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Insurers use ‘medical loss ratios’ to cheat us

NBER Working Paper No. 23353; Cost of Service Regulation in U.S. Health Care: Minimum Medical Loss Ratios

By Steve Cicala, Ethan M.J. Lieber, and Victoria Marone
National Bureau of Economic Research, April 2017

Abstract

In health insurance markets, an insurer's Medical Loss Ratio (MLR) is the share of premiums spent on medical claims. As part of the goal of reducing the cost of health care coverage, the Affordable Care Act introduced minimum MLR provisions for all health insurance sold in fully- insured commercial markets as of 2011, thereby explicitly capping insurer profit margins, but not levels. This cap was binding for many insurers, with over $1 billion of rebates paid in the first year of implementation. We model this constraint imposed upon a monopolistic insurer, and derive distortions analogous to those created under cost of service regulation. We test the implications of the model empirically using administrative data from 2005–2013, with insurers persistently above the minimum MLR threshold serving as the control group in a difference-in- difference design. We find that rather than resulting in reduced premiums, claims costs increased nearly one-for-one with distance below the regulatory threshold, 7% in the individual market, and 2% in the group market.

From the Introduction

At its simplest level, this paper observes that our hypothetical insurer with $100 in premium revenue and $79 in claims finds it must bear the full administrative cost of keeping expenditures below $80, but reaps none of the rewards. That is, minimum MLR requirements encourage higher costs, not lower. We draw the direct parallel between MLR regulation and cost of service regulation, and show empirically that the 80/20 rule has, indeed, substantially increased insurers’ medical expenditures. While perhaps obvious ex post, this connection has not been established (nor estimated) to date.

From the Conclusion

This paper connects regulations of actuarial fairness to cost of service regulation, and uses the recently-implemented ‘80/20’ rule in the ACA to estimate the role these forces play in the determination of claims costs and premiums in the market for health insurance. The 80/20 rule requires health insurers in the commercial, fully-insured market to keep the share of their premium revenue spent on medical claims, known as the Medical Loss Ratio (MLR), above a minimum threshold, and to rebate the difference to customers if they fall short of this minimum. We find robust evidence that insurers increased their MLRs to comply with the regulation, and that this increase came largely by increases in claims costs.

We find that insurers in the individual market were most strongly impacted by the 80/20 rule, with affected insurers increasing their claims costs 7% on average and as much as 11% after two years of adjustment. We find that the rule also resulted in higher MLRs and claims costs in the group market, though the regulation was less binding in this segment. We generally find that the magnitude of the increase in claims costs scales with the initial distance from the minimum threshold. These results stand in stark contrast to the original intention of the rule: lower premiums. We do not find that insurers lowered premiums as a means to increase their MLR.

Instead, it is more likely that insurers raised their claims costs from a combination of more comprehensive coverage and reduced cost-containment effort, such as negotiations with providers or claims utilization management practices.

http://www.nber.org...

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Quote of the Day: AHIP on medical loss ratios

By Don McCanne, M.D.
Physicians for a National Health Program, July 26, 2010

Excerpt from Comment:

An extremely important unintended consequence of fixed medical loss ratios has been mentioned here before, but seems to have escaped the mainstream media, so it is being repeated: Once the MLR rules are established, the primary method by which insurers can increase the services they sell us, while increasing their profits, is by increasing gross revenues, since they are guaranteed a fixed percentage of those revenues. The most effective way to increase gross revenues is to increase the amount of health care services authorized and paid for.

If the insurers change provider incentives to double the amount of health care that is being delivered, they can double their own total revenues, keeping even more as profit because of the smaller marginal administrative costs of paying for more care. This incentive of the insurers to increase total health care spending is the exact opposite of the reform goal of slowing future health care cost increases.

All of this is good business. But that's the problem. Our elected representatives chose a business model to finance health care when what we desperately need is a service model.

"Medical loss ratio" is a term that needs to be moved into the history books of failed policy concepts. Instead, we need our own public service model - an improved Medicare for everyone.

http://www.pnhp.org...

***

Comment:

By Don McCanne, M.D.

Paying for health care is a loss for insurers. They get to keep for their administrative costs and profits whatever they do not spend on health care. In crafting the Affordable Care Act our legislators surmised that they could limit the administrative waste and excess profits by requiring that at least 80 percent of premiums be used for health care for individual plans and 85 percent for small group plans - the medical loss ratio. If you were an insurer, think of the opportunity this offers.

In previous messages it was pointed out that the more the insurers pay out in health benefits, the more they can expand their administrative expenses and especially their profits. They get to keep 15 to 20 percent of the premiums.

How do you pay out more in health benefits? Simple. Negotiate higher prices with physicians and hospitals. Maximize benefits covered. Authorize more care; be very conservative with rejecting prior authorization requests. Avoid adjusting claims and avoid claim denials. Do not investigate over-utilization or frank health care fraud. Then have your actuaries calculate the premiums to include 15 to 20 percent over the inflated health care spending. Make that a little bit over 15 to 20 percent which will then have to be refunded but will ensure that the full padded margin is received.

As with so many policy flaws of the Affordable Care Act that we have reported here, there is some disbelief that the insurers would do that. But isn’t that the way markets work? Maximize revenues and profits? There is nothing illegal here.

Today’s report indicates that, guess what, “insurers raised their claims costs from a combination of more comprehensive coverage and reduced cost-containment effort, such as negotiations with providers or claims utilization management practices.” Thus the insurers defeated the MLR rule that was intended to reduce premiums.

From a 2010 Quote of the Day:

“If the insurers change provider incentives to double the amount of health care that is being delivered, they can double their own total revenues, keeping even more as profit because of the smaller marginal administrative costs of paying for more care. This incentive of the insurers to increase total health care spending is the exact opposite of the reform goal of slowing future health care cost increases.

“All of this is good business. But that's the problem. Our elected representatives chose a business model to finance health care when what we desperately need is a service model.

“‘Medical loss ratio’ is a term that needs to be moved into the history books of failed policy concepts. Instead, we need our own public service model - an improved Medicare for everyone.”