A Virginia-based insurance company says “considerable uncertainties” created by the Democrats’ health care overhaul will force it to close its doors by the end of the year.
The firm, nHealth, appears to be the first to claim that the new law has driven it out of business. “We don’t know what the rules are going to be, and, as a start-up, our investors need certainty,” nHealth CEO and President Paul Kitchen told POLITICO. “The law created so much uncertainty that is beyond our control.”
Last week, in a letter to the company’s 50 or so employees, Executive Vice President James Slabaugh said nHealth has stopped accepting new group customers and will terminate all business by Dec. 31.
“The uncertainties in the regulatory climate coupled with new demands imposed by national health care reforms have made it challenging to sustain the level of sales required to remain viable over the long run,” Slabaugh wrote.
The company’s finger-pointing — first reported by the newspaper Richmond BizSense — must be read with caution: For years, employers and health insurance brokers have struggled to keep pace with steeply rising health care costs.
Asked about nHealth’s decision to shut down, a White House aide said, “It’s difficult to comment on this case without fully evaluating the company in question.”
The blame game — whether health reform can be held responsible for the continuing woes of an already struggling system — will very likely become a familiar plotline as the health overhaul takes effect and political parties vie for control of the narrative.
President Barack Obama dives back into the fray Tuesday, traveling to a senior center in Wheaton, Md., for a national tele-town hall on health care.
NHealth opened for business about 2½ years ago and was named in October 2008 one of the “Greater Richmond Companies to Watch” by a local business group. Kitchen estimates the company has about 100 small-business contracts providing policies to “thousands” of subscribers.
NHealth specializes in high-deductible insurance plans, meant to cover larger medical emergencies, that are paired with health savings accounts, the tax-deductible accounts used to pay for medical expenses.
HSAs have grown dramatically since they were authorized in the 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act. There were about 1 million enrollees in 2005. Now there are about 10 million, according to a May 2010 report from the industry group America’s Health Insurance Plans.
HSAs are a favorite of conservative health economists, who see the plans as a way to control costs by leaving spending decisions to individual consumers. Others have criticized the plans as discouraging cost-saving behavior such as preventive care.
In an interview with POLITICO, Kitchen said the impact of health reform on his business is twofold.
First, it created an uncertain future. With regulations yet to be written and rules constantly forthcoming, he said, “everything felt beyond our control.”
Second, Kitchen is apprehensive about a more regulated insurance market. The health reform law requires insurance companies to spend a certain amount of premium dollars on medical costs and, in many cases, bans lifetime limits on medical coverage. Kitchen said he was uncertain whether nHealth would be able to comply.
“The rules changed in the middle of the game,” Kitchen said. “We’re not willing to wander into that environment.”
The White House aide agreed that the rules will change, but in ways that benefit consumers. Stricter regulations will ultimately guarantee better coverage for subscribers. The medical loss ratio regulation, for example, will ensure that insurers spend a certain percentage of subscriber dollars on medical costs rather than administrative expenses.
“The Affordable Care Act sets new standards for insurance coverage that protect consumers and ensure they get the most for their premium dollar,” the aide said. “Insurers should have no problem meeting those standards, which do not require action until 2012. And starting in 2014, the insurance industry will have millions of new customers.”
Even without the health reform law, small health insurance firms were operating in a financially challenging landscape. Employers have become increasingly likely to consider dropping coverage as premiums have risen, according to annual surveys by the National Small Business Association. As far back as 2008, a Citigroup survey showed “more insurers were raising premiums at a faster rate than those who reported slowing increases,” according to a Wall Street Journal article at the time