Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Argument Over Insurance Rate Hikes: A Systemic Problem with Health Care Organizations' Leadership and Governance?

There has been a tremendous amount of news coverage of a large rate increase proposed by Anthem Blue Cross, a subsidiary of WellPoint, in California.  For example, the Los Angeles Times reported last week,
Congress opened an investigation Tuesday into Anthem Blue Cross' impending rate increases in California as President Obama cited the premium hikes -- some as high as 39% -- in his bid to pass national healthcare legislation.

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce and its Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations announced they were examining the increases, which are set to take effect March 1. The subcommittee has scheduled a Feb. 24 hearing in Washington, while an Assembly committee in Sacramento has set a hearing for Feb 23.

'Reports of premium increases up to 39% are deeply troubling,' Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), who chairs the energy committee, said in a statement. 'At a time when millions of Americans are struggling to keep their health insurance, we need to know what possible justification there could be for increases of this magnitude.'

Anthem of Woodland Hills is the state's largest for-profit insurer and a unit of Indianapolis health insurance giant WellPoint Inc.

At issue are increases in monthly premiums for many of Anthem's estimated 800,000 customers with individual health insurance policies who are not part of group coverage.

Anthem began informing individual policyholders last month that prices would go up March 1 and could be adjusted 'more frequently' than typical yearly increases.

The company would not say how high the rates could go or how many customers would be affected. Brokers and policyholders said many of the anticipated increases were 30% to 39%, the largest they could recall. The brokers said other insurers also were raising rates by double digits.

Anthem maintains that its increases are necessary to meet growing healthcare costs, even as it voices sympathy for policyholders whose premiums are rising.
In addition, per again a Los Angeles Times article this week,
Executives from California health insurance giant Anthem Blue Cross, under fire for scheduled rate hikes of up to 39%, insisted Tuesday that their premiums were fair and legal, and they told lawmakers they expected that the increases would go forward.

Appearing before the state Assembly's health committee, the officials said that they believed rate increases for individual health insurance policies, delayed until May 1 while being reviewed by the Department of Insurance, would survive scrutiny by regulators

In Sacramento, Anthem's president, Leslie Margolin, told the committee that much of the public frustration over the rate hikes was misdirected and should be aimed at the nation's healthcare system.

'This debate and this inquiry cannot and should not be just about the insurance industry or the delivery system or regulators or legislators or customers or brokers,' Margolin said.

'We have wasted precious time and precious resources doing battle with each other,' she added. 'We must come together collaboratively and strategically to address the distressing symptoms of our troubled system -- rising premiums, for example -- and to address the fundamental underlying causes of our collective failure.'

As we have discussed time after time on Health Care Renewal, there are multiple fundamental problems with health care in the US (and around the world.) The Anthem President above did not apparently specify what she thought these problems are. We have discussed in particular problems that arise out of abuse and concentration of power in health, particularly problems with the leadership and governance of health care organizations. We have suggested that such problems are major causes of the ever rising costs of, declining access to, and stagnant quality of health care in the US.

These problems do not seem to particularly afflict WellPoint more than most other organizations, and certainly do afflict the other organizations with which WellPoint has to deal.  On the other hand, WellPoint has certainly had its own share of issues. These have been sufficient to raise questions about the organization's leadership's transparency, ethics, and management abilities. While WellPoint perhaps should not be singled out for these sorts of problems, the extent they may have contributed to the costs it imposes, and its ability to manage its relationships with other organizations should be a source of skepticism about the idealized pronouncements of its leaders.

For a recent example, the Los Angeles Times also just reported,
California's largest for-profit health insurer violated state law more than 700 times over a three-year period by failing to pay medical claims on time and misrepresenting policy provisions to customers, the state's insurance commissioner said Monday.

Anthem Blue Cross of Woodland Hills could face fines of up to $7 million stemming from the alleged violations from 2006 to 2009. Commissioner Steve Poizner said the insurer repeatedly failed to respond to state regulators in a 'reasonable time' as they investigated complaints over the last year.

'We believe there is evidence to suggest there are serious issues with how Anthem Blue Cross pays claims,' Poizner said at a Sacramento news conference. 'Most disturbing to us is that they don't even respond' to the Department of Insurance 'in a timely way.'

Furthermore, WellPoint...

