Sunday, April 3, 2011

Self-Insurance Receives Seal of Approval

For the past several months I have been managing expectations about the content of separate reports on self-insured group health plans being developed by DOL and HHS. Or more to the point, I have preparing people for reports that conclude all sorts of awful things about self-insured plans. Not that I believe such anticipated criticisms are valid, but rather that it was obvious that self-insurance was “set up” to take a hit based on the PPACA legislative language mandating the studies, in particular the HHS study on the large group market. The stated objective of this study was to compare self-insured plans with fully-insured plans, which is fair enough. But Section 1254 instructs the HHS to investigate multiple perceived problems with self-insured plans while not including similar guidance for fully-insured plans, therefore essentially setting up a one-way fishing expedition. And by the way, this section along with the preceding section mandating the DOL report, were inserted at the last minute as part of the reconciliation process almost certainly at the request of the health insurance industry. So the fix was in from the jump. It has also been my view that there is a negative bias toward self-insurance within the regulatory agencies which would taint the review and reporting process. I say this based on fact that some key officials within these department have previously worked for members of Congress and/or think tanks that have been critical of self-insurance. My suspicion of such bias was heightened after a meeting with HHIS-contracted researchers who asked a series of very pointed about self-insurance that seemed to be “planted” by those with an interest in making self-insurance look bad. The researchers took a particular interest in what they termed “sham self-insurance,” translated to mean self-insured health plans utilizing stop-loss insurance with low attachment points. Now this line of questioning was easily dealt with of course, but we did get the impression that this could well be a situation where the agencies were digging for evidence to support pre-determined conclusions. But apparently there was not a thumb on the scale after all based on a review of the final reports that were released this week. So much for my prescient reputation! The main concern about the DOL report was that they would use bad and/or insufficient data to conclude there are solvency problems with self-insured health plans. But the agency acknowledged that they could not reach any policy conclusions due the lack of quality data. The HHS report appeared to be an opportunity for a host of self-insurance criticisms to be validated by the federal government. You know, the regular canards such as self-insured plans are less costly than traditional issuance because they deny lots of claims and offer skimpy benefits. But I am sure to the consternation of our friends at AHIP and others with market share or other motivations, the HHS report effectively refuted all of the common self-insurance criticisms by concluding little or no difference as compared to fully-insured plans. And for the icing on the cake, consider a little nugget tucked into an appendix of the DOL report which noted that from 2009 to 2010 for employers with more than 200 covered lives, the average fully-insured premium increased by $808 compared to an average increase of $248 for self-insured premiums. So instead of getting branded with a regulatory scarlet letter, self-insurance has effectively received a seal of approval. What an interesting turn of events.