Friday, November 23, 2012

Michigan Health Care Claims Tax Fight -- Additional Rounds Ahead

It’s been a tough fight thus far in opposition to the Michigan Health Insurance Claims Assessment Act, which imposes a one percent (1%) assessment on all health care payers, including self-insured employers and certain business partners, for medical services rendered to Michigan residents in the state of Michigan.

As this blog has previously reported, business groups in Michigan signed off on the legislation last year noting it was part of a larger budget deal that was not as bad as possible alternatives.   ERISA preemption concerns were outweighed by the belief that self-insured employers could absorb the new tax without much disruption. 

Then in August of this year, a federal district court in Michigan dismissed an ERISA preemption lawsuit, which contended that the administrative obligations imposed by the Act are unlawful.    

Game over?  Well, not exactly.

An appeal of the District’s court ruling has just by filed with the Sixth Circuit Court Appeals and incorporates some very strong arguments to justify a reversal.  And this time, the self-insurance industry will have an unlikely ally in this legal fight – organized labor. 

What has not been widely recognized is that the tax applies to self-insured Taft-Hartley plans and the ERISA preemption argument is even stronger as it relates to these plans.   So it is a positive development that at least two Taft-Hartley plans are expected file amicus briefs next week. 

But while more pressure is being applied in Federal Court, things are heating back up in the Michigan State Legislature to make the tax significantly more onerous.

The Act was structured based on the assumption that it would raise $400 in annual revenue from all payers.   Of course, government budgeting is often suspect and Michigan bureaucrats have lived up to this reputation.  Through the first half of 2012, the state collected only $109 million from the health claims tax, which means the annualized estimate is short nearly $200 million.

So it should not come as any surprise that the Michigan Legislature is now considering a proposal during a lame duck session to significantly hike the tax.  SB 1359, introduced earlier this month, would allow for an unlimited and variable rate on the claims tax so that it would float up and down to ensure that the tax generates $400 million annually.  The bill would also eliminate the proportional credit/refund provision should the tax collect more than the $400 million target amount.

Interestingly, state business groups who provided tacit approval to the tax last year have now launched an aggressive lobbying effort to defeat the proposed 2.0 version.   We’ll see if labor groups join the cause. 

While it’s certainly encouraging that there is strong push back against SB 1359, the opposition remains focused on the economic argument.    Yes, this is clearly important but arguably not as important as the ERISA preemption issue.

We’ll concede that the most self-insured employers in Michigan have figured out how to comply with this new tax obligation, but multi-state employers will also tell you that if other states implement a similar tax scheme this would greatly complicate compliance efforts.  In turn, this could make the self-insurance option much less attractive – a particularly troubling development in the post-ACA world where self-insurance offers a critical safe harbor.

Look around.  Most states have budget challenges, especially as it relates to health care obligations.  If the Michigan tax withstands legal and legislative challenges then we should not be surprised if other states attempt the same approach.

So the stakes are high in Michigan as it is now ground zero in the ERISA preemption fight.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Captives & Dodd-Frank -- Hitting the Right Target

The recent announcement of an industry coalition to push for federal legislation clarifying that the Nonadmitted and Reinsurance Reform Act (NRRA), included as part of the Dodd-Frank law, does not apply to captive insurance companies certainly sounds like a positive initiative.  But despite good intentions, this blog is skeptical that it will acheive the desired result.

We have actually been tracking this issue for some time and is aware of discussions that have taken place with key congressional sources regarding the viability of a possible legislative fix (two conversations as recent as yesterday).  The consensus is that it could be done technically, but DC politics dictate that such an effort would be a heavy lift.

The political reality is that neither Democrats nor Republicans have the appetite to open up the Dodd-Frank Law for any changes at this point. 

Truth be told, congressional Republicans don’t want to do anything to help the law actually work, as this was a highly partisan piece of legislation, much like the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  The only way Republicans would be motivated to even consider amending the legislation is if such action would substantively lessen the administrative burdens on the banking industry and provide certainty to the business community, especially small business.

 Democrats, for their part, will be resistant to “technical amendment” legislation even if they support it in principle for fear that it would become a legislative vehicle where additional amendments would be grafted on with the intent of watering down the law.

And neither party wants to come back under fire from the powerful financial services industry lobby, which would surely happen if Dodd-Frank is opened back up – even for so-called technical fixes.   

But just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that legislation is introduced and some co-sponsors are lined up.  Does that mean success is any more likely?  Probably not.  To understand this assessment, we need to talk about the relative political power of interest groups in DC. 

While many of the larger lobbying organizations active in DC have the ability to block and/or shape legislation, there are far fewer who have enough political juice to get their own special interest legislation passed through Congress, no matter how limited. To be blunt, the captive insurance industry simply does not fit into this latter, more exclusive group.   

Finally, the country’s biggest captive domiciles simply do not have powerful congressional delegations with regard to insurance-related issues, which could potentially offset the deficiencies and complications described above.  That is not to say these members of Congress would not be forceful advocates, they simply are not positioned to move legislation envisioned by proponents of this approach.

