As congressional Republicans' efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act remain in limbo, the Trump administration and some states are taking steps to help insurers cover the cost of their sickest patients, a move that industry analysts say is critical to keeping premiums affordable for plans sold on the law's online marketplaces in 2018.
This fix is a well-known insurance industry practice called reinsurance. Claims above a certain amount would be paid by the government, reducing insurers' financial exposure and allowing them to set lower premiums.
Two states -- Alaska and Minnesota -- that have seen double-digit increases in ACA plan premiums this year have already moved to implement reinsurance policies, and Oklahoma is making plans to seek federal approval to set up a program. The Idaho legislature also recently passed a health care reinsurance law, and Maine is considering taking similar action.
The Trump administration has told other states they should consider doing the same. On March 13, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price sent a letter to all 50 governors soliciting proposals for reinsurance and other options to help cover the costs of consumers with expensive medical conditions.
Long an advocate for more state control of health insurance, Price said the administration is "seeking to empower states with new opportunities that will strengthen their health insurance markets."
"This is one practical way the administration and states can work together to reduce premiums," said Matthew Fiedler, a health policy specialist at the Brookings Institution. "While it's the insurers who get the [support] directly, reductions in insurers' claims costs ultimately translate into lower premiums for consumers."
The focus on reinsurance comes as insurers must tell state and federal regulators no later than June 21 whether they will participate in the ACA's marketplaces in 2018, and what plans they will offer at what price. This issue is separate from other highly publicized efforts underway to preserve federal payments to insurers to cover the costs of deductibles and copayments for low-income enrollees.
The federal law offered the security of a reinsurance program to insurers during its first three years. It helped reduce premiums among insurers by 10 percent in 2014, the last year the impact was analyzed, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
But the ACA reinsurance program ended this year. That helped drive premiums up by an average 22 percent across the country, raising concerns about the stability of the state-based marketplaces -- also called exchanges -- that provide insurance for people who don't get it through work or public programs such as Medicare or Medicaid.
Now officials from both political parties are eyeing another part of the health law to help reprise and finance reinsurance programs.
In his letter, Price encouraged states to consider a special provision -- known as a Section 1332 waiver -- that went into effect this year and opens an avenue for them to pursue exemptions from ACA rules as long as the state plan maintains equivalent or better coverage levels for residents and doesn't raise federal spending.
The Trump administration is betting that some states can set up reinsurance programs with federal funding. Federal spending on the program would be kept in check because the move will reduce government spending on tax credits that the law gives some low-income exchange customers to help defray the cost of premiums.
Need To 'Stabilize Things Fast'
Consider deep-red Oklahoma. State officials have always held the ACA at arm's length, leaving the insurance marketplace's management and details to federal officials. But after rate increases averaging 76 percent this year -- second only to Arizona -- state officials set up a task force to explore how to put a brake on insurance premiums. The group last month published a multifaceted, 60-page plan for a waiver request. State officials say they will submit the plan to HHS later this year. Among the proposed first steps: reinsurance.
"We are in critical condition," said Buffy Heater, chief strategy officer at the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. "Reinsurance is a way to stabilize things fast and attract additional insurers and more enrollees."
Enrollment in the Oklahoma marketplace plan grew just 1 percent in 2017, to 146,300, after fairly robust growth in 2014 and 2015. Still, only about 30 percent of eligible Oklahomans are enrolled, and the number of uninsured in the state grew by 20,000 people in 2017.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma, the only carrier now selling on the state's insurance marketplace, concurs with Heater's assessment. The company declined through a spokesman to address state officials' concern that the insurer was poised to exit the market in 2018. But Kurt Kossen, senior vice president at the Illinois-based Health Care Service Corp., which owns the Oklahoma Blues plan, said in a statement: "We agree reinsurance and well-designed high-risk pools help lower premiums and encourage greater competition."
The two main health insurance lobbying groups in Washington -- America's Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association -- also support efforts to offer reinsurance.
"We are very much in favor of using reinsurance to help insurers pay for the most expensive claims and to stabilize the marketplaces," said Kristine Grow, senior vice president for communications at America's Health Insurance Plans.
Alaska And Minnesota Spurred To Act
Building on its state-funded reinsurance program for 2017, Alaska has asked the federal government to set aside $51.6 million for a reinsurance pool there for 2018. Lori Wing-Heier, director of the state's division of insurance, said the state's $55 million fund this year enabled Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield, the sole insurer left on the exchange, to reduce an expected premium increase of 40 percent to just 7.3 percent. But the state said it cannot keep up the effort alone and needs federal funding.
In Minnesota, where premiums for marketplace plans spiked by around 50 percent this year, the Legislature enacted a law this month that establishes a $271 million reinsurance pool for that state's troubled ACA marketplace for 2018 and 2019. The funds are contingent on getting the same waiver from the federal government that Alaska seeks and that Oklahoma plans to pursue.
Consumer complaints about the price hikes for 2017 pushed Minnesota to set up a $326 million fund to bail out insurers and help consumers who didn't qualify for federal premium subsidies. That state-based reinsurance fund reduced premiums by about 25 percent, said Eileen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Council of Health Plans. The state's Department of Commerce has estimated that the 2018 reinsurance fund will reduce premiums by about 20 percent.
About 4 percent of Minnesotans -- 235,000 people -- get coverage in that state's individual marketplace.
Back in Washington, D.C., some lawmakers have newfound fervor for insurance market stability and tools such as reinsurance. In their proposed bill to repeal and replace portions of the ACA, House Republicans included a 10-year, $100 billion fund to offset the burden of high-cost patients.
States would be allowed to establish reinsurance pools or set up separate high-risk insurance pools for patients with expensive medical conditions.
And even as the fate of the legislation to repeal the ACA remains uncertain, a group of Republicans in the House of Representatives this month sought to sweeten the pot with an additional $15 billion fund over nine years to help reimburse insurers for high-cost patients with certain preexisting conditions, such as cancer.
Democrats and health policy analysts immediately criticized this latest proposal.
"It's not enough money to make a serious dent," said Tim Jost, a professor of health law at Virginia's Washington and Lee University and an expert on the health law. While the concept is sound, he said that the proposal is flawed because the House Republicans' bill creates the need for it with "the other damaging changes it makes to the market."
Jost, other policy analysts and consumer advocates also take issue with Republican proposals that appear to create equivalency between reinsurance and separate high-risk pools for people with preexisting conditions and high claims. In most states that have tried them, said Lynn Quincy, a health insurance specialist and senior policy analyst at Consumer Union, high-risk pools have failed to offer affordable coverage to people who need care the most.
"Reinsurance is the much preferred option," Quincy said. "It doesn't segregate sick people into a separate pool, and reinsurance has proved far more efficient and effective over the years."
Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.