Network construction in an underwritten world

If you loved credit card companies and how they all were headquartered in South Dakota to take advantage of their very lender friendly laws before the passage of the CARD Act, you will love the health care vision of Rep. Jim Jordan.

The vision is that the House Freedom Caucus/MacArthur Amendment is attached to the AHCA. The AHCA passes the House and Senate without major modification. At least one state opts for the waiver to allow for medical underwriting and gutting essential health benefits by replacing a federal standard with a state standard. A minimal essential health benefit package could still include prescription drugs but only require generic drugs and very common, low cost brand drugs. Specialty drugs including most chemotherapy agents, cystic fibrosis treatments, Hep-C cures and coagulation disorder treatments could be excluded from the minimally required list.

A second bill would also be passed that would allow for insurance to be sold across state lines. And that gets us to the individual health insurance market looking like the pre-CARD Act credit card market. Most states may still require guarantee issue and community rating but the states mandating these restrictions either will not have any in-state insurers offering products in the individual market or their locally regulated individual market effectively work as a high risk pool.

Matthew Fiedler at Brookings has a good analysis on the race to the bottom in an opt-out state:

In brief, healthy people would have a strong incentive to “opt out” of the community-rated pool and instead pay a premium based on health status. With healthy enrollees opting out of the community-rated pool, community-rated premiums would need to be extremely high, forcing sicker individuals—including those with continuous coverage—to choose between paying the extremely high community-rated premium or being underwritten themselves. Either way, people with serious health conditions would face prohibitively high premiums. As a result, community rating would be eviscerated—and with it any meaningful guarantee that seriously ill people can access coverage.

And if a state elects to operate a waiver in an environment where insurers can choose the state of regulation, that state will effectively gut community issue across the country.

But.. but… but… what about networks?

That is a common argument as to why selling across state lines would not be attractive. In the current world of  guarantee issue and community rating, this is a strong defense. Networks are tough to assemble and expensive to build. We know there is a chicken or an egg problem. Large membership is needed to get good provider rates.  Good provider payment levels are needed to offer attractive premiums that leads to large membership numbers.  A new insurer trying to move into a new state has to build a network. And it has to build a network by either going super skinny or by being willing to lose significant money for several years to buy membership.

But that is under guarantee issue/community rating rules. Networks are not a blocking force for cream skimming carriers.

If an insurer wants to expand out of its home region in Rep. Jordan’s vision, they can either build a network organically or they can rent a network. Rental networks are very common. They are how regional carriers offer national emergency room coverage. They are how smaller carriers offer very high end specialty care. The provider are paid at a very high level. Some rental network contracts are full usual and customary, others are full billed charges, some offer a discount on one of those two benchmarks and others are 500% of Medicare. These are expensive networks where regional carriers work very hard to minimize the number of claims paid to that network.

If a minimally viable network can be rented even at an extremely high per unit rate, and the plan can medically underwrite to only offer coverage to people who will never use the skimpy, practically inadequate, high cost network, this works as a business model.

If an individual has a complex medical condition during the contract year, the insurer has significant claims expense but since the network is extremely unattractive to individuals with complex care needs, the one time catastrophic expense will leave the plan at the next open enrollment if they can afford to do so or if they are in a policy that does not have guarantee renewability.

This is effectively the Assurant business model from the pre-ACA status quo. They aggressively underwrote policies to only include healthy people, they offered very low rates and access to a very expensive to them network and seldom payed a claim as their covered population just did not use services.

Networks are not a barrier to entry for carriers that think they can aggressively underwrite.

About David Anderson
I am a research associate at the Margolis Center for Health Policy. I've written about health policy at Balloon-Juice.com as Richard Mayhew where I've enjoyed explaining the logic behind why an insurance company is behaving the way it is as there is almost always a reason besides pure spite or evil.

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