Surprise, surprise! Exchange customers are price sensitive

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Uh oh. Another big national health plan, Aetna has decided to pull back from the individual health insurance marketplaces (aka exchanges) deciding they can’t make money because customers are focusing on price, not brand name. The headlines give a sense of it:

Cost, Not Choice, Is Top Concern of Health Insurance CustomersNew York Times

Customers’ Laser-Like Focus on Plan Prices Is Causing Concerns in Health Insurance MarketKaiser Health News

The articles quote insurance executive and experts claiming that “price competition has turned out to be much more cutthroat than anyone expected” and that “people signing up for [broad network, big employer style coverage offered by the big name national health plans] are less healthy –and more expensive to treat– than anticipated.”

Hah!

As I have written before (Good riddance: United finally gives up on ACA marketplaces):

Health plans thinking of competing in the marketplaces should say this to themselves a few times before diving in: “Exchange business is price sensitive business. If we can’t compete on price we might as well stay home.”

The exchanges do have problems. For example, insurers are limited to charging older people 3x what they charge younger ones, whereas actuarially it should be more like 5x. The problems are eminently fixable, except that opponents of the law still want it to fail. As for Aetna, specifically, it seems they are retaliating against the feds after the government announced its opposition to Aetna’s merger plans.

Nonetheless, why would we measure the success of the exchanges by whether the big, fat brand name health insurers can make money? Exchanges allow customers to compare plans on an apples-to-apples basis and they are deciding that there’s no big reason to pay higher prices. Some health plans are thriving on the exchanges by negotiating hard with providers (Medicaid oriented plans like Centene and Molina) or by having local market knowledge and density (Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida  –which has almost as many Obamacare customers in Florida as Aetna has in the whole country).

Here’s the real problem for health plans: they have largely failed to demonstrate that they add significant value. Aetna, United and their ilk don’t accomplish a lot compared with Joe’s health plan. And even when they do add value, they still add large administrative costs and inefficiencies to the system that may outweigh their benefits.

The Affordable Care Act has actually given health plans a new lease on life, by herding in new groups of individual customers and by imposing whole new sets of standards and rules. Health plans fear a so-called “public option” because it could reveal that commercial plans don’t bring much. And as unlikely as it seems now, it’s quite possible that the failure of commercial plans to demonstrate value could lead us eventually to a single-payer system.

Ideally, I’d rather not see single payer. If some of the plans were a little more ingenious and capable they could actually prosper in the exchange business, in ways that would boost their success in the commercial market as well. In particular, there are opportunities to better manage the way specialty care is delivered and paid for, by emulating the approaches used by the most efficient and innovative specialists. This would drive down the overall cost of insurance and improve care for patients.

Plans could also be more creative and resourceful in helping providers take risk or even full capitation.

Meanwhile, Aetna will struggle to grow. After all, the US is moving toward marketplaces and government coverage. Aetna, not Obamacare or the exchanges, may turn out to be the big loser here.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

 

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