An ACA Tweak: Miracles Happen

Just when you thought Congress and the White House were officially incapable of agreeing that the days of the week actually end with the letter “y” they come up with a surprise — a tiny sliver of light that penetrates the cynical gloom in which most Americans shroud Congress. Lawmakers today passed legislation that amends the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Yes, that’s not a misprint. Congress amended the ACA.

It wasn’t a major change, more of a tweak, but a change nonetheless. Specifically, both chambers of Congress passed the Protecting Affordable Coverage for Employees Act (H.R. 1624). The legislation allows states to set the definition of “small group” as opposed to being required to adopt the definition set in the ACA. HR 1624 is on its way to President Barack Obama’s desk for his signature. Given the strong support in Congress (it was passed by unanimous consent in the Senate) I’m optimistic the President will sign HR 1624 into law. <I’ll update this post when the President acts>

What’s going on here? As far as the substance of the bill is concerned: currently, the small group market covers companies up to 50 full-time equivalents (“FTEs”). Small groups are subject to a host of requirements under the ACA concerning plan design, pricing, medical loss ratio, and more. Large groups (currently defined as companies with 51-or-more FTEs are subject to different regulations. (Full time equivalents is a measure that takes into account part-time employees when calculating a company’s size under the ACA).

On January 1, 2016 the definition of “small group” is changing to include companies with 100-or-fewer FTEs. This is going to result in substantial changes for these companies — more than a few of those changes of the unpleasant variety. Some carriers are averaging 35%-to-40% rate increases in this market segment. A company of 51-to-100 FTEs will find fewer plan options and other limitations at which they are likely to chafe.With the enactment of HR 1624, many companies will now be able to remain in the large group market. (To be fair, there’s some benefits to being considered a small group that these companies may regret missing out on, but overall most brokers I talk to report that their impacted clients would like to avoid entering the small group market).

In practice, HR 1624 doesn’t change the definition of small group under the ACA. It simply allows states to set their own definition: think of it as permitting state preemption of the federal definition.

Consequently, HR 1624 may or may not matter. States may decide to move forward with the redefinition of small group to companies with up to 100 FTEs (California is a state likely to take this position). Your state Association of Health Underwriters chapter will be a good source for learning what your state is doing.

What’s going on here politically is even more interesting. Allowing states to set their own definition of what is a small group is the kind of tweak that’s supposed to happen when Congress passes complex legislation. In the old days after passing something like the ACA, Congress and the Administration would work together to refine the law into something less burdensome and more effective. That’s what HR 1624 does, but getting it this far was no easy task. It took a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Washington (that’s a phrase becoming increasingly rare) and the urging of many business and industry groups like the National Association of Health Underwriters to push the bill over the line.

Which is why, while the substance of the law is significant, what’s most significant is that the law passed Congress at all. The current Congress is not known as a “can-do” group of folks. Getting them to agree on anything meaningful is a Herculean task. That they came together on the Affordable Care Act is newsworthy — they usually prefer to use health care reform to bludgeon one another about the head. For this Congress at this time to make any change to the ACA is remarkable.

The passage of HR 1624 is remarkable, but not unprecedented. Congress, for example, previously removed an onerous provision of the ACA that would have required businesses to issue 1099s to any vendor they spent $600 with in a year. Everyone realized that was silly and they repealed the provision. So enactment of HR 1624 is not unprecedented.

It is, however, welcome and remarkable.


Health Care Reform the 2016 Where’s Waldo

At this time in 2011, six months before the Iowa caucuses, health care reform was a big deal. Republicans couldn’t see a live microphone without calling for its repeal. And one would think that the official name of what was commonly referred to as “Obamacare” was “the President’s signature issue” in his first term. Flash forward four years and health care reform is now the “Where’s Waldo” issue of 2016: it’s there somewhere, but darn well hidden.

True, every candidate on the GOP wants to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. They are all happy to haul out the old tropes about how the ACA is a job killing, anti-free market, mess and a government overreach. Many will be happy to explain how it’s all unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, every candidate on the Democratic side is defending the ACA, although some more enthusiastically than, well, at least one. Candidate Bernie Sanders has promised to introduce “Medicare for all” legislation (a euphemism for single payer) soon and would seek a single payer solution were he to become president. Yet even on the Democratic side, the topic of the ACA is pretty well hidden in their campaigns.

