Researcher: Discourage Small Groups from Reinsuring

A health law specialist says states can keep small employers with younger, healthier employees from abandoning the insured plan market in 2014 by limiting the small employers’ ability to self-insure.

Mark Hall, a public health law professor at Wake Forest University, makes that argument in a commentary in the new issue of Health Affairs, an academic journal that publishes articles about the finance and delivery of health care.

The latest issue includes many articles on how the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA) might affect small groups.

PPACA is supposed to start requiring health insurers to sell small group coverage on a guaranteed issue, community-rated basis starting in 2014.

If the law takes effect on schedule and works as drafters expect, some small employers will be able to use federal tax subsidies to buy coverage through a new system of health insurance distribution exchanges, and, in some cases, small employers’ employees may be able to use tax subsidies to buy individual coverage through the exchanges.

Today, many small employers hold down coverage costs by buying plans with high deductibles or limited benefits. PPACA will put limits on small employers’ ability to use benefit design to hold down costs, because PPACA will require insured plans to cover at least 60% of the actuarial value of a standardized “essential health benefits” package, Hall says.

PPACA does not provide any new subsidies for individuals paid over 400% of the federal poverty level, or about $89,000 per year, or for small employers with many highly paid employees.

PPACA requires insurers to spend 80% of small group revenue on health care and quality improvement efforts, but the law sets no limits on small group rates.

The PPACA small-group community rating rule may help small employers with sick employees get cheaper coverage, and it might reduce insurers’ administrative costs, but it gives small employers with younger, healthier employees an incentive to try to avoid subsidizing the insurance of employers with older, sicker employees, Hall says.

“Community rating, along with other [PPACA] market reforms, will founder or fail, however, if younger or healthier groups can easily avoid reforms by self-insuring,” Hall says.

“Self-insurance threatens not only the integrity of market regulations but also consumer protection,” Hall says. “For example, stop-loss coverage is not subject to any requirement of guaranteed renewability. Nor can self-insured employers use normal appeals channels for coverage denials.”

Many employers that self insure, and most small employers that self insure, use stop-loss arrangements — insurance for health plans — to limit their exposure to catastrophic losses.

Hall says states could keep small employers from leaving the insured small group market by banning stop-loss for small employers, limiting the comprehensiveness of stop-loss coverage, or applying the same rules to stop-loss coverage that they apply to the primary coverage. North Carolina already regulates small group stop-loss programs the same way it regulates ordinary small group health insurance, Hall says.

“This regulatory approach preserves small employers’ ability to select either purchased or self-funded insurance,” Hall says. “Its main effect is to ensure that the choice is not driven principally by the group’s risk profile or the employer’s desire to avoid health benefit regulation.”

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