United pulls out of ACA exchanges: Should we care?

Walking wounded?
Walking wounded?

Insurance exchanges are a key feature of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. They enable individuals to compare insurance plans from a variety of carriers and choose the policy they like. Exchanges got off to a rough start with website glitches but overall they’ve been quite successful: enrolling millions of newly insured people, many of whom receive premium subsidies and some of whom receive additional assistance on out-of-pocket costs.

Recently we’ve heard what could be interpreted as bad news about the viability of exchanges: UnitedHealth is considering withdrawing from the program. In the highly politicized world of health reform, that information has Obamacare foes sounding the death knell.

I see things differently.

The biggest premium increases reported in the press were generally from the largest, most well known health insurers –like United. They may be losing money on the policies they offer on the exchanges and are jacking up prices as a result. But the whole purpose of an exchange is to give people the opportunity to shop around and to change plans if they want. Even in the face of big headline price increases, consumers who shop around can still typically keep their premium increases modest or even reduce what they’re paying.

The big name insurers that have a large share of the corporate market are not necessarily the winners on the exchanges. Rather, the leaders in the new price-sensitive era are lesser known plans, many of which cut their teeth in the Medicaid managed care market where tight cost control is key. They have what it takes to play in this brave new world.

There are some similarities to the airline business. Remember the days when you had to buy a ticket 30 days in advance and stay over a Saturday night to get a reasonable deal? Then carriers like Southwest came into the market and changed all that. Carriers like USAirways used to withdraw from markets that Southwest entered –they just couldn’t compete. That doesn’t mean air travelers suffered.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d like to see some changes to make the exchanges more vibrant –like increasing the allowed ratio of premiums based on age, which would make the plans more affordable for younger people. And it would be nice to have more flexibility in benefit designs. Still, United’s departure is likely to be more of a problem for the legacy carriers than it is for the exchanges or consumer choice.

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.


November 24, 2015

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