Posted By Errol Pierre
By 2014 there will potentially be a health benefit exchange in every state across the country. Like snowflakes no exchange will be alike and politics will play a pivotal role in the differences found between them. While the healthcare reform bill signed into law requires the establishment of exchanges, the details of operation have yet to be determined. In fact, in March 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provided 600 pages of additional guidance to the states. The guidance given was more of a framework while much of the particulars were purposefully left out. This has made the role of the individual State Governors ever important. They are now in a position of power and play a very integral role in bringing exchanges from a theoretical policy concept to a legislative and operational reality.
Right or Left
At a high level, left leaning blue states will design their exchange to be an active purchaser. This will allow the Governor to take an active role in the day to day exchange operations. Under the direction of an exchange board, most likely selected by the Governor, these states would choose precisely which insurance companies participate, the types of policies sold, the rates of the selected products, and how enrollment and eligibility of those enrolled would work. In some more aggressive instances, states could even negotiate pricings with doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies in the very same ways insurance companies do today in the private sector. This is obviously foreign territory to many of the states pursuing such a model. Nonetheless, proponents of the model see value in such an approach believing more oversight will lead to more affordability and better health outcomes in the long run.
Right leaning red states on the other hand will opt for a facilitator model. The state will merely be a marketplace for health benefit transactions between consumers and insurance companies to occur. They will set the high level guidelines and guardrails and merely outline the rules of engagement. Much of the market dynamics will be left up to private insurance and market forces to sort out. Benefit design, rate approval, distribution strategy, the “off-exchange” marketplace, and pricing will all be left up to “the invisible hand” of Adam Smith’s market forces. The idea of competition lowering healthcare costs has been refuted by the likes of many including Alain Enthoven – the father of managed competition – and Kenneth Arrow – the pioneer in research on asymmetric information as a market failure in healthcare. Nonetheless, American capitalism seems to have trumped over such doubts in these states. As a result, the role of government in these exchanges will be as minimal as the healthcare reform legislation will allow. There are already mandates that must be in place for each exchange. For example there must be four benefit categories ranked by actuarial values labeled bronze, silver, gold, and platinum for simplicity. The legislation also caps insurance company profit at 20% before operating costs are factored in. Lastly, the legislation requires health insurance companies to accept all enrollees and requires that the ratio between the pricing of the healthiest and the sickest consumer not exceed a 3 to 1 ratio. All in all, governors of these red states feel too much regulation stifles competition and the reform bill already has enough rules. As such, they are reluctant to add any further requirements on top of the federal ones. In this role the state will play referee rather than player/coach.
Politics at Play
State by state, there will be different shades of blue as states consider the ramifications of building a health benefit exchange. Health insurers must be prepared to understand how these different shades will impact the development of health policy. Vermont, for example, will be one of those very bold blue states. On May 26, 2011, Governor Peter Shumlin signed into law a historic universal healthcare bill which would cover every citizen in the state under a single payer system called Green Mountain Care. It will be in place by 2017 and the state has been drawing down federal funds from the national health reform bill as it prepares.
Like blue states, there too will be shades of red. Arkansas is a perfect example of a bright red state. Legislative opposition to a state run exchange was so great, Jay Bradford, the State Insurance Commissioner, had to start preparing for a federally run exchange. By law, when a state cannot come up with its own legislation to run an exchange, the federal government is required to step in and set one up. Ironically, legislators that are so vehemently against Obama’s healthcare reform legislation will end up with a federally run exchange led behind Kathleen Sebelius, the current Secretary of Health and Human Services and former democratic Governor of Kansas.
Understanding the political environment of your state of operation is paramount to assessing the viability of a successful exchange strategy for a private insurance company. An active purchaser model lends itself to be a market where the constraints may be too great to be successful and sustainable. If the market is too controlled, healthcare coverage quickly becomes a commodity and erodes the levers of differentiation used to be competitive. Health insurance companies could come to the conclusion that participating in such a state will not be viable and opt to stay on the sidelines. However, the state would technically have the right to mandate (either directly or indirectly) insurance company participation, which could turn the state into a defacto-single payer.
On the other hand, a facilitator model lends itself to be the more favorable for an insurance company to operate within. However, a state that has done everything to obstruct healthcare reform progress like Arkansas is just as dangerous. It most likely will end up with a federally run exchange which could potentially be more burdensome than a facilitated one a red state would have had the option to create.
Errol Pierre works at a large insurance company focused on business development, sales, and strategy for employee benefits. He is currently pursuing a degree in Health Policy and Management with a specializing in health finance. He can be reached at email@example.com