In fact, a quick survey of campaign web sites shows a remarkable lack of emphasis on health care reform by presidential candidates. On the Democratic side, health care reform doesn’t make the issues list on the campaign web sites of former Governor Martin O’Malley or Senator Bernie Sanders. Defending the Affordable Care Act is the ninth issue addressed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s web site.

On the Republican side Donald Trump is too busy bullying his opponents and the press to mention any issues other than immigration on his site. Health care reform makes Dr. Ben Carson list of issues, but he devotes just 98 words to the topic — and the only alternative he mentions is his support of health savings accounts. Former Governor Jeb Bush’s site is nearly issues free (there’s a white paper on his tax reform plan in the “news” section, but there is no “issues” tab). I couldn’t find anything about health care reform on the site. Then, I couldn’t find the issue (or any issues) on Carly Fiorina‘s or Senator Ted Cruz‘s sites, either.

Governor Scott Walker announces his intent to repeal Obamacare on his first day in office. And although I couldn’t find it on his web site, to his credit Governor Walker has offered a plan to replace the ACA. Senator Marco Rubio gets around to discussing health care reform on his web site after first mentioning 17 other issues while on Governor John Kasich‘s site it comes in at #3.

Given all that’s going on the world, it’s not surprising health care reform isn’t a driving issue. Which is remarkable. Health care reform arguably gave birth to the Tea Party movement. It cost Democrats the majority in the House in 2010 and helped chip away at their Senate majority until that was lost, too. In short, health care reform moved elections.

Now, not so much. The ACA is a part of America’s landscape now. Too many people are insured under the law to repeal it. Too much physical, digital and process infrastructure has been built out. Too many stakeholders are vested in the ACA continuing and opponents of the reforms have no coherent program to replace it.

This isn’t a bad thing. Because it opens up a real possibility that, once there’s a new President and Congress in 2017, they can accomplish something important: fixing the Affordable Care Act. The law has lots of flaws, but the debate since it’s passage has too often been an all-or-nothing affair: dump it or defend it. Yes, there’s been some tweaking around the edges of the legislation, but not the comprehensive review and modification that’s needed.

Finding Waldo can be hard. Finding a way forward to improve the ACA will be harder still. If little kids can find Waldo, perhaps there’s hope that what passes for adults in Congress can find common ground to improve the ACA. That’s still a long shot, but perhaps a bit more possible now than just a year or two ago.

Brokers Object to Zenefits’ Comparison for Wrong Reason

Zenefits recently launched a new marketing campaign and some brokers are going ballistic. What’s interesting is that brokers are angry for the wrong reason.

Zenefits is not an innovative company. Take its sales proposition: make us your employee benefits broker of record and we’ll give you free HR software. Clearly the folks behind Zenefits eat a lot of Cracker Jack—a company that has been offering a prize in every box since 1912. Or maybe one of their parent’s got a free toaster for opening a checking account. Free toasters for consumers opening a checking account was considered cutting-edge marketing back in the day–the day being some time in the 1960s. That Zenefits has applied this technique to employee benefits is hardly the innovation their cheerleading investors claim.

No surprise then to see Zenefits reach back into the dusty advertising time capsule for another “new” idea. This time they emerged with the ageless and oft-seen “direct competitor comparison” technique. This is where one company compares their services against those of a particular rival. Car companies, satellite TV providers, car insurers, aspirin manufacturers and dozens of others have been doing this for years. Now Zenefits has jumped on board this ageless bandwagon. Again, not what I would call innovative. And in this case, not very effective, but, as we’ll see, clever.

Successful competitor comparisons depend on carefully selecting the comparison criteria. For example, Zenefits doesn’t compare themselves to community-based brokers based on knowledge of the local market or availability for face-to-face meetings (because Zenefits would look bad). Nor does Zenefits address obtaining an employer’s payroll company log-in information providing access to what your typical identity thief would sell a parental unit to see (hint: that would be Zenefits being creepy).

No, Zenefits stacked the comparison in their favor and some of those being compared are claiming foul. Yet, I believe they’re missing the point of what Zenefits is doing. In reality, I don’t think brokers have much to fear by Zenefits’ latest marketing scheme.

First, most consumers know these kinds of comparisons tilt in favor of the one doing the comparison. Shoppers will likely discount the credibility of what they see. Second, clients are not going to leave a particular broker because of a comparison buried deep inside Zenefits’ web site. If a broker loses a client because the employer miraculously stumbles across this comparison, that client was heading for the door anyway.

