- Posted October 24, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Obamacare: Your story
So called, Obama Healthcare; Observers cautioned against drawing too many Conclusions…
I wish to share the following Article published in The New York Times.
Health Law Fails to Keep Prices Low in Rural Areas
By REED ABELSON, KATIE THOMAS and JO CRAVEN McGINTY.
Published: October 23, 2013
As technical failures bedevil the rollout of President Obama’s health care law, evidence is emerging that one of the program’s loftiest goals — to encourage competition among insurers in an effort to keep costs low — is falling short for many rural Americans.
While competition is intense in many populous regions, rural areas and small towns have far fewer carriers offering plans in the law’s online exchanges. Those places, many of them poor, are being asked to choose from some of the highest-priced plans in the 34 states where the federal government is running the health insurance marketplaces, a review by The New York Times has found.
Of the roughly 2,500 counties served by the federal exchanges, more than half, or 58 percent, have plans offered by just one or two insurance carriers, according to an analysis by The Times of county-level data provided by the Department of Health and Human Services. In about 530 counties, only a single insurer is participating.
The analysis suggests that the ambitions of the Affordable Care Act to increase competition have unfolded unevenly, at least in the early going, and have not addressed many of the factors that contribute to high prices. Insurance companies are reluctant to enter challenging new markets, experts say, because medical costs are high, dominant insurers are difficult to unseat, and powerful hospital systems resist efforts to lower rates. “There’s nothing in the structure of the Affordable Care Act which really deals with that problem,” said John Holahan, a fellow at the Urban Institute, who noted that many factors determine costs in a given market. “I think that all else being equal, premiums will clearly be higher when there’s not that competition.”
The Obama administration has said 95 percent of Americans live in areas where there are at least two insurers in the exchanges. But many experts say two might not be enough to create competition that would help lower prices. For example, in Wyoming, two insurers are offering plans at prices that are higher than in neighboring Montana, where a third carrier is seen as a factor in keeping prices lower.
It is unclear how the online marketplaces might evolve over time. Many large insurers are closely watching what happens in the first year to decide whether to more aggressively pursue new markets. In the meantime, problems with the healthcare.gov Web site are making it harder for them to know whether the exchanges’ slow start is the result of technical difficulties or more serious underlying problems, such as a lack of consumer demand, that would discourage them from entering.
In some cases, competition varies markedly across county lines. In Monroe County, Fla., which includes the Florida Keys, two insurers, Cigna and Florida Blue, offer plans on the federal exchanges. In neighboring Miami-Dade County, there are seven companiesincluding Aetna and Humana, two of the nation’s largest players.
In rural Baker County, Ga., where there is only one insurer, a 50-year-old shopping for a silver plan would pay at least $644.05 before federal subsidies. (Plans range in price and levels of coverage from bronze to platinum, with silver a middle option.) A 50-year-old in Atlanta, where there are four carriers, could pay $320.06 for a comparable plan. Federal subsidies could significantly reduce monthly premiums for people with low incomes. Counties with one carrier are mostly concentrated in the South. Nearly all of the counties in Mississippi and Alabama, for example, are served by just one insurer, according to The Times’s analysis. Other states with scarce competition include Maine, West Virginia, North Carolina and Alaska.
“The consumer wants some level of choice,” said Alexander K. Feldvebel, the deputy insurance commissioner for New Hampshire, where one carrier, Anthem Blue Cross, owned by WellPoint, now offers plans. “You don’t have that when you have a single carrier offering all the products.” The Times examined carriers and prices on the federal exchanges for the second-cheapest silver plan, the level on which subsidies are based, available to a 50-year-old. Comparable data for state-run plans was unavailable.
The Obama administration, while not disputing the findings, responded to the analysis in a statement that the marketplaces “allow insurers to compete for customers based on price and quality.” It added that the tax-credit subsidies that will lower monthly payments for many consumers had also “brought more companies to the market, resulting in increased options for consumers and lower-than-expected premiums.”
Insurance executives say they set their rates without knowing what other insurers were doing.
“No one knew who was going to file,” said Barbara Morales Burke, an executive with BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina, the only insurer offering coverage in 61 of the state’s 100 counties. “We developed the rates we always do based on actuarial information and reasonable estimates.”
The Affordable Care Act, which was passed in 2010, was designed to make health insurance available to people who had not been able to afford it or had been denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions. It has transformed the market for individual insurance by creating marketplaces aimed at making it easier for consumers to compare their options. The law also sought to level the playing field for new insurers.
Before its passage, the existing insurance marketplace was often dominated by a single insurer.
“The picture that comes away even before the A.C.A. went into effect was that insurance markets are highly concentrated in many states,” said Larry Levitt, a policy expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
One of the main ways of fostering competition was through the creation of consumer-operated plans, called co-ops, to compete with existing insurers. They received some $2 billion in federal loans and are operating on 22 exchanges. At least 18 others were proposed when the program was discontinued as part of last year’s negotiations over the fiscal cliff...........................................
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Observers cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from the current landscape, noting that several major insurers were waiting to see what happens next.
One such company is Centene, a national insurer that has focused on plans for Medicaid recipients and low-income consumers.
K. Rone Baldwin, a Centene executive, said the company had offered plans under the brand name Ambetter Health in nine states, but it views this year as merely a start.
“We don’t view 2014 as the make-or-break year,” he said.