A Bit More on Premium Increases

This post is jointly authored by Austin Frakt and Ian Crosby. It is a supplement to our Kaiser Health News (KHN) column, which I also posted on this site on Sunday. If you haven’t read that column yet, do so first. This post links back to many of our prior posts on related issues. Thus it serves as a portal to further reading.

In his recent NY Times opinion piece, Reich claimed that the current antitrust exemption for insurers “is why a handful of insurers have become so dominant in their markets.” As we wrote in our KHN column, this claim is extremely dubious. Moreover, it is far more likely that premium increases are largely due to factors other than insurer concentration.

As we’ve noted previously, the exemption (under the McCarran Ferguson Act) is very narrow, and does not apply to mergers, acquisitions, and most other kinds of conduct by which companies get big.  We’ve also noted that there are some types of conduct by which insurers could defend and expand their market share that arguably do fall within the scope of the exemption, but they are sufficiently modest and theoretical that is unlikely they bear much responsibility for the current state of market concentration.

We’ve also made the larger point that even if repeal of the exemption or other forms of stepped up antitrust enforcement were to have a material impact on insurer market power, there is little reason to believe it would produce tangible benefits for consumers absent parallel efforts against providers. A recent paper by Berenson, Ginsburg, and Kemper in Health Affairs documents the upward pressure on costs driven by provider organization and concentration. Based on hundreds of interviews with representatives of hospitals, physician organizations, health plans, and other stakeholders in six California health care markets, the authors conclude that

[t]he shift in who holds the upper hand in negotiating payments—once held by health insurance plans but now resting with health care providers—has had a major impact on California premium trends.

… [P]roviders are developing increased leverage through single-specialty group formation and merger-and-acquisition strategies that do not involve integration. Nevertheless, given the push in Congress and elsewhere to restructure health care delivery with accountable care organizations, it is instructive that whatever their merits in improving quality and efficiency, California-style integrated care systems currently produce higher prices that undermine cost containment.

Other work by health economists, reviewed on this blog, indicates that the high degree of market power held by insurers acts as a counterweight to that held by hospitals. Diluting the insurance market may have small downward effects on insurer profit and administrative efficiency, but it could have large upward effects on prices of health care services. Those higher prices would be passed on to consumers.

Therefore, concentration among providers, and in particular hospitals, must also be addressed. Unfortunately, permitting additional provider coordination and integration via accountable care organizations (ACOs), as envisioned in current health reform legislation, may not help matters. The bundling of payments ACOs would facilitate may save money, but only if the greater market power of additional provider integration does not act to offset those savings.

Taming health care costs will be hard. The job is made harder when we’re looking in the wrong place. Insurers may not deserve the special treatment they’ve received from the federal antitrust exemption. But they also do not deserve the level of blame they’ve received for health care costs.

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