So does all this mean that there will never be clarity relative to whether the NRRA applies to captives?  Well, it may not to come from Congress for the reasons we just explained, but it may come from federal regulators as part of the Dodd-Frank rule-making process. 

In fact, this avenue is now being actively explored by self-insurance industry lobbyists.   This strategy can best be described as a “surgical strike,” as opposed to an expensive and pro-longed “land war,” which the congressional route would surely become. 

We’ll see if the political operatives now engaged with the regulators can hit the target.  But at least an arguably clearer path has been identified.







Monday, October 15, 2012

Packaging Health Plan Fee Details for a Post-Election Launch

Self-insured employers have been waking up in recent weeks and months to the reality that they will soon be hit with new fees to finance a transitional reinsurance program provided for the in the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  But they are likely going to have to wait on the details until after the November elections.

As a quick refresher, the fees will be earmarked to capitalize reinsurance facilities in each state that serve as financial backstops for health insurance companies which offer individual coverage plans through public health insurance exchanges slated to come on-line in 2014.  Health insurance companies will also be subject to this fee.

What has caused some confusion is that the statute and a pre-curser rule finalized earlier this year references that third party administrators on behalf of self-insured plans will be responsible for paying the fee.   In private meetings over the summer, regulators clarified that it was not the intent that TPAs be financially liable for these fee, but rather they will be expected to assist in the collection of these fees from their clients.  Those details, along with the specific fee amounts, are still under wraps.

This blog has learned that an increasing number of large self-insured employers have been complaining directly to senior White House officials that the fee is fundamentally unfair because it helps to support the profitability health insurance companies, with no direct benefit for employers.  Responses have ranged from “we hear you but there is nothing we can do” to “there should be no complaining now because you (the employer community) signed off on this ACA provision during the legislative process.”

The former response is expected, but the latter response deserves some fact checking.

According to a source directly involved with drafting this section of the ACA, there is an interesting back story that is not widely known.  When legislative language was being developed, Democratic drafters did not understand the difference between independent TPAs with insurance company owned ASOs and did not understand that ASOs are typically separate business entities from their insurance company parents.

The reason why this is important is because ACA legislative drafters recognized that it did not make sense to impose fees on self-insured plans to subsidize insurance companies but they figured by referencing TPAs they would exclusively tap the fully-insured marketplace on the assumption that all TPAs were owned by insurance companies.

Only later in the legislative drafting process did they come to understand that many self-insured employers had no insurance company connection.  But by that time there was no turning back and there was no alternative to collecting the necessary revenue – all self-insured employers were going to have to pay.  No wonder that that the regulators have been slow with details on how this is all going to work.

So this brings back to the timing of when these details will be published.  Clearly if the Administration thought that employer community was going to be happy with the new rules, they would be released prior to Election Day.  But the best intel suggests that the proposed are done and are sitting right now at the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) awaiting a green light for release, likely shortly after election day.

The one positive detail is that the rules will be coming out in proposed form, so there will be an opportunity for formal stakeholder input -- just another thing to look forward to as we enter the holiday season.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Michigan Health Care Claims Tax May Just Be The Opening Bid

This blog has previously reported about the one percent health care claims tax that the state of Michigan has imposed on all payers, including self-insured group health plans.  We have also commented on the refusal of most within the employer community to support a legal challenge to the law, which should be preempted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

While one prominent Michigan employer has privately been a big financial supporter of this self-insurance legal defense initiative, the state’s largest employer organizations, as well as at least one major national association focused on ERISA preemption issues have been on the sidelines.

Now, it’s probably unrealistic to expect that the average self-insured employer will take the time to think about the longer term implications of ERISA preemption erosions.  Significant as these implications are, those employers are more concerned about the immediate financial implications.

 Fair enough.  Let’s talk about this shorter term perspective. 

 We have just learned from a very reliable source that the revenue collected so far this from health claims tax is much lower than projected -- so much lower, in fact, that the state Legislature will likely consider a proposal to raise it early next year.

 For employers who ran the numbers and determined that they could absorb a one percent tax, they should get ready to do a new set of calculations, perhaps on a yearly basis going forward, should a federal appeals court not strike down the law.  At some point it would seem that this health care tax could become an important factor as employers consider whether self-insurance is as cost effective as it otherwise would be,

 And in case you think this issue is contained to Michigan, think again.  Other cash-strapped states are watching how things play out in Michigan and at least some are likely to follow-suit if they believe such action will go unchallenged.

 When a camel gets its nose under the tent the occupants should not be surprised that the damage often cannot be contained.  For self-insured employers with workers in Michigan, they may soon learn this important lesson.






Saturday, October 13, 2012

Stop-Loss Regulation and the Coming Zombie Apocalypse

Key regulatory officials made some interesting comments about their interest in self-insured health plans utilizing stop-loss insurance at an American Bar Association event last week in Washington, DC

 Phyllis Borzi, assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Labor, said her agency is working on two ACA-required studies, one on wellness that is due in 2014 and an annual report to Congress on self-insured plans.

