. I must first confess that I provided him with a statistic, incorrectly stated: I inadvertently transposed a percentage when detailing the true costs of  federal health care costs as compared to the costs related to the private delivery of health care. I’ll fix that with this post, and provide substantial ammunition to support the idea that it is imperative that the federal government get out of the business of centralized price-controls in the health care arena. Sadly, it is very unlikely that this will happen, as the two sides on the issue are separated by a divide the size of the Grand Canyon on the heart of the matter – how to pay for and deliver health care to the nation, and by extension either control health care delivery at the federal level via central planning, or allow the free-market, and private insurers, working in harmony (important consideration) with various regulators to provide solutions to the health care woes of the nation with insurance programs that avoid rationing and expand care.

On one hand, progressive Democrats view insurance as evil, and wish to have health care costs borne by a progressive system based on a social policy of wealth redistribution through the tax code, the word “insurance” not being in their vocabulary. Conservative Republicans view health care, on the other hand,  as a free-market product that insurers, using standard reserve techniques, can provide far more economically and efficiently, without the centralization or government control demanded by progressives in their march towards utopia (a rationed utopia, at that). And it should be pointed out that Democrats have done a superb job of forcing the market conditions that have created a health care system in which there is little if any competition, where the federal government pays substantially less than the true cost of care for its Medicare/Medicaid programs, and where continued market and pricing stresses, literally created by Democrats intent on their end goal of a single-payor system, provide the perfect excuse for the federal government to proclaim that it alone can save the day, when in fact they have created the very problem they will now take pains to “fix”. But we are getting into partisan waters here, and it’s best to stick to the facts, and answer my clients’ question.

That the federal government purchases a great deal of the nations’ health care is beyond dispute. According to the Department of Justice, federal, state, and local governments pay for approximately 45 percent of total U.S. expenditures on health care. This figure, first published in 2003, is likely higher today. The problem is that Congress, rather than any free-market mechanism, approves the reimbursement schemes for much of that care – and we all know how well centrally planned price-fixing schemes usually work out. And herein lies the true problem: the controversy concerning Medicare or Medicaid isn’t that it under-pays health care providers and facilities, but that the under-payment is over-stated, or even, depending on whom you are listening or talking to, non-existent or even irrelevant. In fact, there does appear to be two schools of thought, which, coincidentally, mirror the two different philosophies of the left & the right. The left views the “underpayment” of costs related to its share of health care costs as unimportant, even illusory, due to the scale of care they are “purchasing”, and point to the complex (and politically tainted) process of Medicare price-setting as proof that all’s well with the way the feds pay for care. To explain, Medicare’s physician and other fee rates are based on the relative cost of providing services determined by what’s known as the Resource-Based Relative Value Scale (RBRVS), a system of “comparable worth” in medicine, and is itself based on “the objective theory of value, one of the fundamental tenets of Marxist economics”. This cumbersome process, updated every 5 years or so, is guided by input from the AMA, as well as others, but is ultimately set by the federal government, under the Federal Health Care Financing Administration, part of HHS, and then submitted to Congress. In the words of Michael F. Cannon, director of health policy studies at the Cato Institute, “The Medicare bureaucracy is somehow supposed to divine the correct prices for more than 7,000 distinct physician services in each of Medicare’s 89 physician-payment regions (yep, some 623,000 separate prices). And – unlike market prices – these price controls don’t automatically adjust to reflect the value of goods and services.” Central planning, at its finest.

The conservative right enthusiastically supports a contrarian view, and points out that “the hydraulics of health care“, which the left takes great pains to vigorously support as somehow necessary and equitable, and at the same time labels as overblown, is real and impacts every non-federal health care transaction. This controversy serves the left well, as it obscures the true costs associated with below-market federal reimbursement. It is, indeed, the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

To say that there is a lack of any consensus would be an understatement, and this explains the lack of clarity when discussing the impact of cost-shifting. And there is plenty of evidence, outside of left-wing policy wonks trying to re-define “costs” and “shifting”, to support the notion that federal reimbursement is below-market. Much of the evidence, as illustrated by this report, is troubling: cost shifting as a percentage of premium more than tripled over a five year time period, and appears to me to be accelerating. In fact, “employers and consumers in California pay up to 10 percent more for health care coverage because of government underpayments”, according to data compiled by Milliman for Blue Shield of California a few years ago. Even the Colorado Division of Insurance, in its most recent Annual Report, acknowledges that “..members of..Medicaid and Medicare.. typically pay less than commercially insured populations” when discussing cost-shifting.