Zenefits knows this … and they don’t care. I don’t believe they created these hundreds of comparison pages (maybe thousands, I got tired of counting) to steal business away from these agencies. They created the comparison pages to improve their search results (known as search engine optimization or SEO).

The exact algorithms used by Google, Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo and other search engines to determine the order in which sites appear on their results pages are secret, but the general ideas are well understood. One popular technique is to provide legitimate links to multiple sites all focusing on a relevant subject matter. When shoppers use key words associated with that subject matter the search engines associate the linking site and move them up the results page.

That’s why each Zenefits comparison page includes the web address of each compared agency. That’s hundreds (or thousands) of legitimate links to sites that address health insurance and other employee benefits. From an SEO-perspective, this a tsunami of positive associations.

An added benefit for Zenefits, although not nearly as significant, is that eventually they may appear on the first result page when shoppers search these agencies by name. Will shoppers see this link and choose Zenefits over the broker they were searching for? Not often, if ever, but it can’t hurt. And that this will royally piss-off (to use the technical marketing term) those brokers may warm the cockles of Zenefits’ management’s heart – a group who has demonstrated little respect for traditional brokers.

Some of the brokers on the Zenefits web site complain that the comparison is unfair and violates some code of ethics.True, the comparisons are blatantly unfair and cheesy, but seem within the bounds of generally accepted advertising techniques (or tricks, if you prefer).

Many of these complaining brokers are strong advocates for a free market. Zenefits’ management are capitalists taking advantage of that free market. Big deal. Even Zenefits probably doesn’t think this latest marketing ploy will take much business away from the agencies they’ve picked on. I believe its the improvement to their search results that made the effort involved worthwhile to them.

So what should independent brokers do? Offer your clients the kind of HR software Zenefits offers. (Full disclosure, my company, Take44, will be launching NextAgency soon – a platform that allows brokers to provide clients with free HR administration similar to what Zenefits does).

While waiting for NextAgency, fight fire with fire (or, in this case, unfair comparisons with unfair comparisons). Do your own competitive comparison and post it on your web site. This comparison should focus on your strengths and Zenefits’ many weaknesses. Remember, as Zenefits has demonstrated, a neutral comparison is optional. Posting this comparison will not only make you feel better, it will help your own search engine optimization.

You can help your SEO even more by publishing articles online that link back to your web sites. Or by creating an agency site on LinkedIn or the like. The more sites that link to your site, the less likely Zenefits will make an appearance on your results page.

In short, don’t get upset with Zenefits for playing an old-fashioned advertising card. Trump them with your own marketing. That, after all, is how free markets work.

No on Proposition 45

As you know, this blog has been—and remains—on hiatus. I’m playing around with reviving it down the road, but before I could even think that idea through, a California issue has arisen that compels me to write something now. That issue is Proposition 45. There’s a long and storied history in California of great sounding initiatives that harbor devastating impacts. Proposition 45 is one of those and that’s why it needs to be defeated on November 4th.

Proposition 45 is Unnecessary

Proposition 45 supporters claim it will lower costs by simply requiring the California Department of Insurance Commissioner to approve rate and benefit changes to individual and small group medical plans before they take effect. (Large group coverage is exempt and untouched by Proposition 45). Whether this would actually lower rates or not is an open issue. After all, insurance rates are driven by a host of issues—the cost of medical care, new technologies and drugs, an aging population and changing demographics, increasing rates of chronic conditions—none of which are addressed by Proposition 45.

Regardless of its intent, Proposition 45 is late to the lower-premiums party. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the “ACA”), often referred to as ObamaCare, already requires carriers to spend a specified percentage of the premium they take in on medical services and related expenses. This mechanism acts to prevent the price gouging Proposition 45 proponents claim is rampant in the industry.

That Proposition 45 is unnecessary is reason enough to vote no on the initiative. But it’s far worse.

Proposition 45 Gives too Much Power to One Politician

Proposition 45 doesn’t create a single payer system; it creates a single overseer system. By explicitly giving the Insurance Commissioner authority over rates and benefits, Proposition 45 gives this elected official implicit power over everything relating to health plans in California. This includes what treatments carriers cover—or don’t cover, what doctors and hospitals are in—or out—of a carrier’s network, what insurers spend on marketing and distribution, and virtually everything else but what colors are in the carrier’s logo. And a creative Commissioner could probably find a way to control that as well.