  • settled a RICO (racketeer influenced corrupt organization) law-suit in California over its alleged systematic attempts to withhold payments from physicians (see post here).
  • subsidiary New York Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield misplaced a computer disc containing confidential information on 75,000 policy-holders (see story here).
  • California Anthem Blue Cross subsidiary cancelled individual insurance policies after their owners made large claims (a practices sometimes called rescission).  The company was ordered to pay a million dollar fine in early 2007 for this (see post here).  A state agency charged that some of these cancellations by another WellPoint subsidiary were improper (see post here).  WellPoint was alleged to have pushed physicians to look for patients' medical problems that would allow rescission (see post here).  It turned out that California never collected the 2007 fine noted above, allegedly because the state agency feared that WellPoint had become too powerful to take on (see post here). But in 2008, WellPoint agreed to pay more fines for its rescission practices (see post here).  In 2009, WellPoint executives were defiant about their continued intention to make rescission in hearings before the US congress (see post here).
  • California Blue Cross subsidiary allegedly attempted to get physicians to sign contracts whose confidentiality provisions would have prevented them from consulting lawyers about the contract (see post here).
  • formerly acclaimed CFO was fired for unclear reasons, and then allegations from numerous women of what now might be called Tiger Woods-like activities surfaced (see post here).
  • announced that its investment portfolio was hardly immune from the losses prevalent in late 2008 (see post here).
  • was sanctioned by the US government in early 2009 for erroneously denying coverage to senior patients who subscribed to its Medicare drug plans (see post here).
  • settled charges that it had used a questionable data-base (builty by Ingenix, a subsidiary of ostensible WellPoint competitor UnitedHealth) to determine fees paid to physicians for out-of-network care (see post here). 
So, WellPoint's subsidiary Anthem President Margolin was right in that her company, or insurance and managed care companies should not be blamed for all of our health care woes.  But I submit that her company should no less have to address concerns about the transparency, honesty, and skill of its management, and how problems in these areas have driven up costs, decreased access, threatened quality, and demoralized health care professsionals  than do leaders of other health care organizations.  At the moment, such concerns are at best peripheral to the ongoing debate on health care reform in the US.  I suggest they ought to be central.

ADDENDUM (24 February, 2010) - see also comments on the Covert Rationing Blog, and on the Managed Care Matters blog.


Anonymous said...

We are drowning in a sea of crocodile tears and the bales of money being thrown in will not keep us afloat. Insurance is a cost plus business, so the higher the cost, the more the profit.

Regulators will see spread sheets justifying the rate increases due to direct cost and fees with the appropriate profit margin added. Every item possible will carry a cost and appropriate profit. There is a profit to be made in calculating the profit.

In my undergraduate program I had a classmate who worked for a utility. He had never seen a cost item, even a pencil was considered a capital item, with the appropriate depreciation calculation and ROI. The accounting was horrendous, but that also carried a markup.

We have reached the end point of this convoluted logic: Nobody can afford the product. I just have to wonder if the plan is to use this as the new baseline cost in determining government subsidies proposed in the various health care reform bills?

Now on top of outrageous insurance bills we will see a tax increase to support those not covered by a group plan.

Steve Lucas

James said...

I always learned in many of my business classes the importance of having competition in any industry. Business competition tends to result in increased efficiency as firms attempt to reduce expenses. Now what exactly will be the affect of our health insurance industry if the government steps in to put caps on health care payments. I believe the first to go will be the quality of care we will be paying for and everyone will be picking up the bill for reducing the cost of insurance with taxes. Government is getting too involved in too many industries that are better off with their abstinence. Good Post.

Central Car Insurance

Anonymous said...

I have had health insurance with Aetna for the last 4 years. While the cost of health care has gone up a little over 10% during this time. My rates have gone up 90% for the same coverage. Aetna's last letter to me says that due to rising heath care cost their rates needed to go up. The part they leave out is that they multiply it by 10.

You might say switch... but from what I see they have all gone up by about the same amount. I think that this is a huge problem. These are unjustifiable rate increases and the companies seem to be moving in a monopolistic manner.

Is this their way of preparing for the New Obama Plan? Are they trying to get the rates up before Obama locks down their rate?

moviedoc said...

We need to open up competition by allowing purchase of a plan located in any other state which we cannot do now. Or shut down the whole industry and go to a single payer.