Where Healthcare’s Bare Bones are Buried

November 6th, 2013 by Phil Mattera

junk_insurancePresident Obama may very well have blundered in leaving out the nuances when he pledged during the Congressional deliberations over the Affordable Care Act that “if you like what you have, you can keep it.” Yet it would have been difficult to anticipate in 2009 that only a few years later the opponents of the ACA would succeed in creating an atmosphere in which much of the public has been made to believe that the government can do nothing right and the private sector nothing wrong when it comes to healthcare reform.

It is amazing how little attention is being paid to the insurance companies whose cancellation notices are what created the current furor over Obama’s supposed betrayal. These companies, with the encouragement of penny-pinching employers, created the substandard plans that must now be eliminated to comply with the minimum coverage provisions of the ACA.

One of the original culprits was Aetna, which in 1999—not long after merging with the controversial HMO pioneer U.S. Healthcare, introduced one of the first bare-bones plans under the name Affordable HealthChoices. The plan, put forth as way to reduce the ranks of the uninsured, was rolled out with the support of groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which were eager to have an alternative to greater government involvement in healthcare coverage.

Affordable HealthChoices was indeed more affordable than conventional insurance, but that was because it was full of holes.  At the time of Aetna’s announcement, the Wall Street Journal (5/4/1999) quoted consumer advocate Ron Pollack of Families USA as saying: “The bottom line for anybody who buys [this plan] is, ‘Don’t get sick,’ because if you get sick you are going to wind up with enormous bills.” Some states barred Aetna from selling the plans.

Another proponent of cut-rate coverage was Wal-Mart, which in the early 2000s, was putting its workers in plans with deductibles that were far above the norm and which excluded many kinds of preventive care. In many cases, the plans did not pay for any treatment of pre-existing conditions during the first year of coverage (Wall Street Journal, 9/30/2003). These provisions, along with premium costs that were difficult for many of the company’s low-wage workers to handle, prompted many Wal-Mart employees to turn to taxpayer-funded programs such as Medicaid. Nonetheless, Wal-Mart touted its high-deductible approach as a model for other employers.

Unfortunately, other companies followed Wal-Mart’s lead. By 2006 there were estimates that nearly one million people had enrolled in what were often called mini-medical plans, while millions more were in plans with more extensive benefits but high deductibles. Other major insurers such as WellPoint, UnitedHealth Group, Cigna and Coventry (now owned by Aetna) jumped into the market to sell what Consumer Reports has called “junk insurance.”

These companies targeted their bare-bones offerings not only at parsimonious companies but also at those with no employer coverage who turned to the individual insurance market, especially younger people more inclined to take a chance on getting by with catastrophic benefits.

Mini-meds contributed to the epidemic of bankruptcies among people with serious health conditions and helped drive home the reality that underinsurance was becoming as serious an issue as those who lacked coverage entirely.

This threat was highlighted by Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee, led by Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who held a hearing in late 2010 entitled “Are Mini Med Policies Really Health Insurance?” Sen. Rockefeller took special aim at the mini med offered by McDonald’s, which capped benefits at $2,000 per year. At the hearing several Aetna customers described how they were covered for only a small portion of their expenses when they had major health problems. For example, a woman who had to go to the emergency room when she lost feeling in one of her arms and ran up more than $16,000 in bills received only $500 in coverage from Aetna.

The ACA was designed to reduce the number of people in bare-bones plans, but the law did not call for their complete elimination. Insurers can no longer cap the dollar value of annual benefits, but strange as it sounds, larger employers can offer low-cost plans that exclude categories of coverage such as hospitalization and still qualify under the new law. In other words, the real problem may be that not enough policies are being cancelled.

Whatever falsity was involved in President Obama’s pledge does not begin to compare with the deception practiced by insurance companies and miserly employers when they make holders of bare bones policies think that they have something that deserves to be called coverage.

Note: This piece draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on Aetna, which can be found here.

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