Shrinking private LTC insurance options

Prudential announced this week that they will stop taking applications for private Long Term Care insurance (LTCI) at the end of March according to a WSJ story by Leslie Scism. Several other insurers have also exited this market in recent years, which means that private insurance options are shrinking as the baby boomers move toward needing LTC.

Medicaid exists as a de facto nursing home insurance plan with the deductible essentially being your wealth (Medicaid pays for ~40% of all NH costs in the U.S.). Before that, families provide a tremendous amount of informal long term care, which is both expected by many while also being very burdensome and costly, both in explicit financial terms as well as in other ways. That is the default system.

Prudential notes two primary reasons for their exit:

  • claims being higher than predicted
  • interest rates being very low

The first reason they put down to “increasing life expectancy”, but I am not sure I buy that. Life expectancy has been increasing for quite a while. The more likely culprit for higher claims is adverse selection, which just means the people signing up had higher risks than average, which you might expect to be particularly bad for a type of insurance that is so rare (less than 10% of those over 50 have any). Interest rates may seem unrelated to LTC, but effect the return on investment that insurance companies can easily obtain with the premiums for a type of insurance in which persons may pay in for many years with no claims before having large claims later. Prudential says they will honor existing contracts, but premium increases for all members are likely in spite of such policies typically being sold with flat premiums (State regulators have consistently approved such increases, believing default of insurers to be the only other option).

In short, it doesn’t appear that purely private LTCI markets can work, even with tax credit purchasing incentives that we have had for years. In the aftermath of the CLASS program demise, some noted the biggest problem within CLASS was the inability to assign an actuarially fair premium, which is important in a purely private insurance market, and allowing for simple underwriting could improve CLASS. However, the Prudential story and the move out of this industry by other private insurers shows they haven’t been able to assign actuarially fair premiums either.

Far more important than focusing on how premiums are set for a small pool is forced risk pooling of some sort, to get all those at risk of needing LTC into the pool. In one sense, if you are OK with families providing care and Medicaid picking up much of the nation’s NH bill then you could argue we have a system. If you don’t like this system, it is amply clear that a purely private insurance-based one won’t work, and some sort of forced risk pooling will be required. The question remains, how will we insure LTC?


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