So, an acknowledgement that cost-shifting is real and has an impact on, at least, premiums. But, how much is that impact, and how much more do private carriers and health care facilities wind up paying? In this study, The Lewin Group addresses cost-shifting relative to Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement. Lewin defined “cost-shift” as “not simply a set of differential prices as seen in the airline industry, but rather higher prices (above cost) systematically paid by one payer group to offset lower prices (below cost) paid by another payer group”[italics mine]. The study goes on to show a payment “hydraulic” (payment-to-cost-ratio) of 1.22 for private payers, compared with .95 for Medicare and .92 for Medicaid (1.00 would be cost). With a cost advantage of 5 to 7% below cost, and private insurers obligated to provide a profit to physicians and carriers in response, this represents a 30% increase in private payor costs compared to federal programs. In another article, entitled “At the Intersection of Health, Health Care and Policy”, published in Health Affairs, the authors acknowledge the Lewin Study and make note of  “The Cost Shift As A Form Of Premium Taxation” :

  • “The cost-shifting dynamic places hospitals in the unenviable position of playing the role of private-sector tax collectors, to maintain their financial solvency. To the extent that public programs are not adequately funded through general tax revenues and trust funds, and the uninsured get care for which they do not fully pay, hospitals must attempt to “tax” the privately insured to make up the shortfall. Some of this shortfall is absorbed by increased hospital efficiency or a decreased emphasis on hospitals’ social missions, but much of the difference eventually resurfaces in the form of increased health insurance premiums. Employers indirectly fund the cost-shifting tax through their purchase of health insurance. They bear not only the cost of health care insurance for their employees but also a portion of the under- and uncompensated care pool. This is one reason why—aside from the underwriting cycle—private-sector employers’ payments rise faster than underlying health care costs..”

This hidden tax is estimated at 32% by some observers (in 2007, hospital payments for the care of privately insured people were equal to about 132 percent of their actual costs of care; Shields, House Ways & Means hearings). And the “cost shift” appears to be increasing: In 2007, Medicare paid on average only 91 percent of the actual cost of hospital care for Medicare patients, as shown in the original Milliman report.

America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), through a spokesman, goes further: “Right now, Medicare only reimburses hospitals about 85% of their cost. It’s employees and families that are paying $1500 a year to subsidize the Medicare program.” Given the 20% or higher differential that private payors, through their insurers, pay, this translates into an almost 40% differential between what Medicare reimburses and what private payors are expected to pay for the same services.

The consensus, then, is that, even if the left characterizes “cost-shifting” as an exercise akin to differential pricing with airline tickets or new cars, pricing hydraulics exist in health care, made all the more problematic by price controls that are neither realistic or flexible, and serve to exacerbate the current difficulty with fewer and fewer insureds paying a higher and higher tariff for more and more people who, by virture of mandated government cost-shifting in the form of reduced payments for services, are provided with services at less-than-cost, primarily to save the federal government from the true cost of its social welfare programs. This, then, is the “taxation without representation” present in your health insurance premiums.

I’ll address “the doc fix” is another post, since the reduction in Medicare payments for physicians services relates directly to the hydraulics of health care, and was a central feature in the purported “savings” that Obamacare was to provide in its first ten years – an estimate that has already been wiped out with further CBO estimates, not to mention Congress’ restoring the cuts to avoid political damage to a powerful lobbying group.

DOI reverses on mandatory maternity in individual health plans

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In a bulletin issued March 15th, 2011, the Colorado Division of Insurance has “changed its interpretation” of their previous bulletin, issued in December of 2010, regarding maternity coverage for individual health policies issued in Colorado.

The controversy stems from a difference between the “applicability clause” in the enabling legislation, HB 10-1021, and the statute, as enacted. The applicability clause states that maternity coverage was to be provided for both issued and renewing policies, while the statute, as enacted, calls for maternity coverage to be provided only for “issued policies”. The Divisions’ initial guidance under the previous Bulletin did not require the coverage on renewal policies.

In it’s new bulletin, the Division, after “further statutory review”, finds that, in its opinion, the provisions of HB-10-1021 does indeed require coverage for maternity expenses for issued and renewing individual sickness and accident insurance policies and health care coverage contracts, reversing in toto it’s previous position, without showing any specific reason or legal basis for the change in its position.

Now, it’s no secret that this Bill was controversial, rammed through a Democrat-controlled legislature without any input from either the industry or the minority, and signed by the Governor post-haste. While touted as a “reproductive services” bill that ensured fairness, in actuality there is no fairness in requiring males of any age, children, and females of non-child bearing years to pay for this expansion of maternity coverage. Certainly, purchasing individual health insurance with maternity coverage was available in Colorado – so, what was the point of the legislation?

