Special enrollments cause adverse selection

Insurers Say Costs Are Climbing as More Enroll Past Health Act Deadline

By Robert Pear
The New York Times, January 9, 2016

Eager to maximize coverage under the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration has allowed large numbers of people to sign up for insurance after the deadlines in the last two years, destabilizing insurance markets and driving up premiums, health insurance companies say.

The administration has created more than 30 “special enrollment” categories and sent emails to millions of Americans last year urging them to see if they might be able to sign up after the annual open enrollment deadline. But, insurers and state officials said, the federal government did little to verify whether late arrivals were eligible.

That has allowed people to wait until they become ill or need medical services to sign up, driving up costs broadly, insurers have told federal health officials.

“Individuals enrolled through special enrollment periods are utilizing up to 55 percent more services than their open enrollment counterparts” who sign up in the regular period, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, whose local member companies operate in every state, told the administration.

“Many individuals have no incentive to enroll in coverage during open enrollment, but can wait until they are sick or need services before enrolling and drop coverage immediately after receiving services, making the annual open enrollment period meaningless,” Steven B. Kelmar, an executive vice president of Aetna, said in a letter to Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the secretary of health and human services.

A quarter of the applications that Aetna received in the health law’s public insurance marketplace last year came through special enrollment periods, he said.

Kevin J. Counihan, the chief executive of the federal insurance marketplace, said nearly 950,000 people used special enrollment periods to get coverage through from late February to the end of June 2015.

“On average,” Aetna said, “special enrollment period enrollees stay with us for less than four months, while enrollees who come to us during the annual open enrollment period maintain their coverage on average for eight to nine months.”

Daniel J. Schumacher, the chief financial officer of UnitedHealthcare, the insurance unit of UnitedHealth Group, said more than 20 percent of its marketplace customers signed up after open enrollment ended last year. And they used 20 percent more health care than people who signed up before the deadline, he said.

Such concerns could portend higher insurance rates broadly. In setting current premiums, insurers say, they did not realize how many people would sign up after the deadline and how much care they would use. That information may affect future rates and benefits.

The federal government allows people to sign up or switch health plans outside open enrollment for various reasons. Lawyers said it was not easy to find a complete list of the eligibility criteria, which have been set forth in regulations, bulletins, official policy statements, manuals and informal “guidance documents.” Some of the reasons are straightforward, like getting married or having a baby.

Others are more complicated and less clear-cut. Consumers may, for example, be eligible for a special enrollment period in “exceptional circumstances” and in “other situations determined appropriate” by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The circumstances may include “a serious medical condition” that kept a person from enrolling.

“Most consumers are confused by the rules on special enrollment periods and do not understand the system well enough to try to game it,” said Christine Speidel, a lawyer at Vermont Legal Aid. On the other hand, she said, “many people feel that insurance is not affordable, even with subsidies, and they will call the marketplace to see if they qualify for insurance when they get sick.”



By Don McCanne, M.D.

Open enrollment periods for the ACA exchange health plans are limited in duration to prevent people from buying insurance only when a need arises, and then canceling the insurance after the need is met. This “adverse selection” would reduce premium revenues for the insurers while increasing expenditures for medical benefits. This drives up the cost of premiums for everyone else which can cause the healthy to bail out, driving premiums up even more and resulting in the “death spiral,” which is very disruptive to insurance markets.

Circumstances for individuals do change when enrollment is closed, thus the law allows special enrollment so that individuals don’t have to wait up to a year to gain coverage. The problem with special enrollment during closed enrollment periods is that it is the individuals with changing circumstances who also have pressing medical needs that will be compelled to enroll. Thus the payouts by the insurers will increase during these closed enrollment periods. Also, many healthy individuals who feel that they cannot afford their premiums will drop their coverage, decreasing revenue for the insurers. Increased expenditures and reduced revenues is not exactly the business model that insurers seek.

This creates a dilemma for the actuaries. To ensure solvency, premiums will have to be set higher than would be warranted based strictly on the better health of those enrolling during the open enrollment period. Higher premiums then threaten the insurers’ ability to gain market share. This is a problem for even the nation’s largest insurers, as we now see UnitedHealth is withdrawing from the exchanges for this very reason.

The Affordable Care Act perpetuates a market of private plans theoretically designed to use competition to improve quality while reducing costs. But because insurers are not allowed to exercise pure market forces since they must sell their products to people who will actually need to use them, the regulated market of private plans fails under these countervailing forces. Waste escalates because of the greater administrative burden of this defective market, and because of the need of the insurers to distort the functioning of their plans (e.g., higher deductibles and narrower networks) in an attempt to protect their bottom lines.

We can’t keep pretending that we will figure out a way to make private insurance markets work for everyone. We already have over half a century of failure. That’s enough. It’s time to enact a publicly-administered and publicly-financed single payer national health program - an improved Medicare for all.