Finally! A staunch insider spills the beans on 'recission' and 'purging' among other health insurance industry tactics for leaving the insured out in the cold and sopping wet (despite industry blankets and umbrellas).
There may be hope for the HIZzers yet!
Here are a few highlights:
A few months after I joined the health insurer CIGNA Corp. in 1993, just as the last national health care reform debate was underway, the president of CIGNA's health care division was one of three industry executives who came here to assure members of Congress that theywould help lawmakers pass meaningful reform. While they expressed concerns about some of President Clinton's proposals, they said they enthusiastically supported several specific goals.
Those goals included covering all Americans; eliminating underwriting practices like pre-existing condition exclusions and cherry-picking; the use of community rating; and the creation of a standard benefit plan. Had the industry followed through on its commitment to those goals, I wouldn't be here today.
Today we are hearing industry executives saying the same things and making the same assurances. This time, though, the industry is bigger, richer and stronger, and it has a much tighter grip on our health care system than ever before. In the 15 years since insurance companies killed the Clinton plan, the industry has consolidated to the point that it is now dominated by a cartel of large for-profit insurers.
The average family doesn't understand how Wall Street's dictates determine whether they will be offered coverage, whether they can keep it, and how much they'll be charged for it. But, in fact, Wall Street plays a powerful role. The top priority of for-profit companies is to drive up the value of their stock. Stocks fluctuate based on companies' quarterly reports, which are discussed every three months in conference calls with investors and analysts. On these calls, Wall Street looks investors and analysts look for two key figures: earnings per share and the medical-loss ratio, or medical ―benefit‖ ratio, as the industry now terms it. That is the ratio between what the company actually pays out in claims and what it has left over to cover sales, marketing, underwriting and other administrative expenses and, of course, profits.
To help meet Wall Street's relentless profit expectations, insurers routinely dump policyholders who are less profitable or who get sick. Insurers have several ways to cull the sick from their rolls. One is policy rescission. They look carefully to see if a sick policyholder may have omitted a minor illness, a pre-existing condition, when applying for coverage, and then they use that as justification to cancel the policy, even if the enrollee has never missed a premium payment. Asked directly about this practice just last week in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, executives of three of the nation's largest health insurers refused to end the practice of cancelling policies for sick enrollees. Why? Because dumping a small number of enrollees can have a big effect on the bottom line. Ten percent of the population accounts for two-thirds of all health care spending.1 The Energy and Commerce Committee's investigation into three insurers found that they canceled the coverage of roughly 20,000 people in a five-year period, allowing the companies to avoid paying $300 million in claims.
They also dump small businesses whose employees' medical claims exceed what insurance underwriters expected. All it takes is one illness or accident among employees at a small business to prompt an insurance company to hike the next year's premiums so high that the employer has to cut benefits, shop for another carrier, or stop offering coverage altogether –leaving workers uninsured. The practice is known in the industry as ―purging.‖ The purging of less profitable accounts through intentionally unrealistic rate increases helps explain why the number of small businesses offering coverage to their employees has fallen from 61 percent to 38 percent since 1993, according to the National Small Business Association. Once an insurer purges a business, there are often no other viable choices in the health insurance market because of rampant industry consolidation.
Purging through pricing games is not limited to letting go of an isolated number of unprofitable accounts. It is endemic in the industry.Yet, all the while, health-plan operating margins have increased as sick people are forced to scramble for insurance.
A study conducted last year by PricewaterhouseCoopers revealed just how successful the insurers' expense management and purging actions have been over the last decade in meeting Wall Street's expectations. The accounting firm found that the collective medical-loss ratios of the seven largest for-profit insurers fell from an average of 85.3 percent in 1998 to 81.6 percent in 2008. That translates into a difference of several billion dollars in favor of insurance company shareholders and executives and at the expense of health care providers and their patients.