 “To try and help get information on self-insured plans, a couple of things have happened. Probably most recently what we asked for was we put out a tri-agency request for information (RFI),” Borzi said.

 George Bostick, benefits tax counsel at the U.S Treasury Department, said the RFI “produced a number of paranoid responses,” but Borzi then assured the audience that there were no ulterior motives to the RFI.

 “It is what it is. We don't have enough information, we think.. It's not like we have some hidden agenda, pro- or anti-stop-loss; we just want to find out what's going on out there,” Borzi said.

 Another panelist, Amy Turner, senior adviser and special projects manager in EBSA's Office of Health Plan Standards and Compliance Assistance, echoed Ms. Borzi's comments about the departments needing more information on stop-loss insurance and wanted feedback from a “broad group of stakeholders.”

 The departments are sifting through the comment letters responding to the RFI, but Turner said not to expect any stop-loss guidance in the near future.

 “To the extent that some people maybe saw the RFI and thought, ‘Oh my goodness! Is something like the zombie apocalypse going to happen?' I think we're just working on the comment letters. I wouldn't expect any major guidance from the departments very quickly on this,” Turner said.

 This blog will give Ms. Turner the benefit of the doubt that a zombie apocalypse is probably not in the offing regardless of any further regulatory action that may be taken.

 That said, the regulators will have to forgive the “paranoia” expressed by self-insurance industry stakeholders.  After all, the current administration has proven to be very adept at sidestepping normal legislative procedures and inclined to give the green light to regulatory agencies to test the bounds of statutory authority when political needs arise.

 Speaking of political needs, it’s worth reminding everyone of how the regulators explained the reason for the RFI.  The following is an excerpt from the RFI introduction:

 It has been suggested that some small employers with healthier employees may self-insure and purchase stop-loss insurance with relatively low attachment points to avoid being subject to certain consumer protection requirements while exposing themselves to little risk.  This practice, if widespread, could worsen the risk pool and increase premiums in the fully-insured small group market, including the in the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) exchanges that begin in the 2014.

 If, in fact, the regulars reach these same conclusions, is it reasonable to believe they will simply sit on their hands?  We’ll be sure to keep an eye out for zombies as these developments continue to play out just in case.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Summer of Stop-Loss

While this blog took the summer off, we have been keeping a close eye on the numerous developments related to stop-loss attachment point regulation.  Now that most of these developments have slowed down, at least for now, some exclusive reporting and commentary should be useful as those in the self-insurance industry (including those involved with employee benefit captives) take a collective breath.

 Pushed and prodded by a collection of health care reform advocates, federal regulators invited interested parties to submit written comments regarding the smaller insured group health plans facilitated by stop-loss insurance with “low” attachment points.

 About 150 comment letters have been submitted to date and the talking points are largely predictable. 

For the critics of self-insurance, the usual canards are widely repeated.  This request for information (RFI) process signaled a clear focus on self-insurance unlike anything that has been seen in recent years.  But the path forward remains unclear.

 That’s because the Affordable Care Act does not provide any explicit statutory authority for regulators to promulgate new rules relating to stop-loss insurance arrangements…yet that may not preclude action that could achieve the same objective.

 The HHS, DOL and/or Treasury Department (tri-agencies) could potentially rely on their general rule-making authority under ERISA or the Public Health Services Act, to play with definitions or to engage in other revisionist rule-making mischief.   The most likely scenario is that a new definition of a self-insured group health plan is crafted based on risk retention/risk transfer arrangements – thereby allowing the feds to indirectly regulate stop-loss insurance.

 So how serious is this potential threat?   The answer is complicated.

 In a private meeting with self-insurance industry representatives over the summer, a senior DOL official downplayed the prospects that any action is imminent or even likely, explaining that they felt the RFI was necessary for the agencies to get a better understanding of how the self-insurance marketplace operates in the real world.

 But conspicuously absent from the meeting, despite previously confirming their attendance, were senior HHS officials involved with the stop-loss RFI process.  This was notable because it is believed that HHS has the most aggressive regulatory agenda when it comes to self-insurance.  The Treasury Department was represented at the meeting but that agency has remained guarded about its interest and intent. 

 Any of the three agencies could initiate a rule-making process, but it is less likely if there is not a consensus among the three.

 So with that in mind, industry lobbyists have been making the rounds to congressional oversight committees to encourage that they become engaged on this issue and request that the agencies stand down now that the RFI process has been concluded and there is no “smoking gun” which would justify new regulatory action.

The most substantive meeting took place just a few weeks ago with the senior policy advisors for the Senate Finance Committee.  Given that the committee is chaired by Democratic Senator Max Baucus, who has been supportive of self-insurance in the past, it is best positioned to intervene.

The biggest push back by committee staffers was centered on the fact that the ACA does not require that self-insured employers cover essential health benefits (EHBs).   They argued that because of this “loophole” there is incentive for smaller employers to self-insurer, facilitated by stop-loss insurance with low attachment points, in order to be able to offer skimpy health care coverage as a way to save money.

