Montana Health Insurance Debacle Proves Regulators Can’t Regulate Themselves

Montana Health Insurance Debacle Proves Regulators Can’t Regulate Themselves

The incompetence on display over cost-sharing reductions demonstrates the need for increased accountability among state authorities.
Christopher Jacobs
By

My recent investigation into insurance commissioners failure’ to consider, let alone prepare for, a new presidential administration withdrawing unconstitutional cost-sharing reduction payments when examining rates for the 2017 plan year included one particular story worth highlighting.

In Montana, the insurance commissioner branded Blue Cross Blue Shield’s premium increase as “unreasonable,” in part because it wished to prepare for an eventuality—namely, withdrawal of the cost-sharing reduction payments—that the commissioner herself ignored.

Democrats used this type of “naming and shaming”—or, if one prefers, public scapegoating—of insurance companies to help get Obamacare passed back in 2010. Now, they look to do the same thing to pharmaceutical companies. The example in Montana thus could serve as a precursor of liberals’ future strategy, and the problems inherent with it.

Insurer’s Request for Contingencies

As noted last month, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana first requested that state regulators permit it to stop reducing cost-sharing to low-income beneficiaries if the federal government withdrew the payments reimbursing insurers for those discounts. However, federal regulators rightly noted that Obamacare requires insurers to lower cost-sharing for qualified individuals, regardless of whether the federal government provides reimbursement for this, making this proposal impossible to implement.

Because it could not stop lowering cost-sharing if the federal reimbursements ceased, Blue Cross Blue Shield requested a higher premium increase for 2017, to cushion against the risk of an unfunded mandate—the federal government requiring the company to lower cost-sharing without reimbursing it for that. However, Montana’s insurance commissioner, Monica Lindeen, dubbed the carrier’s proposed premium increase “unreasonable.”

In a letter of deficiency posted on the commission’s website, Lindeen found several portions of the premium increase proposed by Health Care Services Corporation (Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana’s parent company) unreasonable, including the portion linked to uncertainty over the cost-sharing reduction payments:

HCSC has added 4.2% to its rates because it believes that the government will lose a lawsuit that concerns the validity of the appropriation for cost-sharing reductions and that CMS [the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] will not reimburse QHP [qualified health plan] issuers for cost sharing reductions in 2017. The lawsuit is currently pending appeal in the federal circuit court. Experts, including industry experts, agree that this case will not be resolved until at least 2018 and no one knows what the final outcome will be. HCSC appears to be the only health insurer in the country taking the position that its rates will be negatively impacted by this lawsuit in 2017….

In the years since CSI [the Commissioner of Securities and Insurance] has been reviewing health insurance rates, the CSI has always maintained the position that insurers may not base rating assumptions on speculation concerning the outcome of pending litigation. HCSC has stated that it will remove this rating assumption if the CSI allows HCSC to include illegal language in its policy. As the insurance regulator for this state, I cannot agree to that proposal. Raising 2017 rates on the basis of this assumption is unreasonable.

‘Unreasonable’ Regulators

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana went ahead with its premium increase, notwithstanding the rebuke, and the negative publicity that went along with it. However, as events unequivocally proved, Lindeen and not Blue Cross ended up with the “unreasonable” assumptions. (Added clarification: Lindeen lost her re-election bid in 2016 and thus no longer serves in this position.)

The federal government withdrew the payments in October. Had the carrier not raised premiums pre-emptively to account for the possibility that the payments might disappear, it would have joined other insurers in incurring as much as $1.75 billion in losses over the final quarter of this calendar year.

Lindeen’s actions proved “unreasonable” in several respects. First, contra her claims that “experts agree” that the dispute over the payments “will not be resolved until at least 2018,” I specifically wrote in May 2016 that the incoming presidential administration could halt the payments “almost immediately.” The letter of deficiency does not even attempt to address this set of circumstances—the events that actually transpired—raising the obvious question of which “experts” Lindeen consulted, or whether indeed she consulted any “experts” at all.

Why It Matters

Liberals have worked to publicly embarrass insurance companies for years. The Obama administration stoked outrage over Anthem’s proposed 39 percent premium increase in California in early 2010 to marshal support for Obamacare’s passage, after Scott Brown’s special election Senate win made its prospects seem bleak.

Thanks in part to that outrage, the bill passed, establishing a nationwide rate review process. While in most states that review process does not give commissioners the power to deny “unreasonable” rate increases outright, it does give them the power to publicize such incidents, as in the case of Lindeen’s “letter of deficiency” cited above.

The Left wants to make such “naming and shaming” de rigueur. California recently enacted a drug transparency law requiring pharmaceutical companies to justify price increases, a measure other states wish to emulate. But perhaps not surprisingly, liberals have yet to explain exactly what should happen when regulators get it wrong, as so clearly happened in Montana, where Lindeen arrived at a conclusion ultimately disproven by events.

At minimum, the Trump administration has a role to play in regulating the regulators, as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) must certify each state has an “effective” rate review program. Federal authorities should ask Montana’s insurance commissioner why she considered Blue Cross’ assumptions regarding cost-sharing reduction payments “unreasonable” when Blue Cross and not she ended up being correct. Moreover, given the larger regulatory debacle over cost-sharing payments, HHS has reason to write to every state and ask why they all made the mistaken assumption that unconstitutional payments to insurers would continue.

While this conservative would much prefer states regulating insurance markets rather than the federal government, the incompetence on display over cost-sharing reductions demonstrates the need for increased accountability among state authorities. If liberals wish to persist in their efforts to “hold industry accountable” for raising prices, perhaps they should explain how they will hold regulators accountable when those regulators drop the proverbial ball. Better yet, they should stop trying to scapegoat insurance companies for higher health costs, and work instead towards reducing them.

Mr. Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm. He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.

Mr. Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm based in Washington. He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.

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