Dual Perils Confront the ACA

June 18th, 2015 by Phil Mattera

scylla-and-charybdis-bookpalaceThe Affordable Care Act is a Rube Goldberg-like contraption based on both private-sector competition and government subsidies. Both of those elements are in danger of collapse.

The disappearance of the federal subsidies that enable millions of lower-income people to purchase the coverage they are now required to have is, of course, a possible outcome of an imminent Supreme Court ruling. It is mind-boggling that the King v. Burwell case, a brazen effort by diehard Obamacare opponents to exploit an obvious drafting error in the ACA, has gone this far and might actually succeed. It says a lot about the mangled state of public policy in this country that we see a front-page story in the New York Times about the growing panic among conservatives that they might win and be held responsible for the ensuing chaos. Apparently, they forgot there is a difference between taking meaningless votes in the House and bringing a case to a high court with a significant contingent of Justices inclined to take ideological posturing seriously.

Also at risk is the system in which private insurance carriers are supposed to compete against one another to provide coverage in the exchanges to their expanded pool of captive customers. In many places, that competition was not very robust to begin with, but now it may become even more diminished.

According to reports in the business press, the biggest for-profit health insurance companies are looking to gobble up their slightly smaller rivals. The Wall Street Journal says UnitedHealth Group has its eye on Aetna, which in turn is said to be exploring some form of cooperation with Humana, whose success in selling supplementary insurance to Medicare enrollees is attractive. At the same time, the Journal reports, Anthem has been in negotiations with Cigna, which is also said to be talking to Humana.

We can see where all this is going. Unless antitrust regulators show some backbone, the current private health insurance oligopoly could turn into a duopoly. The non-profit portion of the market does not provide much help. The 37 independently owned companies that make up the Blue Cross and Blue Shield network are increasingly inclined to divvy up markets and avoid competing with one another, according to lawsuits now pending in federal court. The litigation charges that the behavior of the Blues, some of which are controlled by for-profits such as Anthem, is driving up premium costs for customers while at the same time pushing down payment rates for physicians and other healthcare providers. These predatory practices threaten both the ACA and traditional employer-provided plans.

In the eyes of the Administration, the big insurers are the good guys. Initially suspicious of the ACA, the companies came to accept the law and even turned into major boosters. They embraced ACA’s Medicaid expansion component, seeing opportunities for managed care business in some states, and supported the Administration’s position in King v. Burwell. A SCOTUS ruling in the other direction would take a big hit on their soaring stock prices.

That’s where mainstream healthcare reform has left us — caught between predatory insurance providers on the one side and nihilistic ideologues on the other.

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