Thursday, October 24, 2013

ObamaCare Economics -- You Shouldn't Be Surprised

This may look like it's going to be a highly political post, but it's not. Instead, it's more of a primer for the ordinary consumer of health care and health insurance.

We're hearing these days about those people who have made it far enough through the Affordable Care Act enrollment website to learn their options. Remember, if you are going to enroll in an ACA exchange health insurance program, you have the choice of a Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum plan. They are designed to provide the consumer some choice in the matter. That's a good thing.

The big difference among the plans is the percentage of costs that they are expected to cover. While designs will vary from state to state, Bronze plans are expected to cover 60% of health care costs, Silver plans 70%, Gold plans 80% and Platinum plans 90%. Among the ways that Platinum plans will get to that threshold are by having lower deductibles, lower out-of-pocket maximums and lower co-pays. In other words, the Platinum is a more generous (and more expensive) plan.

Each plan, regardless of its associated metal must cover essential health benefits. If you get really excited by reading this kind of stuff, you can go to Section 1302 of the Affordable Care Act. But, most of my readers have better things to do with their time. So, you can find a summary here:

  • Ambulatory patient services (generally outpatient services such as routine doctor visits)
  • Emergency services
  • Hospitalization
  • Maternity and newborn care
  • Mental health services
  • Substance use disorder services 
  • Prescription drug coverage
  • Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices (in plainer English, these are things like relearning a physical skill, e.g. walking, or learning a physical skill, e.g., speaking if you were born with a speech impediment)
  • Lab tests and services
  • Preventive and wellness services including chronic disease management
  • Pediatric services including oral and vision care
Thus far, I have heard lots of complaints that the Affordable Care Act is not affordable. This should have been obvious to anyone who bothered to think about it. 


Suppose you as a consumer went out to buy private health insurance coverage pre-2014. Let's further suppose that you are a healthy late 20s single male who does not engage in any particularly dangerous activities (think skydiving, mixed martial arts, motorcycle racing, etc.). You don't require any prescription drugs. You are not a substance abuser and you are fortunate to have not been born with or gotten any severe disabilities.

Now, suppose you went out and bought a health insurance plan for yourself. You wouldn't pay for lots of these required coverages. Certainly, you wouldn't get maternity coverage. You would likely leave out prescription drug coverage and rehabilitative and habilitative coverage. You wouldn't get substance abuse coverage. 

And, you wouldn't pay for them. 

But, under the ACA, you have to have them. You don't get a choice. 

Further, under the various metal-type plans, the design is such that the "average" (not really an average, but perhaps typical) person will pay 60%, 70%, 80%, or 90% of their health care costs. 

Here are two more facts. 1) All of these coverages cost money. 2) Insurance companies are in business to make money (contrary to popular belief, they do not exist for the sole purpose of losing money so that you, dear reader, can have great and inexpensive health care coverage).

What this means is that healthier people who are less likely to require health services need to subsidize coverage for those more likely to require health services. Further, since people should make intelligent choices, heavy users of these benefits should opt into plans that provide more (and better) coverages and light users should elect the plans that are least expensive. This phenomenon is an example of antiselection and antiselection increases costs.

Don't get me wrong. I think it's great that children under the age of 26 should be able to covered by their parents' plans. I have kids who have made use of it. I think it's great pre-existing conditions cannot be excluded from coverage by insurers. But, you know what? One of the ways that insurers have kept premiums down is by excluding pre-existing conditions.

Think about it. If an insurer is required to provide you with chemotherapy, it is unlikely that they can be charging you enough to make up for the cost of your treatments. Therefore, they have to spread the costs among others who are not receiving chemotherapy.

It's just math.

I also think it's great that there are no lifetime maximums under the Affordable Care Act. If you don't know, many health plans have historically had lifetime maximums of $1 million or $2 million. This means that once the plan has paid out that much on your behalf, they stop paying. Why do they have these provisions? They have them to that the insurer can limit its downside risk. It's good business practice. But they can't do it anymore. Since they are in business to make money (there's that nasty word again), they will spread the costs of not being able to impose lifetime maximums across all their customers. 

Again, it's just math.

Anyone who thought that the government could provide more and better insurance coverage for less money was either 1) delusional, 2) dreaming, or 3) not very smart. 

It's just math, and you, dear reader, should not be surprised.

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