Industry experts at the meeting, including executives from two leading TPAs, explained why this fear is unfounded for practical reasons.  It was then pointed out that while self-insured employers are not required to cover EHBs, they will be subject to “minimum value” requirements, which essentially accomplish the same public policy objective.

 But a final argument seemed to box in the Senate staffers.  Even if you concede the EHB “loophole” (which this blog does not), the fact is that the law was drafted in a very deliberate way to distinguish self-insured group health plans from health insurance carriers.  In this regard, any proposed changes should come back to Congress in the form of legislation as opposed to letting unelected regulators arbitrate substantive policy issues.

 The discussion was concluded with a formal request that Chairman Baucus consider exercising the committee’s oversight authority and communicate to the Treasury Department accordingly.   We understand that the request is still under consideration, so be sure to check back with this blog for updates.

Of course, the focus on self-insured plans with stop-loss insurance extends beyond Washington, DC. 

Many of our friends at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), have been led by the nose over the past year by health care reform advocates to take action on making it more difficult for smaller employers to self-insurer through tighter stop-loss attachment point regulation.

 At the NAIC summer meeting held a few weeks ago in Atlanta, the ERISA (B) Working Group considered a proposal to endorse “guideline amendments” to the current stop-loss insurance model act related to attachment point requirements. 

 Clearly aware of the blowback that would be directed at the NAIC if it took aggressive action that was seen to be disruptive to the health care marketplace, Working Group Chair Christina Goe of Montana tried to diffuse concerns by explaining the proposal is only advisory in nature and that the NAIC does not intend to formally amend the model act for a variety of procedural reasons.  And for good measure, committee members made it clear that they did not overstep their charge and attempt to redefine stop-loss insurance as health insurance.

 Well, it is certainly nice to hear this self-awareness of the limitations to their “charge,” but multiple federal court rulings have already confirmed that stop-loss insurance cannot be defined as health insurance, so no real favor here.

 And as far as considering a guideline amendment versus an amended model act, it’s a distinction without a meaningful difference.

 Of the 26 states that currently regulate stop-loss attachment points, only a few have adopted the model act without variation.  So it is unlikely that an amended model act would take root across the country any time soon.   No matter, as a simple NAIC recommendation on how states should regulate stop-loss attachment points could accomplish the same objective (restricting the ability of smaller employers to self-insure) much quicker.

That is because individual insurance commissioners who are already inclined to push stop-loss legislation in their states will use the NAIC recommendation as justification for action.  Given the technical nature of this issue, it’s easy to understand how this would be enough to persuade most state legislators to go along without asking too many questions.

 The NAIC working group deferred action on the proposal until its winter meeting, which in hindsight was predictable because insurance commissioners, like all political creatures, normally put off major policy decisions when Election Day looms.  Let the dust settle after November 6 and get ready for more action.

This brings us to California.

 As this blog has previously reported, the state’s insurance commissioner, Dave Jones, is a political creature who is interested in beefing up his credentials within the Democratic Party.  So it should not be surprising that he has come out as a major proponent of health care reform, and more specifically the establishment of California’s health insurance exchange, which is expected to come online in 2014.

 Self-insurance therefore became a target for political reasons every bit as much as for misinformed policy reasons in order for Commissioner Jones and his allies in the Legislature to claim credit for protecting the viability of the state’s health insurance marketplace as the exchange begins to be implemented.   A nice populist message for sure.

 One health care broker in California perhaps summed it up best when he referred to SB 1431 as the “California Health Insurance Exchange Protection Act of 2012.”

 Now that it has been confirmed that SB 1431 has been shelved, at least until a special session this December, we can look at the past as prologue.

The same stale arguments are certain to be dredged back up when some version of SB 1431 is brought back for consideration after the November elections, and the political posturing will be predictably crass.

 Equally unfortunate is that many stakeholders who will oppose SB 1431 “2.0” will likely concede the central principle once again of whether stop-loss attachment points should be regulated at all and immediately begin negotiating the numbers and formula.   Yes, political realities often dictate short term lobbying strategies based on compromise, but the longer view should not be ignored in this case.

It’s been a long hot summer for stop-loss insurance indeed, which has ended without much certainty for the future of the self-insurance marketplace.    We will see whether the coming autumn chill cools off the debate or if partisan health care reform advocates continue to overplay their hand.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Feds Stop-Loss Insurance Fishing Expedition

While the push to restrict the ability of smaller employers to obtain  stop-loss insurance continues to play out in California (see two previous blog posts), the feds are taking a closer look at how the availability of stop-loss insurance facilitates the growth of the self-insurance marketplace, and what that means for health care reform implementation.

This focus was confirmed last month when the HHS/DOL/Treasury Department, known collectively as the “Tri-Agencies,” issued a formal Request for Information (RFI) about stop-loss insurance.  The specific questions are largely objective but the preamble clearly states that the RFI has been prompted by concerns that employers may dodge health care reform requirements by self-insuring and obtaining stop-loss insurance with low attachment points.  They also cite the ubiquitous adverse selection criticism.

Nothing new here in terms of the policy debate, but it’s probably useful to put this RFI into some sort of meaningful context and preview potential outcomes.

