California insurance changes

San Francisco Chronicle by Patrick Johnston –

May 5, 2013:

Over the next month, Californians will begin to get a clearer picture of the historic changes the Affordable Care Act will make in the state’s insurance market for individual plans as it expands coverage to millions of the state’s uninsured residents.

The state is scheduled to start providing the details about the health plans that will be offered through Covered California, a new competitive marketplace for individual, families and small businesses purchasing coverage.

Through Covered California, these Californians can begin purchasing insurance plans on Oct. 1 that will more resemble employer-provided insurance than the bare-bones coverage they may have had in the past.

The plans will go into effect on Jan. 1, and will offer more comprehensive coverage and smaller out-of-pocket expenses for deductibles and co-pays. Pre-existing conditions will no longer be taken into consideration, lifetime limits are eliminated, and subsidies will be available for individuals earning up to $46,000 and for families with an income of up to $94,200.

This will mean that many individuals will pay less for coverage than they did before the new federal law, but some Californians will face higher health insurance premiums.

Those on the lowest end of the income scale could see their premiums decline by as much as 84 percent, according to a report commissioned by Covered California.

But middle- and upper-income Californians who buy their coverage in the individual market and who don’t qualify for the subsidies could face premium increases of as much as 30 percent, the report said. This could be especially true in San Francisco, with its higher median income and growing ranks of self-employed entrepreneurs, who will be seeking insurance in the individual market.

Among the reasons for the higher premiums for these Californians is the shift of out-of-pocket costs into premiums – that is, Californians will have lower co-pays and deductibles because the premiums will absorb more of the underlying cost of care. This shift ultimately could save money for people who use medical services more frequently. Families earning less than $60,000 a year, for example, could save up to 76 percent on the cost of care.

Providing more comprehensive benefits also means Californians in the individual market may pay more than they have before because the plans contain additional benefits – including benefits they might never use, such as pediatric dental care for beneficiaries who have no children.
Younger people may also lose some of their price advantage because of changes in the ways health plans calculate benefits. Because they were considered to be healthier, younger beneficiaries previously paid less than older people. Under the new plan, they will still pay less than older Californians but they will pay more than before. The report estimated these changes would cause Californians under age 25 to face, on average, up to a 25 percent higher premium, while older people would see an increase of about 12 percent if they don’t qualify for subsidies. The report suggested that on average, individual premiums in California would rise 9 percent.

While these subsidies will help reduce premiums for some 2.6 million Californians, they won’t reduce the underlying cost of care, which continues to outpace inflation by almost 250 percent. These underlying costs often are outside health plans’ control, including the rising cost of hospitalization, doctors’ visits, medical tests, prescription drugs and other health care services.

Among the many reasons for the rising costs are unnecessary tests, procedures and drugs, which experts say consume about $1 of every $3 spent on health care. We are an aging population, and older people have more costly medical needs. Also, about 40 percent of adult Californians live with at least one chronic condition, and chronic conditions account for more than 75 percent of all heath care costs.

Health plans are working to reduce costs by providing wellness programs. They offer free counseling for depression, quitting smoking, losing weight, eating healthier and reducing alcohol use. They’re also limiting their overhead to about 11 cents out of every $1 in premiums. Plans are also working collaboratively to more closely align quality and payment in medical treatment and to improve cost transparency for consumers.

The federal Affordable Care Act and state law place tight limits on profits by requiring health plans to spend 80 to 85 cents out of every $1 in premiums on doctors’ and hospitals’ bills, prescription drugs, tests and other health care services for their members.

If the plans fall short of that requirement, then they must provide a rebate. California commercial plans exceeded those requirements by spending, on average, 89 cents out of every $1 in premiums on medical care.

California health plans’ net profit margins are far less than others in the industry, averaging just 3.6 percent annually. Other sectors of health care, such as the pharmaceutical industry, benefited from net profit margins of up to 16.7 percent, according to Yahoo Finance data.

While the federal health care law will expand coverage, increase benefits and make many other changes to help Californians, it does not do enough to address the rising cost of care that continues to drive up the price of premiums.

The prescription for curing our health care system calls for more cooperation among all of us – elected officials, hospitals, physicians, patients and insurers – to lower the underlying costs of care so that we can ensure coverage is affordable.

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