4 Better Ways To Address Pre-Existing Conditions Than Obamacare

4 Better Ways To Address Pre-Existing Conditions Than Obamacare

Obamacare uprooted the entire market to address a comparatively small universe of truly uninsurable patients. A better reform would use a more specialized approach.
Christopher Jacobs
By

In a recent article, I linked to a tweet promoting alternatives to Obamacare’s pre-existing condition regulations, which have raised health insurance premiums for millions of Americans:

I offered those solutions when asked about a Republican alternative to Obamacare, and specifically the pre-existing condition provisions. While I no longer work in Congress, and therefore cannot readily get legislative provisions drafted and scored, I did want to elaborate on the concepts briefly mentioned, to show that other solutions to the pre-existing condition problem do exist.

1. Health Status Insurance

I mentioned both “renewal guarantees” and “health status insurance,” two relatively interchangeable terms, in my tweet. Both refer to the option of buying coverage at some point in the future—insurance against developing a health condition that makes one uninsurable.

Other forms of insurance use these types of riders frequently. For instance, I purchased a long-term disability policy when I bought my condo, to protect myself if I could no longer work and pay my mortgage. The policy came with two components—the coverage I have now, and pay for each year, along with a rider allowing me to double my coverage amount (i.e. the monthly payment I would receive if I became disabled) without going through the application or underwriting process again.

Since I bought that policy in 2008, my doctors diagnosed me with hypertension in 2012, and I went through two reconstructive surgeries on my left ankle. I don’t know if these ailments would prevent me from buying a disability policy now if I went out and applied for one. But because I purchased that rider with my original policy in 2008, I don’t need to worry about it. If I want more disability coverage, I can obtain it by paying the additional premium, no questions asked.

That’s the point of health status insurance: You may not need all the coverage now—but you do want the option to buy more coverage in the future.

Health status insurance would complement employer-sponsored coverage. Most people get their coverage through their employers. Because employers heavily subsidize the coverage, and the federal government provides tax breaks for employer-sponsored plans, more than three in four people who are offered employer-sponsored insurance sign up for it.

But employer-based insurance by definition isn’t portable. When you switch your job, or (worse yet) lose your job because you’re too sick to work, you lose your coverage. Health status insurance would get around that portability problem. Individuals could sign up for their employer plan but pay for health status insurance “on the side.”

This coverage, which they and not their employer own, would protect them in case they develop a pre-existing condition or move to a job that doesn’t provide health insurance. It would also cost a lot less than buying a complete insurance plan—remember, they’re paying for the option to purchase insurance at a later date, not the insurance itself.

2. Insurance Portability

A complementary solution to status insurance and renewal guarantees would make insurance itself individually owned, and therefore more portable. Rather than using health status insurance to “plug into” an employer’s health plan—the status insurance giving people the option to buy a plan of their own if they leave their employer—this option would have the individual owning the insurance herself, while “plugging into” a coverage contribution made by the employer.

A proposed regulation issued by the Trump administration last month would permit just that. Under the proposal, employers could provide fixed sums to their employees to buy individually owned insurance—that is, a policy the employee buys and holds—through Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs). Employees could pay any “leftover” premiums not covered by the employer subsidy on a pre-tax basis, as they do with their current, employer-owned coverage, through paycheck withholding.

I recently wrote about the regulation; feel free to read that article for greater detail. But as with health status insurance, better portability of individual coverage would allow people to buy—and hold, and keep—coverage before they develop a pre-existing condition, reducing the number of people who have to worry about losing their coverage when battling a difficult illness.

3. High-Risk Pools

Of course, health status insurance only helps those who purchase it prior to becoming sick. For people who already have a pre-existing condition, perhaps because of an ailment acquired at birth or in one’s youth, high-risk pools provide another possible solution.

Prior to Obamacare, many states operated some form of high-risk pool or subsidized coverage for individuals with costly medical conditions. Rules varied by state, but the pools worked to offset the costs (whether through general revenue funds, an assessment on insurers, or some other funding source) of those who could not obtain individual health insurance from a private market insurer.

Critics of risk pools generally cite two reasons to argue against this model as a workable policy solution. First, risk pools prior to Obamacare were not well-funded—in many cases, a true enough criticism. While some state pools worked well and offered generous subsidies (even income-based subsidies in some states), others did not.

It would take a fair bit of federal funding to set up a solid network of state high-risk pools. One article, published in National Affairs a few months after Obamacare’s enactment, estimated that such pools would require $15-20 billion per year in funding—probably more like $20-30 billion now, given the constant rise in health care costs. This figure represents a sizable sum, but less than the overall cost of Obamacare, or even its insurance subsidies ($57 billion this fiscal year alone).

Second, risk pool critics dislike the surcharges that many risk pools applied. Most pools capped monthly premiums for enrollees at 150 or 200 percent of standard insurance rates. Of course, individuals with chronic heart failure or some other costly condition generally incur much higher actual costs—costs that the pool worked to subsidize—but some believe that making individuals with pre-existing conditions pay a 50 to 100 percent premium over healthy individuals discriminates against the sick.

Personally, when designing a high-risk pool, I would distinguish between individuals who maintained continuous coverage prior to joining the pool and those who did not. Charging higher premiums to individuals who maintained continuous coverage seems unfair. On the other hand, it seems very reasonable to impose a surcharge for individuals who joined a high-risk pool because they didn’t purchase insurance until after they became sick.

As a small government conservative, I generally oppose intrusive attempts like an individual mandate to require individuals to behave in a certain manner. While I view going without health insurance an unwise move, I believe in the right of people to make bad decisions. However, I also believe in people paying the consequences of those bad decisions—and a surcharge on individuals who sign up for a high-risk pool while lacking continuous coverage would do just that.

4. Direct Primary Care

Direct primary care, which encompasses a personal relationship with a physician or group of physicians, can help manage individuals with chronic (and potentially costly) diseases. In most cases, patients pay a monthly or annual subscription fee to the practice, which covers unlimited doctor visits, as well as phone or electronic consultations and some limited diagnostic tests. Patients can get referrals to specialist care, or purchase a catastrophic insurance policy to cover expenses not included in the subscription fee.

Of course, primary care would not work well for a patient with advanced cancer, who needs costly pharmaceutical therapies or other very specialized care. But for patients with chronic conditions like diabetes, COPD, or chronic heart failure, direct primary care may offer a way better to manage the disease, potentially reducing health care costs while improving patient access to care and quality of life—the most important objective.

As noted above, these types of solutions are not one size fits all. Health status insurance would not work for patients born with genetically based diseases, and direct primary care might not help patients with advanced tumors.

But in some respects, that’s the point. Obamacare took a comparatively small universe of truly uninsurable patients—a few million, by some estimates—and uprooted the individual market of about 20 million people (to say nothing of other Americans’ health coverage) for it. Unfortunately, millions of Americans have ended up dropping insurance as a result, because the changes have priced them out of coverage.

A better way to reform the system would use a more specialized approach—a scalpel instead of a chainsaw. Health status insurance, improved portability, high-risk pools, and direct primary care represent four potential prongs of that better alternative.

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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