Is It “Health Insurance,” or Merely Prepaid Health Care?

PillThe Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) goal is to provide health insurance coverage to those without it now, and it uses 2 main mechanisms to do so. It penalizes individuals without insurance, thereby encouraging them to sign up for health insurance. (In order to support this effort, the law creates state insurance exchanges to offer health plans to consumers.) The law also penalizes employers (with 50 or more employees) that do not offer health insurance to their workers. So, these employers will either need to add insurance if they don’t currently offer it, or maintain or modify what they now offer to their employees…or else pay a fine.

As the ACA proceeds to full implementation, it’s probably polite to say that various “inconsistencies” in the law are emerging. While “self-pay” employers may still exercise some degree of freedom in adding, maintaining, or modifying their health insurance offerings, the law is determining many of the characteristics of health insurance offered to the public via health care exchanges.

It’s interesting to note that 2 key requirements of the law undermine the basics of insurance, which is defined simply as “coverage by contract whereby one party undertakes to indemnify or guarantee another against loss by a specified contingency or peril.”

The first requirement is that all beneficiaries pay essentially identical rates, regardless of their risk factors. One of the few recognitions of varied risk among the population, an individual’s age, is still subject to constraint (older people cannot be charged more than 3 times the premiums charged to younger people). The other requirement is that insurance companies should ignore individuals’ preexisting conditions when writing new policies. While this rule is popular—no one wants to deny health insurance coverage to a cancer survivor—it also could encourage people to wait until they are sick before they purchase insurance.

Additionally, the law’s definition of an insurance plan’s “essential health benefits” may also contribute to an unintended result: a small set of insurance offerings on health care exchanges that are all generally very expensive, due to the fact that the policies are required to cover many things. One possible effect on consumers is that they will pay higher premiums.

Let’s go back to employers. Year-over-year health care cost increases have recently moderated, but over the long term they have traditionally been higher than the rate of overall consumer inflation. Some employers may use the soon-to-be-created state exchanges as an opportunity to withdraw the health insurance they offer to their employees. Employers who still plan to offer health insurance will continue to scrutinize costs and seek ways to mitigate their increases. They may continue to restrict the breadth of offerings in their health plans (a trend that is opposite to the expansion of essential health benefits above). Another mechanism that works is to shift more costs to their employees in the form of higher premiums, copays, coinsurance and deductibles.

So, in the 2 areas that the ACA seeks to create new health insurance opportunities (state-based exchanges and newly regulated employer markets), the individual will most likely pay a greater share of costs and have a greater responsibility to evaluate his insurance policy as well as the health care interventions he receives.

What does this mean for marketing communications?

One question facing employers, employees, payers and consumers will be the role and importance of deductibles, copays, and coinsurance. These patient payments are essentially behavioral-change tools, encouraging the patient to “shop wisely” because he is spending his own money on health care. Will these mechanisms continue to work as they have in the past? It may depend on which segment of the market grows larger: the state-based exchanges or the employer-provided plans.

On the one hand, if the law is encouraging fewer, similar insurance offerings on state exchanges, it will hardly be easy for insurance companies to differentiate one policy from another. If the offerings from health plans become expensive and undifferentiated, with most of their benefits “prepaid” by premiums, how much impact will deductibles, copays, and coinsurance have? Would this also complicate manufacturers’ efforts to differentiate their products to insurers, providers, and patients/members?

On the other hand, if employers are restricting benefits in their heath plans and shifting more and more costs to employees, employees will be using more of their funds to pay for premiums, and there may be less left for deductibles, copays, and coinsurance. With fewer health care dollars available, the employee may respond more to the cost effects of those patient payments.

Readers, what will be the health plan implications for related drug and device issues such as tier placement, contracting terms, and pricing? What marketing efforts are still needed? And to whom should they be directed?

Source:

  1. Merriam-Webster. Definition of “insurance.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/insurance. Accessed April 22, 2013.

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