Context is key for understanding Insurance Commissioner’s Affordable Care Act comments

Many people were surprised to see a story in the News & Observer today where Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin seems to be giving support to opponents of the Affordable Care Act. The article is about a letter that Goodwin sent to federal Health & Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell about problems in the North Carolina insurance market.

To understand the letter context is important. Commissioner Goodwin previously raised concerns about implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act with Sec. Burwell at a national meeting and she asked that he put all of his worries about the insurance market into a letter. This is not Goodwin’s broad thoughts on health reform. Instead it’s addressing immediate problems he sees for the stability of insurance companies and agents.

Another critical bit of context is that many of the stumbling blocks cited in the letter are the result of North Carolina not fully implementing the Affordable Care Act. By not establishing a state exchange and by declining to expand Medicaid, Commissioner Goodwin is left helping to steer a half-built car. Not surprisingly, we are hitting bumps. It’s understandable that while he is getting jostled the Commissioner is focused on the potholes. Insurance companies are upset that they are getting some unhealthy customers. Insurance agents and brokers are upset that insurance companies are limiting commissions. Consumers, especially those who don’t qualify for subsidies, are upset about rising premiums. All sides are demanding action from Goodwin but the state outsourced his authority to Washington, DC. That’s why he wrote the feds.

Having said all that, his letter is still perplexing. Perhaps he felt an alarmist tone was warranted because he wanted to get Washington’s attention. He notes, for example, that fewer insurance companies are offering plans now than before implementation of the Affordable Care Act. True enough, but many of those insurance companies weren’t even actively selling plans and had nearly nonexistent enrollment numbers. Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC wrote almost all of the individual insurance policies before the ACA. Now BCBSNC has seen it’s market share diminish as other companies offer meaningful competition.

It’s also true that BCBSNC reported a financial loss last year as medical claims increased by $1.4 billion from the prior year. But revenue at the company also increased $1.6 billion. Losses in Medicare Advantage plans and taxes produced a net loss for the company. It was, by the way, the company’s first year in the red in more than a decade. By their own admission this wasn’t surprising given the market uncertainty right now. That’s why BCBSNC maintains a comfortable reserve. Not many industries can claim such a unbroken stretch of profitability.

Also, North Carolina is nearing 600,000 enrollees in Affordable Care Act plans and our uninsured rate is dropping.

In sum, this letter is not the Insurance Commissioner’s considered opinion of health reform; instead it is a cry from the Commissioner that the state took his steering wheel and he could use a little help righting the car.

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