Health insurers’ warped approach to competition

How Insurers Competed in the Affordable Care Act's First Year

By Katherine Swartz, Mark Hall, Timothy S. Jost
The Commonwealth Fund, June 24, 2015


Prior to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), most states’ individual health insurance markets were dominated by one or two insurance carriers that had little incentive to compete by providing efficient services. Instead, they competed mainly by screening and selecting people based on their risk of incurring high medical costs. One of the ACA’s goals is to encourage carriers to participate in the health insurance marketplaces and to shift the focus from competing based on risk selection to processes that increase consumer value, like improving efficiency of services and quality of care. Focusing on six states — Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Maryland, Montana, and Texas — this brief looks at how carriers are competing in the new marketplaces, namely through cost-sharing and composition of provider networks.

From the Conclusions

The ACA reforms will surely stimulate continuing adaptations by carriers, providers, and policymakers, and we expect the competitive strategies in the marketplaces to evolve as consumers and carriers gain more experience with marketplace competition.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

What should the consumer expect from marketplace competition? Business experts tell us that competition is the key to higher quality at lower cost. So what has competition between private health insurance plans brought us?

Based on international comparisons, our health care quality is mediocre and our health care costs are by far the highest of all nations. The insurers have been ineffective in improving either of those. Okay, but what about the health plans themselves? Are we receiving high quality insurance products at low prices?

Before the Affordable Care Act (ACA), insurers competed primarily on the prices of their insurance premiums, and they still do. Before ACA, the most effective method of keeping their premiums from increasing more than they did was to exclude people from coverage who actually needed health care. The most important purpose of insurance is to make health care access affordable by diluting risk through insurance risk pools. Yet the insurers instead excluded risk by attempting to insure only those who could pass underwriting standards in the individual market, or by pricing group plans out of the market if they experienced high health care utilization.

A quality risk pooling program would be designed to ensure that everyone receives essential health care, yet by excluding those who have the greatest needs for care, the insurers abandoned any effort to ensure quality in their insurance products.

As far as costs are concerned, health care costs continued to escalate out of control, demonstrating that the insurers could not deliver on the promise of lower costs either.

What has happened since ACA was implemented?

Although the act prohibits medical underwriting, the insurers are still using devious methods to discourage individuals with greater heath care needs from enrolling. As an example, drugs used for certain chronic conditions are placed in upper tiers of drug coverage which require greater coinsurance payments, pricing these products out of reach for the patients, which deters them from joining the plan in the first place. Plans also are still selectively marketed to healthier populations. Professionals and institutions noted for providing care to high needs patents are frequently left out of the insurers’ networks, chasing away patients who use these providers. Again, these efforts to exclude those with needs confirm that the insurers are still marketing low quality insurance products that fall short of the health care needs of the community.

This new report from The Commonwealth Fund shows that the insurers are using two innovations to improve their competitive positions in the marketplace: cost sharing and narrow provider networks.

Cost sharing through deductibles, co-payments, coinsurance, and exclusion of coverage erects financial barriers to care, reducing the use of beneficial services and thus allowing the insurers’ premiums to be priced more competitively. An insurance product that is designed to keep people away from care that they need is a low quality product.

Narrow provider networks reduce health care utilization by preventing coverage of health care professionals and institutions that may be the most appropriate for the patients’ conditions, requiring them to turn to lesser care or no care at all. Also, care may be made less accessible simply by increasing the distances needed to travel to network providers while excluding nearby providers from the networks. Again, insurance products designed to impair access to appropriate health care providers are low quality products.

Thus, with ACA, insurers are impairing quality through the use of the barriers of cost sharing and narrow networks. And regarding costs, it appears that they are again on an upward trajectory. Health care prices have not been controlled. The only slowing has been due to a modest reduction in the use of beneficial health care services caused by these barriers that the insurers have erected. The insurers have failed again on their promise of higher quality at lower cost.

What about the future? The Commonwealth Fund report states, “we expect the competitive strategies in the marketplaces to evolve as consumers and carriers gain more experience with marketplace competition.” We know what this means. The insurers will not be looking for ways to pay for more beneficial health care services. They will be introducing more innovations that prevent patients from getting the care that they need. That’s the way that the marketplace for health insurance products works.

Medicare doesn’t work that way. Instead, efforts are made to include everyone who is qualified and to include all health care professionals and institutions. At the same time, payments are based on legitimate costs and fair margins - a system that is less costly because of administrative efficiencies.

If we really want higher quality at a lower cost, we need to improve Medicare and expand it to cover everyone. The private insurance industry certainly is never going deliver on quality and cost since they will do better for themselves with their warped approach to competition.