The ability to leverage explicit powers to expand control over other items isn’t idle conjecture. I’ve seen it done in other contexts. In fact, I did this kind of thing in another context. When I served on the Santa Monica City Council we used our authority over zoning to extract all sorts of concessions from developers. For example, while we didn’t have explicit authority to require a developer to set up a job training program in the city, leveraging our power over zoning exceptions we got it anyway.

The power given the Insurance Commissioner by Proposition 45 is unprecedented—and dangerous. For example, while the Commissioner oversees insurance companies, HMOs are regulated by the Department of Managed Health Care. Proposition 45, however, allows the Commissioner to overrule a DMHC decision concerning an HMO’s rates. Or benefits. Or network. Or anything else.

Covered California is the state agency running the medical exchange in the state setup pursuant to the ACA. In that role Covered California negotiates with participating carriers over rates and benefits. Under Proposition 45, however, the Commissioner (or, as we’ll see, virtually anyone else) can object to the deals reached by Covered California. The result, discussed below, could be catastrophic for California’s health insurance exchange.

So long as we continue to elect human beings to public office no politician should be given such unbridled power. The temptation to misuse it (even in the name of all that’s good and just) would overpower a saint. And to my knowledge, there are few politicians who have been up for sainthood.

Here’s an interesting fact: every elected California Insurance Commissioner but two have run for higher office. One of the exceptions, Chuck Quackenbush was indicted and resigned the office. The second, the incumbent Dave Jones, simply hasn’t had the time yet. Commissioner Jones will be reelected this Tuesday and is widely assumed to be eyeing a run for Governor, Senator or Attorney General at the next opportunity. The post of Insurance Commissioner is a stepping stone, not a destination.

There’s nothing wrong with political ambition. But it does mean almost every decision made by an office holder is at least partially a political one. The calculus facing an Insurance Commissioner when reviewing a carrier’s rate submission is pretty straightforward. At the next election does the Commissioner want to run ads bragging about the hundreds of millions of dollars they saved voters or does she want to give her opponent ammunition to call her a tool of the evil insurance companies? In the political world, regardless of party affiliation, this choice is as close to a no brainer as politicians are legally allowed to stand. The market isn’t always a perfect pricing mechanism, but it’s far preferable to a political one.

Proposition 45 Will Create Chaos and Confusion

Some 35 other states require state regulators to approve rate changes. None of them, however, have an “intervener” system like that contained in Proposition 45 (or gives such extensive power to a single politician). Proposition 45 enables “consumer advocates,” lawyers and others to object to carriers’ rate actions. Once their intervention is accepted by the Commissioner, these interveners can earn $675 per hour for their efforts. A similar provision in Proposition 103, which dealt with auto and home insurance, has earned the authors of that initiative millions of dollars since its passage. No wonder they included a role for interveners when they drafted Proposition 45.

The extremely lucrative intervener provisions in Proposition 45 are virtually guaranteed to result in costly and frequent objections. Which means rate and benefit changes could be delayed months. Under Proposition 103, the average rate filing subject to intervention takes 343 days … over 11 months. Given that health insurance is not the same as property & casualty coverage this is extremely troubling. Timely decision-making is even more important with medical coverage than homeowner and auto policies.

If anything remotely close to these delays were to result from Proposition 45 the result would be chaos and confusion. Here’s a nightmare to consider: the premium subsidies available individuals in Covered California’s individual exchange is based on the cost of a specific plan (the second lowest cost Silver plan for those interested). What happens if, after this linchpin-product is identified, priced and in place, an intervener objects to its rates? What would the premium subsidy be based on then? What plans would be available in the exchange?  It could, and I believe probably would, take months to decide.  And by then open enrollment in the exchange could be over.

Think of the opportunities for mischief. Want to undermine the ACA? Wait until the last-minute and then object to the plans and rates negotiated by Covered California. No wonder the Board of Covered California have expressed their dismay about the damage Proposition 45 could do to their program.

Broad Opposition to Proposition 45

And the Board of Covered California (who took no formal position in opposition to Proposition 45) are not the only ones concerned about Proposition 45. The roster of Proposition 45 opponents is broad and impressive.

Earlier this week House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi voiced her opposition to Proposition 45.telling the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle, “If I wanted to kill the Affordable Care Act, I would do this.”

Minority Leader Pelosi joins the California Medical Association, the California Hospital Association, the Service Employee International Union of California, the California State Conference of the NAACP, the Small Business Majority, the California Association of Health Plans and a host of others in opposing Proposition 45. Significantly, the vast majority of newspapers in the state are opposing the initiative as well, including the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, U-T San Diego and the San Francisco Chronicle.