Flashing back to 2009 as health care reform legislation was being developed in Congress, early drafts included restrictions on the ability of employers to self-insure based on size.   There were enough moderate Democrats, principally in the Senate, however, to block such proposals from being incorporated into the final bill.  But the self-insurance story does not end there.

Congressional critics of self-insurance, presumably prompted by traditional health insurance industry lobbyists, were able to slip in provisions at the eleventh hour requiring federal studies on self-insurance.  This effectively allowed for a second bite at the apple on restricting the self-insurance marketplace through federal action in some form in response to perceived abuses and/or adverse effects on broader health care reform objectives.

Powerful interest groups, vocal consumer protection advocates and influential policy-makers are now pushing regulators to take that second bite for reasons that are largely fictional, but resonate nonetheless.

It’s not yet clear if the current Tri-Agencies’ fishing expedition is simply being done to satisfy health care proponents’ demands that the self-insurance industry be more closely investigated and that the regulators are conducting good faith due diligence without a pre-determined outcome.

The alternative theory is that the Tri-Agencies already have some regulatory action in mind and are using the RFI process to justify new federal rules.   This of course begs the question of what specific action could this be?
Let’s explore this.

The ACA clearly distinguishes stop-loss insurance from health insurance.  Moreover, it does not provide federal regulators with explicit statutory authority to impose additional requirement and/or restrictions on self-insured group health plans. 

The conventional understanding of separation of powers dictates that should the regulators conclude that the self-insurance marketplace needs to be regulated differently than what is provided for in the ACA, they should make such recommendation to Congress so that this can addressed through the legislative process.   But that’s not going to happen according to well-placed congressional sources.

The more likely scenario is that the federal agencies with jurisdiction over the Public Health Services Act (PHSA), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and ACA will rely on their general rulemaking authority given to them under these respective laws to justify creative rulemaking that would restrict the availability of stop-loss insurance and/or make other changes to federal law that adversely affect the self-insurance marketplace.

In fact, the Treasury Department breached its statutory authority just six months ago when the IRS proposed a rule that would let people get subsidies to buy health insurance through a federal exchange although the legislative language specified that that the subsidies could only be used for state exchanges.   This happened to be a drafting error, but Treasury decided to take the liberty of asserting congressional intent.

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee cried foul.  In a letter to to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman wrote “I am concerned that if finalized these rules would exceed your regulatory authority, violating the Constitution’s separation of powers.”

The rules were promptly finalized.  Sadly, this illustrates the power of the federal bureaucracy even in the face of potential blowback from Congress.

When asked pointedly this week about his view regarding limits to statutory authority as it relates to self-insurance/stop-loss insurance, a key Democratic Senate staffer responded that he believes the regulators have “general authority to prevent abuses.”  He added that such issues are “better addressed in the regulatory process.”

Should the Tri-Agencies correctly conclude that the self-insurance marketplace effectively regulates itself already and therefore no further federal intervention is needed, then perhaps this congressional source had it right. 

Of course in the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court will have its own say on the separation of powers, which could silence both the bureaucrats and the legislators on health care reform…at least for now.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Stop-Loss Insurance Regulatory Developments Spill Over into the Captive World

The regulation of medical stop-loss insurance has long been on the radar screen of those involved with self-insured group health plans, but more recent developments should rattle the cages of many captive insurance industry service providers as well.

This convergence of interest relates to employee benefit group captives structured for health care risks, which arguably is the fastest growing segment of the alternative risk transfer marketplace.  The reason for this growth, of course, is that small and mid-sized employers are clamoring for solutions to better control the cost of providing quality health benefits for the their workers. 

And taking a longer view, the potential premium volume associated with health care risks could easily eclipse premium volume connected with P&C-related liability if the captive insurance marketplace figures out how to effectively respond to market demands.

But unless smaller and mid-sized employers are able to operate self-insured group health plans, captive insurance solutions are moot.  That’s because individual self-insured employers are the essential “building blocks” for the viable variations of group captive structures.  For these structures, individual employers must obtain separate stop-loss insurance policies, either from a stop-loss carrier or direct from the captive.  If employers cannot access stop-loss policies with appropriate terms, the employee benefit group captive model explodes.

That threat is at our doorstep so it is important that captive insurance industry leaders fully understand what is happening and why.

This blog has been reporting for some time about how stop-loss insurance with lower attachment points has attracted negative attention from state and federal regulators.  Most recently, we commented how developments in California (see previous blog post) portend a new round of attempts to restrict access to stop-loss insurance across the country by smaller employers…again, the key components for group benefit captives.

It is important to note that while SB 1431 in California only applies to stop-loss policies sold to employers with 50 or fewer employers (small group market definition), the Affordable Care Act provides that states may apply to redefine the definition of small group market up to 100 employees in 2014, which California and many other states will most certainly do. 

In addition to regulatory encroachments at the state level, federal regulators are now taking a closer look at stop-loss insurance, which could result in additional restrictions.  This blog will be commenting on these federal developments in more detail soon, so be sure to check back to understand what is happening in Washington, DC.

