Politicians and members of the press are keenly interested in premium rates for Affordable Care Act Marketplace plans next year. Lawmakers want to use insurance prices as a cudgel on the campaign trail and the media knows that talk of premium spikes will attract attention.
That’s why reporters were interested in the announced enrollment statistics for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina on Friday. The resulting coverage noted that BCBSNC enrollees were older and sicker than the company expected. In the race to make political hay out of these numbers there are a few points to keep in mind.
First, approximately 91 percent of ACA plan enrollees in the state receive a subsidy to purchase coverage. For this population premiums are capped as a percent of income. If, for example, you earn 150 percent of the federal poverty level then you will need to pay 4 percent of your household income for an ACA plan regardless of how premiums behave. Unless your income changes, you will pay the same rate next year.
Second, an older risk pool is not a major driver of premiums. Insurance companies certainly need younger and healthier enrollees to balance out payments for customers who use a lot of medical services. Still, as Kaiser Family Foundation has pointed out, even if insurers miss the mark substantially, this less healthy risk pool will only have a 1 or 2 percent impact on premiums. The primary drivers of premiums continue to be underlying medical costs and negotiated payment rates to providers.
Third, insurance companies have an interest in talking up their bad risk and steep medical costs. Insurance companies are, after all, companies. They want to set rates as high as the market will allow yet they also have to justify premium hikes to regulators. So, if they begin preparing the public for large premium increases the companies can then blame older and sicker enrollees for the requested boost in rates. Insurers also use the poor risk pool when negotiating with hospitals to explain cuts in payments for certain services. This is not to impute ill will to the insurance companies. It’s just how the game is played.
The risk pool mix, premium increases, and changing medical costs are all critical policy issues. We must restrain the rise in health care costs because, in the end, we all pay for our unnecessarily overpriced system. But when you hear that ACA Marketplace premiums will increase next year keep this context in mind.