As are the major agent and broker organizations: CAHU, NAIFA-California, IIAB-Cal and WIAA have come together to form Agents of Action. This is a grassroots effort to generate 100,000 No votes on Proposition 45. The strategy is by harnessing the efforts of brokers throughout the state to educate and motivate their clients, colleagues, friends and family on why it’s important to defeat Proposition 45. (Full disclosure, I’ve played a leadership role in Agents of Action).

If you’re a broker in California, please check out the web site at, download the tools available to you there and get your network out to the polls on November 4th to vote No on Proposition 45. As Agents of Action emphasizes, Proposition 45 is bad for you and worse for your clients.

Of course, the important thing to do is vote. Too many have given too much for us not to live up to our responsibilities.

And, hey, when you do vote, please vote No on Proposition 45.

Initial Response

It’s going to take some time to dive into the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision on the constitutionality of provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The opinion is now online for those who wish to wade through it. Here’s my initial take:

1. As noted in my first post today, the individual mandate isn’t much of a mandate, but the principle of a mandate could have brought down the entire health care reform package. It didn’t, but that doesn’t mean the individual mandate, as written, will have the impact supporters of the PPACA intend. The only thing that’s new today is that this provision of the law can now be described as a “tax.”

2. Chief Justice John Roberts makes clear that he believes an individual mandate would violate the Commerce Clause. However, because he interprets it as a tax, that observation is important, but doesn’t effect the outcome. The other four Justices in the majority (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan), in a separate opinion, stated their belief an individual mandate is constitutional. However, in order to form a majority they’ve signed off on Chief Justice’s Robert’s interpretation. So while having four members of the Court interpret the Commerce Clause this way is significant to legal scholars and could impact the future, for now it’s immaterial.

3. The four Justices dissenting from the majority opinion (Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito) would have found the entire PPACA unconstitutional. Chief Justice Roberts often sides with this group of colleagues. He made history by parting ways with his more conservative colleagues. Justices might have lifetime tenure on the Court, but it still took courage for the Chief Justice to make this decision.

4. Politically, this decision is a two-edged sword for both presidential candidates. The Administration’s key domestic accomplishment has been upheld. The Administration can now move forward to implement the health care reform package without the cloud of court decisions making their work meaningless. But the President’s key domestic accomplishment is also one of his greatest liabilities in the upcoming election. The PPACA remains unpopular. Many Americans (including four Supreme Court Justices) believes it’s an unwarranted expansion of federal power at the expense of personal liberty. This decision will only flame the passions of those who take this view, meaning they’ll be going to the polls in November with one goal in mind: elect a President and Congress that will repeal the PPACA. Will supporters of the bill be as motivated and engaged? Not likely.

5. Just because the PPACA is constitutional does not mean we’ve seen the final version of the law. Congress will amend health care reform. Agencies (both federal and state) will interpret it. The PPACA is complicated and open to significant interpretation. The upcoming election will determine how much the law will change, not that it will be changing.

6. The PPACA accomplishes a lot of good things: increases access to coverage, provides some useful and meaningful consumer protections, takes the first steps needed to begin constraining health care costs, and more. The PPACA also botches a lot of important things: it will not make coverage more affordable, it doesn’t go far enough to constrain escalating health care costs, and more. Lawmakers owe it to their constituents to revisit the law and make some substantial changes. This doesn’t mean Democrats have to follow the GOP’s demand to repeal the law nor does it mean Republicans have to cave to the administration. But both sides need to recognize that the PPACA is the law of the land. Barring a GOP super-majority in the Senate come 2013, the PPACA is not going away. So responsible leaders will try to make it the best law possible.

7. The Court majority made clear an individual mandate is not justified by the Commerce Clause or the Necessary and Proper Clauses of the Constitution. This will have an impact on other social welfare efforts Congress might consider. Needing to fund expansion of the safety net through taxes is a tough political and practical challenge.

8. However, there were four votes to uphold the PPACA under the Commerce Clause. Which underscores the importance of this November election. Presidents appoint Supreme Court Justices. All of the Justices four of the Justices upholding the law under the Commerce Clause were appointed by Democrats. All four of the Justices voting seeking to overturn the law were appointed by Republicans. The Chief Justice shows that not every appointment votes in the way one would expect based on the party of their appointing President. And two of the liberal Justices joined with conservatives and agreed that the Medicaid expansion included in the PPACA was unconstitutional. But the fact is, the appointments of Republican Presidents tend to be more conservative; those appointed by Democrats tend to be more liberal. At least one, and maybe more, vacancies will open on the Supreme Court in the next four years. Who is President matters.