As an aside, there seems to be confusion about what health care reform (and its potential repeal) means for the captive insurance in a general way so we’ll try to quickly cut through the fog.   The ACA does not directly create nor suppress any captive insurance opportunities but there are some indirect connections.  

Health care reform has had the effect of driving up health insurance premiums, thus prompting more interest in self-insurance and potentially group captives as we have discussed.  There may also be opportunities for captives to provide financial backstops for Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) as provided for by the ACA.

The potential for increased stop-loss insurance regulation is another indirect effect of the ACA, but it is the most important development to watch.  Most everything else is really just “white noise” with regard to the captive insurance marketplace.

And by the way, the regulatory focus on stop-loss insurance is likely to continue even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the entire health care law this June, so this industry concern has shelf life regardless of the judicial outcome.

So what to do?   In short, pay close attention to these developments and be receptive to opportunities to advocate for the ability of smaller employers to purchase stop-loss insurance without artificial attachment point restrictions and/or other inappropriate regulatory hurdles.

Those opportunities are almost certain to come.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

California Previews NAIC’s End Game for Self-Insurance

In case you had any doubt about the end game the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) has in mind for self-insurance nationally, you simply need to look at what is happening on the left coast.

Legislation is now moving through the California State Legislature that would impose new regulations on stop-loss insurance in such a way that would effectively eliminate the ability of companies in that state with 50 or fewer employees from self-insuring their group health plans.  It does this by prohibiting stop-loss carriers from providing coverage with specific attachment points below $95,000 and inserting other regulatory hurdles, including a provision stating that stop-loss insurance cannot discriminate in providing “coverage” to plan participants.

We had heard rumors that Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones was developing proposed legislation with a $40,000 minimum specific attachment point requirement.  That would have been bad enough, but a highly charitable interpretation of such development could conclude that Commissioner Jones’ motive was simply to support common sense health care marketplace regulation.

Such a motive is highly suspect of course, but the fact that he chose to push an attachment point requirement that is more than three times higher than that of any other state is clearly a brush back pitch to the self-insurance industry, to use a baseball analogy.

And Commissioner Jones did not throw this pitch without direction from the dugout.  The NAIC coaching staff likely sent him the signal to bring the heat in order to set the stage for other states to do likewise.  California makes for the perfect stalking horse due to its size and political composition of the Legislature which is generally hostile to the interests of the state’s business community.

We should also note that the word on the street is that Commissioner Jones is using his position as a stepping stone for higher public office and is looking for political fights to burnish his image as a serious player. 

While the weather is generally nice in California, a perfect storm of legislative and regulatory mischief is indeed brewing.   And such a storm could be coming to your state next.

So what’s behind all this focus on self-insurance?  There are two primary influences at play.

First, it cannot be overstated how much is riding politically for the Obama Administration and many others within Democratic Party establishment at both the federal and state level regarding the successful implementation of state health insurance exchanges as mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

As part of this obsession they are trying to stamp out any possible complication and have now latched on to the theory that the growth in the number of smaller self-insured group health plans will create adverse selection in the health care marketplace and therefor will threaten the viability of the exchanges when they come online in 2014, absent the law being overturned by the Supreme Court.

(This blog and other publications have previously addressed why this conclusion is a canard, so we won’t revisit the rebuttal analysis now.)

Armed with this concern, proponents of the ACA have positioned the NAIC to ramp up its efforts to clamp down on the ability of employers to self-insure. 

While industry observers have been fixated on the NAIC ERISA & ACA Work Group over the past year as it has been looking at updating its stop-loss model act - which presumably would bump up attachment point requirements - this blog is starting to think a little misdirection is at work here.

Sure, the NAIC could at some point come out with an updated model act that would not be favorable to the self-insurance industry but this is slow process.  Moreover, keep in mind that these are just suggested laws that each state would need to individually adopt.

It seems more clear that while this model act development process slowly plays out and keeps everyone’s attention, the NAIC, through individual insurance commissioner proxies, will simply “bum rush” the self-insurance industry with legislation like what has been introduced in California.

And just in case these insurance commissioners do not feel sufficiently motivated by NAIC orthodoxy, the health insurance industry is happy to provide the necessary nudge, which is the second factor in play on why self-insurance (via stop-loss insurance) is in the regulatory crosshairs.  It’s no secret that health insurers are concerned about losing market share in the small group market and they are enthusiastically parroting the adverse selection argument to justify new regulation. 

The fact that many insurance commissioners and/or the governors receive political support from the health insurance industry should also not be overlooked when making the circumstantial case that collusion is taking place among very powerful policy-makers and interest groups to restrict the ability of employers to self-insure.

Granted, California’s legislation is targeted at smaller employers, which a small segment of the overall self-insurance /alternative transfer marketplace.  But make no mistake, the end game of the NAIC is too strangle this marketplace in every way it can and limited encroachments left unchecked will likely lead to more existential threats.  Those involved with risk retention groups (RRGs) can certainly attest to this observation.