Colorado’s Democrat legislators have been attempting to recast the individual health insurance market as the mirror image of the small group market for years, and this legislation is one result of that thinking. The downside to this, and the biggest problem, is the cost to such a policy. Anyone who looks at group coverage, as compared to individual coverage, is aghast at the price, a point most Democrats seemingly ignore, and which has contributed to the decline in Colorado’s small group insurance pool, especially since the repeal of risk-based premium provisions in the small group market.

A quick analysis of the rates now being charged for individual health policies shows that the legislation has, indeed, made individual health insurance policies more expensive, and will have a negative effect on new policy issuance in Colorado. One wonders if that was the intent of the legislation – after all, with higher premiums, a certain segment of the population is locked out of the market, just simply based on price. If one can only buy Cadillacs, rather than something cheaper, does one simply not buy? This has the effect of increasing the pool of un-insureds in Colorado,  rather than expanding the pool of covered individuals, regardless of what the PR coming from Democrats would suggest.

Let’s not forget that Colorado residents lost a strong carrier when Aetna withdrew from the Colorado market due to this legislation. Will we have others withdraw, as well? One only needs to look at the disastrous outcome of the Kentucky health insurance market (and others, notably New Jersey) to see what will transpire as more and more carriers flee the state because of their inability to expand the risk pool because of high premiums, mandated benefits, and hostile regulatory and legislative actions.

Of course, Democrats have us covered there, too: their real solution is to get rid of all carriers and saddle the residents with a single-payor system. I shudder to think what that will cost in higher taxes and job loss.

Lastly, to add insult to injury, the Division, in its decision requiring maternity coverage in all policies renewing after January 1st, 2011, has authorized carriers to retroactively charge additional premium for the coverage, assuming the carrier has filed and has approved such premium. Even if the carrier has not filed for rates relative to renewal maternity coverage, the Division will allow such retroactive charges, once rates are approved, to the policyholder.

I’ll research and comment on the average rate increases this latest exercise in “fairness” will cost the average Colorado health insurance consumer in another post, assuming that such information is even available.

DOI advises on change in statute interpretation

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In May 2010, the Colorado Legislature passed HB 10-1021, which amended the Colorado Revised Statutes to “expand the state’s mandatory maternity coverage to individual [health insurance] policies”. This change in the law is effective January 1, 2011.

On December 3, 2010, the Colorado Division of Insurance has issued a new bulletin, B-4.36 “Statutory Interpretation of Possible Conflicting Provisions in HB 10-1021”, which advises carriers of the Division’s position and interpretation of the statute’s language in Section 10-16-104(3). According to the DOI, “bulletins are the DOI’s interpretation of existing insurance law or general statements of Division policy”.

In issuing their bulletin, the Division has found conflicting provisions in the law between the statute and the applicability clause in HB 10-1021. In part, the bulletin reads “based on the Division’s reading of the statute… the clear intent… was to expand coverage only to policies issued (and not renewed) on or after January 1, 2011…”.

The statute is in conflict with the applicability clause in HB 10-1021, which uses the term “issued or renewed”,  whereas the statute language simply uses the word “issued”.  The Division takes the position that “the language to the contrary in the applicability clause was an inadvertent mistake”. The Division cites discussions with the bill sponsor and Legislative Legal Services in making this interpretation of the statute.

Therefore, while insurers are encouraged to offer maternity and contraceptive coverage to renewing policies, they are not required to do so, and the change in law only applies to individual and group sickness and accident policies issued after January 1, 2011.


UPDATED: This interpretation of statute has been overruled – see my new post, dated March 15th, 2011.

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  • Published: Dec 2nd, 2010
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  • Comments: Comments Off on Colorado Insurance Commish stepping down December 1st

Colorado Insurance Commish stepping down December 1st

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In a press release dated November 29th, Barbara Kelley, head of the Department of Regulatory Agencies, State of Colorado, announced the departure of Marcy Morrison as Colorado Insurance Commissioner.

Effective December 1st, 2010, Morrison will be replaced on an interim basis by John Postolowski, who is currently the Deputy Commissioner of finance and administration at the DOI.

Postolowski has been described as a “veteran” state employee. He will serve in this capacity until Governor-Elect Hickenlooper appoints a permanent replacement.

Obamacare and Colorado health insurance premiums

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An excellent article posted at Patient Power, the health care policy blog at The Independence Institute. The Colorado Division of Insurance is claiming that, for small group policies in 2010, premiums will climb an additional 5% due to the effects of new Federal requirements, while individual plans will climb up to 7.8%.

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