Thursday, June 24, 2010

Slouching, or "Moving Towards ... Oligopoly"

A report by Bloomberg on a prediction that the US attempt at health care reform will lead to more concentration of power among health insurance companies.
U.S. health insurers are 'moving towards an oligopoly,' a process that this year’s health-care overhaul will accelerate, the investor-relations chief at WellPoint Inc. said today.

New regulations on administrative spending and premium increases will push some independent insurers out of business or into deals with bigger rivals, said Michael Kleinman, vice president for investor relations, at a Wells Fargo & Co. conference in Boston.

In addition,
The insurance market is becoming an oligopoly, a market where supply and pricing are dominated by a few companies, 'and health-care reform is going to move us in that direction more quickly,' Kleinman said. 'There are going to be smaller insurers that are not going to be able to survive in this marketplace.'

Wellpoint is not likely to suffer from a move to fewer, larger insurance companies:
Led by WellPoint, 12 health plans cover two-thirds of the enrollment in the U.S. commercial-insurance market, said Ana Gupte, a Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst....

So, it is not that Mr Kleinman has any regrets about this. Far from it:
Indianapolis-based WellPoint, the country’s biggest health plan with 33.8 million members, has the scale to prosper from the overhaul, which is expected to add another 34 million to the ranks of the insured, he said.

Mr Kleinman might argue that WellPoint's increasing size and prospects for market domination are good for society as well as the company, and its top executives.  We have heard endless arguments in the last 30 years that larger hospital systems and larger insurance companies lead to more efficiency and lower costs.  However, the evidence is in the other direction.  There is plenty of reason to worry that increasingly dominant companies will extract higher prices, and the money they make will benefit their top leaders first, maybe their stockholders second, and patients and ordinary employees a very distant third, if at all.  So look for WellPoint CEO Angela Braly to make even more than $13 million a year in the future.

So it would have  been more reassuring if the response from the US executive branch included some opposition to the notion of a more concentrated market.  Instead,
Asked to comment today, Nicholas Papas, a spokesman for President Barack Obama, referred in an e-mail to the president’s remarks on June 22 touting the health-care overhaul.

The law 'will put an end to some of the worst practices in the insurance industry,' such as canceling policies when patients get sick or imposing lifetime limits on coverage, Obama, a Democrat, said at a White House ceremony.

The changes 'will make America’s health-care system more consumer-driven and more cost-effective and give Americans the peace of mind that their insurance will be there when they need it,' Obama said. 'Insurance companies should see this reform as an opportunity to improve care and increase competition.'

And rather than worrying about the government's response,
Angela Braly, WellPoint’s chairman and chief executive officer, was among a group of insurance chiefs who met Obama June 22. While Democrats have attacked the company for its premium increases, the relationship is improving, Kleinman said.

'The Obama administration understands that we need to work in partnership, that in order to make health-care reform work, the carriers need to be able to charge appropriate rates and make an appropriate margin,' he said. 'Hopefully, a lot of that bad rhetoric is behind us.'

If the increasing concentration of power in health insurance does not meet a more effective challenge, we will need a lot more than rhetoric, good or bad, to save health care.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The Second Coming (Slouching Towards Bethlehem), by W B Yeats

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One issue that surprised me during the health care debate has been the position of the insurance companies. While, from my perspective, the various government agencies tasked with scoring the cost took great pains to explain they were scoring a very specific, pretested scenario, one with a very limited time line.

The issue that has only been recently raised is that health insurance is a state regulated industry. There is no federal regulation and no federal price controls. While national politicians can speak all they want about “watching” insurance companies and their pricing the reality is they have no control.

While we may support many of the concepts in the health reform act, with the addition of so many requirements prices can only rise. Stockholders may only see an average return on their investments, but this has not stopped many in the insurance industry from enriching themselves.

Between the lobbying and accounting the insurance companies will win continuing price increases, to think otherwise is to ignore the facts.

Steve Lucas