It’s important to understand this as the industry determines how it intends to position itself so it is not on the receiving end of any more brush-back pitches.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Self-Insurance Industry Can Learn By Example in the Political Influence Game

This blog has commented previously about how the self-insurance/alternative risk transfer industry needs to get its act together if it wants to exercise the same amount of political power in Washington, DC as many other industries of comparable size.

If you need to be convinced of this conclusion, you may want to take notice of legislative
developments related to whether broker commissions will be excluded from health insurer medical loss ratio calculations in accordance with the Affordable Care Act.

A few months ago, HHS determined that broker commissions would not be carved out of MLR calculations. This prompted the brokers to ramp up their political efforts in Congress to pass legislation to override the HHS final rule.

To put a finer point on this description, the brokers have been making more political
contributions and showing up in Washington, Dc to press their case with key members of Congress.

As of today, the political action committee sponsored by one of their trade groups is more than five times as large as the PAC supporting the self-insurance/ART industry. Another broker trade group expects to have nearly 1,000 members come to Washington, DC for a dedicated lobbying event.

This activity has produced initial success. The Access to Professional Health Insurance Advisors (H.R. 1206), originally introduced in the House last March, now has nearly 180 co-sponsors. A companion bill (S. 2068) has now been introduced in the Senate and has attracted bipartisan

While it still remains a heavy lift to pass significant legislation in an election year, the brokers have made solid progress by any objective standard. The self-insurance/ART industry could learn by example.

Self-insurers and captive insurance companies have good stories to tell for sure, but that is not enough to have real political influence in Washington, DC.

This blog estimates that about five percent of those individuals active in the self-insurance/ART industry directly support political advocacy efforts that would directly benefit their business
interests. Such political participation rate is certainly much higher among the brokers -- and we have illustrated their return on investment.

Clearly, expectations would be different if the self-insurance/ART industry did not have the necessary financial and human resources to leverage significant political influence.

But it does.

The NAIC's Identity Crisis

So just who is the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC)? Apparently the answer depends on particular circumstances. This has actually been the case for some time,
but more people seem to be paying attention now because of the organization’s “mission creep” at both the state and federal level.

Case in point is a February 28, 2012 letter from Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) to NAIC president Kevin McCarty and CEO Therese Vaughan requesting clarification of exactly how this collection of insurance regulators is defining themselves.

Rep. Royce’s interest was sparked by recent press reports that the NAIC is re-branding itself
as a “standard –setting” organization rather than a private non-profit organization, as it has previously cited its 501 ( c) (3) status to distance itself from exercising any regulatory authority, thereby enabling the NAIC to sidestep open meeting and Sunshine law requirements.

While there have been grumblings about NAIC’s organizational structure and status for some time, it is now getting more attention largely because of the establishment of the Federal Insurance Office and health care reform implementation requirements, which have more
clearly exposed the NAIC’s activist nature.

So let’s explore the NAIC’s identify crisis a bit.

It is on record stating that “when individual insurance commissioners gather as members
gather as members of the NAIC, they are not considered a governmental or public body, but rather are a private group. As an organization, the NAIC does not have any regulatory

Well, I guess the validity of this statement depends on how you define the term authority.
While technically true that the NAIC cannot mandate state compliance with any
“standards” it develops, such authority is effectively exercised indirectly through the organization’s accreditation program.

Another interesting observation is that 501 ( c ) (3) organizations are generally restricted
from engaging in political or lobbying activities. But apparently the NAIC does not feel
confined by the U.S. tax code as it regularly dispatches lobbyists to the U.S. Capitol to influence members of Congress on insurance-related legislation.

They certainly have been engaged in an ongoing effort to kill or neuter legislation designed
to modernize the Liability Risk Retention Act. Their most recent objections include
giving the Federal Insurance Office any oversight responsibility with regard to RRG regulation and the establishment of federal corporate governance standard for RRGs.

In related news, the NAIC represented itself as a “standard setter” on insurance issues in a
recent friend of the course brief to the Maine Supreme Court involving premiums charged for health insurance. As part of its brief, the NAIC said it had the right to participate because ‘through the NAIC, state insurance regulators establish standards and best practices, conduct peer review and coordinate their regulatory oversight.”

Rep. Royce concludes his letter by asking NAIC officials to respond to three specific questions:

1. What is NAIC’s status? Is it a trade association? Is it a formal part of “the national system
of state-based insurance regulation in the U.S..”? If so, why did it (a) testify to Congress,
when asked specifically about its status, that it does not “hold ourselves out as some kind of …national regulatory system”; and (b) insist to NCOIL that is not considered a public body” and “does not have any regulatory authority”?

2. Does NAIC agree that as a self-described “private group,” it may not “regulate in the field
of interstate commerce”?

3. As a 501( c ) ( 3) non-profit corporation, does the NAIC not file a Form 990, a routine financial statement for non-profits, with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)? If the NAIC has been formally exempted by the IRS from filing this information, please provide written documentation of this exemption, and explain why the NAIC feels it necessary to keep this disclosure from public scrutiny.

We look forward to seeing the NAIC’s response and will report on it accordingly. In the
meantime, this blog can report that there is no record of the NAIC filing 990 reports.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Kathleen's Pregnant Pause

“I’m not sure that is going to work,” commented House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton.