9. The Supreme’s decision on the Medicaid provision of the health care reform law will be interesting. In essence, a 7-2 majority said the law went too far in threatening to withhold Medicaid funding to states who refuse to expand Medicaid eligibility to those at up to 133% of the federal poverty level. They ruled the federal government can withhold the additional funding promised in the PPACA to pay for this expansion, but they can’t take all Medicaid funding away from non-participating states. Put another way: states have the ability to opt out of the Medicaid expansion. Given the importance of this expansion to reduce the uninsured, this is an issue President Obama and his allies in Congress will need to address. As noted above, the health care reform debate is far from over.

10. While watching the news about the decision, an ad by Concerned Women for America with a vicious (and somewhat inaccurate) attack on the PPACA aired on CNN. The upcoming election will be about the economy, but health care reform will be a major factor as well.

7. People who predict what the Supreme Court is going to do and how they are going to do it are making wild guesses. Pundits take another blow.

So, I don’t pretend to have any special insight on the meaning of the Court’s decision today. But my mother misses these posts so I thought I’d return to the keyboard again. I’ll try to write a more thoughtful piece later today or in the next few days. In the meantime, please let me know your thoughts on all this.

And the Winners Are … Maybe

According to SCOTUSblog, the winners are the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the administration of President Barack Obama and the individual mandate … as a tax. But as Amy Howe of that blog notes “It’s very complicated, so we’re still figuring it out.” Chief Justice Roberts joined with the more liberal members of the Court to find the individual mandate (such as it is) constitutional.

So, bottom line: the PPACA is upheld. Yes, the Medicaid provision that allows the federal government to terminate state’s Medicaid funds if they fail to expand coverage to 133% of the federal poverty level is limited a bit through a strict reading of the provision, but the bottom line is the bottom line: the PPACA

The sky is not falling as of yet. The Republic survives. And the Chief Justice, appointed by President George W. Bush (not Justice Anthony Kennedy) is the swing vote. Few predicted that one.

The critical quote, again as reported by SCOTUSblog (which, really, anyone reading this as it’s written should just move over to that site) is “Our precedent demonstrates that Congress had the power to impose the exaction in Section 5000A under the taxing power, and that Section 5000A need not be read to do more than impose a tax. This is sufficient to sustain it.” Section 5000A being the individual mandate.

I’m Just Sitting on a Fence

Hello. As you may have noticed, this blog has been dark a lot longer than the month or two I thought it would be. But what’s 10 months among friends? I haven’t made it back to regular blogging because things at SeeChange Health have simply been too busy. We’ve launched statewide in California back in September, have grown very consistently since then (thanks to all of you supporting our approach to health insurance) and we’re waiting on regulators in Colorado to begin selling there. All of which has kept me away from this blog.

But how can I ignore what’s happening in Washington today? With the U.S. Supreme Court ready to announce their decision in just a few minutes, I thought I’d return for one more day of comment. So like much of the industry, I’ll be tuning in to SCOTUSblog for their live coverage and I’ll be back to provide whatever insight I can add as soon as the Supremes do their thing. Later tonight I’ll try to offer a more considered evaluation.

One quick observation first: what’s amazing about all this is that the Supreme Court’s decision concerning the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will be based on the constitutionality of the individual mandate. A provision that, in practical terms, is hardly a mandate at all. The fine/tax/penalty/whatever-you-want-to-call-it in the PPACA is so modest as to be all but meaningless. Yet whether a mandate in concept (if not fact) is constitutional will have tremendous impact.

As far as predictions go? I’m with the Rolling Stones on this one: “I’m just sittin’ on a fence You can say I got no sense Trying to make up my mind Really is too horrifying So I’m sittin on a fence.”

Be back soon.

Where the Heck Have I Been?

My apologies. It’s been too long since I wrote a post here and I haven’t left word as to why and what’s up.

First, my absence is not because there isn’t a lot to write about. On the contrary, what’s going on with health care reform is both fascinating and diverse. Rather, I simply haven’t had a chance to carve out the time necessary to write about the many things that are happening. I’ve tried, often unsuccessfully, to make this blog a resource that provides a perspective on health care reform developments, a perspective that takes what’s evolving and makes sense of it in some way that isn’t always available elsewhere. After all, there are a lot of resources out there on the topic. I wanted to provide something different. The downside of acting on this desire, however, is that it takes more time than simply linking to other sources, and time has been in somewhat short supply of late, for reasons described below.