Fellow committee member Rep. Phil Gingrey chuckled later as he asked out loud “So, what is she talking about? Here’s the bill, pay it – that’s what they do.”

These pointed comments were prompted in response to testimony delivered by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius during a March 1 committee hearing on the Administration’s evolving policy on health plan contraceptive coverage requirements for religious institutions.

Ms. Sebelius began her testimony by explaining that organizations affiliated with religious institutions would not have to cover contraceptives if they objected on grounds of conscience.
Instead, insurers would be required to offer birth control free of charge to the employees of those organizations.

So what about self-insured religious organizations (of which there are many)?

After pausing to consider the question, Secretary Sebelius replied that the organizations’ third party administrators might be enlisted to provide contraceptive coverage.

Of course, TPAs are not insurance entities and therefore by definition cannot provide “coverage” for anything. Same issue for ASO providers event though they are connected to insurance entities. These are inconvenient facts to be sure.

But not to worry, as Secretary Sebelius reassured everyone that the department would reach out and “have dialogue with folks”before proposing a rule in the near future.

Perhaps there should have been some “folks” in the room when this health care reform plan was hatched in the first place.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Separating Self-Insurance Facts From Fiction

Note: The following commentary appears in the February 20, 2012 edition of Business Insurance Magazine as part of its special spotlight report on self-insurance for the middle market.

Small and midsize companies are looking at self-insurance as a cost-effective health care benefits solution as Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act deadlines approach. Michael W. Ferguson serves as chief operating officer for the Self-Insurance Institute of America Inc., looks at facts and myths surrounding the decision to self-insure.

As more smaller and midsize companies look to self-insurance solutions to control escalating group health care costs in the wake of passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, this proactive risk management approach has attracted increased negative attention from traditional health insurance industry and state regulators who warn of various calamities.

Of course, this criticism is largely predictable, as health insurance carriers are worried about market-share erosion, and state regulators don’t like the fact they cannot directly regulate self-insured group health plans because of Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) pre-emption. Nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out some of the more frequently repeated canards in order to help clear up any confusion this may cause for employers considering self-insurance.

But first the disclaimer: Self-insurance is not the best option for every employer, regardless of size. In fact, it could be a very bad option based on a variety of considerations. In this regard, it is highly recommended that employers engage in the same type of thorough due diligence they would rely on for any other major financial decision.

That said, let’s jump in and separate some important myths from realities.

Perhaps the most unfortunate allegation is that a primary motive for many employers to self-insure is that they can escape regulation, raising consumer protection concerns. While it is true that self-insured plans are not subject to state benefit mandates, there is no evidence to suggest that self-insured employers scrimp on covered benefits. In fact, it is widely acknowledged that self-insured plans incorporate more robust coverage terms for key health services because they have the ability to customize their plans to meet the specific needs of their employees.

And for employers switching to self-insurance since the passage of PPACA, they don’t evade any new substantive federal regulations—except those specifically geared for commercial health insurance carriers—because, by definition, they would establish “non-grandfathered” plans.

The reality is that self-insured employers actually subject themselves to more regulatory requirements because they are governed by ERISA, which prescribes strict federal rules for plan fiduciaries, among other requirements designed to protect the interests of plan participants.

Some critics also claim that self-insured health plans are more cost-effective because they deny claims at a higher rate than fully insured plans. But in a report issued by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services last year, HHS-contracted researchers from RAND Corp. concluded that there is no evidence of such disparity.

Then there’s the belief that self-insured plan participants pay higher premiums than their fully insured counterparts. The available data does not support this conclusion, either.

As part of a U.S. Department of Labor report on self-insured health plans released last year, Deloitte Financial Advisory Services L.L.P. and Advanced Analytical Consulting Group, Inc. found that from 2009 to 2010 for employers with more than 200 covered lives, the average per employee premium contribution to be covered by fully-insured plans increased by $808 compared to average increase of $248 for self-insured premiums.

Most recently, influential academics and public policymakers predicted that such self-insured plans would contribute to adverse selection when insurance market reforms are fully implemented, suggesting that employers would switch back and forth between self-insured and exchange-offered plans based on their claims experience on a yearly basis.

That’s a nice conspiracy theory for sure, but it does not match up with marketplace realities. The fact is that due to ongoing administrative and compliance requirements, employers cannot simply switch their self-insured plans on and off.

Moreover, once an employer transitions to a fully insured health plan, it loses possession of claims data, which makes it more difficult to re-establish a self-insured plan in the future regardless of other considerations.

Claims data is arguably the most important health plan asset, as it can help employers control future health plan costs and can be used to customized plan design details. Giving up this asset over one bad claim year is not a decision to be taken lightly by plan sponsors.

The health care marketplace is certainly evolving, creating shifting roles for self-insurers, commercial health insurance companies and public sector payers. All three industry segments contribute in different ways to ensure that coverage is as available and affordable for the widest population possible.

Those who disseminate misleading information about any of these segments do a disservice to the ongoing public dialogue on how to improve the country’s health care system.