The second reason for my absence is a change in my occupation. In this blog I’ve sought to present a broker’s perspective on health care reform. Yes, I’ve held many positions in-and-outside of the insurance industry. When I started writing I was (again) leading an insurance agency. Subtitling this blog “Health Care Reform From One Broker’s Perspective” was both accurate and appropriate. Even when, a  few years ago, I became a consultant the subtitle felt comfortable. Yes, I worked with carriers, agencies and others. And I wa no longer actively selling health insurance. But I remained active in working with brokers. I wrote a book on sales, spoke frequently before audiences of brokers. And I remained active in Health Underwriters. In short, I still felt like a broker. As most brokers who read this blog know I’ve worked hard over the years to educate the public and decision makers about the value we bring to the system. And when discussing brokers and what we do, it still feels more natural saying “we” than “they.” So I kept the subtitle.

Now, however, my job has changed. One of my clients, a carrier named SeeChange Health Insurance, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. They have offered me an opportunity to help build and launch not only a new carrier, but a new approach to health coverage. Value-based benefit plans focus on the “health” in health insurance, providing financial incentives to members who take specified actions to take care of themselves and identify chronic conditions before they blossom into serious problems. This, it seems to me, is how health care coverage should work. The opportunity to be a part of the first carrier whose entire product portfolio provides this kind of benefits on a fully-insured basis to small and mid-size groups was irresistible.

Which brings me to the third reason I haven’t posted anything here of late. I’m too much of a broker to pretend that assuming a leadership role at a carrier is incompatible with calling oneself a broker. I may be bringing the attitudes and outlook of the brokerage community into this insurer (and SeeChange Health is, not surprisingly, both broker-friendly and broker-centric), but that doesn’t mean I can do a blog discussing “health care reform from a broker’s perspective.” By necessity, the nature of this blog has to change.

For example, I need to be sensitive to the fact that when I criticize carriers (either specific ones or as a group) I’m no longer viewed as an observer or broker, but as a competitor or participant. Or that when I talk about how carriers in general approach issues of importance to public policy or commissions, there will be a tendency for readers to think I’m speaking for or about SeeChange Health. Or when I challenge some brokers on one issue or another some are likely to perceive my response as “typical of the way carriers think.”

The need to rethink the nature of this blog coincided with the requirement that I devote considerable effort and time to launching a new venture. (Although we’ve launched in only one state, for now, when that state is California we’re talking about a big state). As a result I’ve been away from the blog for several weeks.

I confess I miss the place. I’ve enjoyed deep dives into the issues surrounding health care reform and I’ve learned a great deal from those of you who have taken the time to comment on this blog or been kind enough to introduce yourselves at various speaking engagements. And I do intend to return to more regular postings, starting in September. Yes, this blog will change–a bit. (It will definitely need a new subtitle for one thing). I hope, however,  the community we’ve built here will remain and even grow.

I look forward to continuing our dialogue. Soon.

HHS to Pay Brokers for Enrolling Consumers in Federal High Risk Pool

Should brokers be compensated for helping consumers to enroll in government programs like the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan (PCIP) created by the new health care reform law? Until now, the federal government’s answer has been “no.” That changed today and a significant precedent is being set.

The National Association of Health Underwriters announced today that, beginning no later than October 1st, licensed agents and brokers will be paid a flat fee of $100 per enrolled applicant. (Payments could begin sooner if the changes to the application can be done more quickly).

This fee will only apply to the high risk pools set up by the federal government for the 23 states who declined or were unable to do so plus the District of Columbia. Many, if not most, state-run exchanges already pay brokers for assisting their citizens in enrolling in their pools. According to NAHU the average state-based fee is $85 per enrolled applicant.

In announcing the change, the Department of Health and Human Services noted the greater enrollment success achieved in states pools that compensate brokers for their work. As stated in the Department’s press release: “This step will help reach those who are eligible but un-enrolled. Several States have experimented with such payments with good success.,”

The decision to support and work with brokers is part of the Department’s efforts to increase enrollment in the PCIP high risk plans by removing administrative hurdles and lowering premiums. In fact,  in 18 of the states, premiums will be coming down as much as 40 percent according to a press release from HHS.

The PCIP was designed to provide coverage to individuals unable to obtain health insurance in the private market due to existing health conditions. 18,313 Americans have enrolled in the federal high risk pool through March 31st, a fraction of the 5 million consumers expected to enroll in the program (fraction as in “0.4%).

Progress usually comes in small steps, not giant leaps. The significance of HHS recognizing the value brokers bring to America’s health care system—and their willingness to pay for that value—should not be underestimated. For example, the House of Representatives will soon conduct a hearing on HR 1206, the legislation to remove broker compensation from the medical loss ratio calculations required by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Proponents of this law will be able to point to the recruitment efforts of HHS in support of the federal Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan to reinforce the need to keep brokers in their role as consumer counselors and advocates in the new health insurance world being created by the PPACA.

NAHU and other agent organizations worked hard to achieve this recognition. No doubt, however, some brokers will protest that the HHS program pays brokers only a one-time fee. This complaint is misplaced. Enrollment in the PCIP is fundamentally different than working with consumers shopping for coverage in the commercial market. The PCIP is, after all, a government health plan, more similar to Medicaid than to plans available on the open market. Further, enrollees in the high risk plan, by definition, cannot obtain traditional coverage. What’s significant is not the details of the compensation (although it is worth pointing out that HHS is setting the fee higher than the average paid by states), but the existence of compensation for enrolling Americans into a federal health plan.  When it comes to precedents, this is one that can aptly be described as “significant.”

States and Health Care Reform

Health insurance has long been a state affair in the USA. Insurance companies were even exempt from many aspects of federal anti-trust law to better enable state regulators to oversee their activities. Yes, there were federal laws that standardized certain aspects of the business—think HIPAA and COBRA. Think about Medicaid, Medicare and SCHIP while you’re at it. But when it came to health insurance regulation the states reigned supreme.

Enter Congress and President Barack Obama stage left. With the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act the federal role in shaping and regulating health insurance shifted significantly to Washington, DC. The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services is now arguably the most important health insurance regulator in the country. The Department of Labor and Internal Revenue Service will also play significant roles in determining the future of the nation’s health insurance market and the choices (or lack of choices) Americans have to meet their health care coverage needs. No wonder critics of the PPACA condemn the law as a “federal takeover.”

That the nexus of health plan oversight has shifted to the federal government is beyond argument. The new health care reform law touches everything from how medical plans are designed, priced, offered, maintained and purchased. To conclude that state insurance regulators are shunted to the sideline, however, dangerously overstates the case. In fact, the PPACA invests tremendous flexibility in the states, allowing them to implement the federal requirements in what will likely be very divergent ways.

Rebecca Vesely, writing in Business Insurance, makes this clear in her article describing how two states, Vermont and Florida, are taking strikingly different paths in addressing health care reform. Vermont has taken the first step toward creating a single payer system by 2017. Legislation to set up a five member board to move the state in this direction has already been enacted. And while many details need to be worked out (funding, to name one) and Vermont will need to obtain a waiver from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to put the package together, the state is further down the road to single payer than any other.

Then there’s Florida where the move is in the opposite direction. That state is seeking to shift virtually all of its Medicaid population from government coverage into private plans starting in July 2012. These private managed care plans would be offered through large health care networks with health plan profits above five percent shared with the state. Whether this approach will achieve the $1.1 billion in first year savings promised by the Governor or not, it has brought new participants into the Medicaid marketplace such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida.

The Business Insurance article includes a prediction by Boston University law professor Kevin Outterson that the Obama administration will sign off on the waivers Vermont and Florida need to move forward.

What the starkly different approaches to reigning in skyrocketing health care costs being taken by Florida and Vermont demonstrates is the broad flexibility states retain in shaping their own health care destiny. Yes, federal waivers are required, but that would be the case even if the PPACA had never passed—Medicaid is a federal program after all. The CMS web site lists 451 state waivers or demonstration projects in place today. The concept of allowing experimentations and exceptions is ingrained in the Medicaid program just as they are in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. There’s nothing wrong with this any more than having shock absorbers on a car is an indictment of an automobile’s chassis or tires.

The marked variation in approaches being taken by Vermont and Florida are extreme examples of what we’ll see as states implement exchanges and other aspects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Of course, whether this is good news or bad news depends a great deal on the state in which you live and work. States that are heavily tilted toward one party or the other (I’m looking at you California and Wisconsin) could make some of their residents yearn for the federal government to step in and keep things in perspective. Given the way the PPACA preserves state powers, however, they are going to be disappointed.