Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
search  
 
Subscribe   Subscribe   MI on Facebook Find us on Twitter Find us on Instagram      
 
 
   
 
     
 

Wall Street Journal

 

Harry Reid Turns Insurance Into a Public Utility

December 23, 2009

By Richard A. Epstein

As Harry Reid's 2,000 page health-care bill is being rammed through the Senate, most of the public debate has been focused on its expanded coverage, its now defunct public option, and its high taxes. Lost in the shuffle has been its intensely coercive requirements on health insurance issuers, especially in the individual and small group markets. Taken together, these restrictions are likely to drive them out of business and run afoul of the constitutional guarantee that all regulated industries have to a reasonable, risk-adjusted, rate of return on their invested capital.

The perils of the Reid bill are made evident in a recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report that focused on the bill's rebate program, which holds that once an insurance company spends more than 10% of its revenues on administrative expenses, its customers are entitled to an indefinite statutory rebate determined by state regulatory authorities subject to oversight by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Defining these administrative costs is a royal headache, but everyone agrees that they are heaviest in the small group and individual markets, where they typically range between 25% and 30%, without the new regulatory hassles.

The CBO concluded that this one restriction turned the Reid bill into "an essentially governmental program." In other words, the targeted health insurers would become de facto public utilities whose profits are gutted when the huge compliance costs under the Reid bill are piled on top of the hefty costs inherent in running a labor intensive health-care insurance business.

Worse still, the statutory rebate is only the tip of a larger regulatory iceberg that permeates the bill. Normally, insurers have the power to underwrite—to choose their line of business, to select and to price risks, and to decline unattractive risks. Not under the Reid bill. In its frantic effort to expand coverage to the uninsured, the bill will create state health-care exchanges supported by generous federal subsidies to unspecified millions of needy and low-income individuals. Any health insurance carrier that steers clear of these exchanges cannot keep its customers. Any insurance carrier that enters Mr. Reid's inferno will lose its financial shirt.

Here are some reasons why. Initially, all insurers have to take all comers and to renew all policies except for nonpayment of premiums. Insurers are not allowed to take into account differential risks based on pre-existing conditions. And the premium differentials based on such matters as age and tobacco use are smaller than the market spreads. If too many customers demand coverage from a given insurer to insure efficiently, it's the government that will decide how many they have to keep and who they are.

Next, it's the government that requires extensive coverage including "ambulatory patient services, emergency services, hospitalization, maternity and newborn care, mental health and substance abuse disorder services, prescription drugs, rehabilitative and habilitative [sic!] services and devices, laboratory services, preventive and wellness services and chronic disease management, pediatric services, including oral and vision care." The price squeeze gets even tighter because in every required area of care a collection of government standards will help set the minimum level of required services.

Ostensibly, the Reid bill does not impose any direct price controls on what health insurers can charge for this veritable cornucopia of services. But the bill's complex, cooperative federalism scheme authorizes state regulators, after recommendations from the federal government, to exclude insurers from the exchanges if their prices are too high, which would again be a competitive death knell. Exile from the exchange does not, however, restore traditional underwriting controls, as the Reid bill and other federal and state regulation continue to apply to these firms.

One common talking point of proponents of the Reid bill is that competitive markets don't really do a very good job of reining in costs. Indeed, the most common justification for the public option was to supply real competition to the private sector. Now that the option has vanished, the alternative regulatory technique is brute regulatory force. The argument seems to be that price controls alone can force out the waste and inefficiency that are posited to be the hallmark of private markets.

By this twisted logic, rent control is the perfect path to efficient competitive markets. Unfortunately, here no insurer can simply cut back on services provided given the minimum standards. And if it raises rates, the rebates cut ever more deeply during the next period. So essentially, there is no viable option for these firms either on the state exchange or off it.

The economic chaos that is likely to follow the disruption of private insurance health-care markets draws no attention from its Democratic supporters. Oddly enough, it has also been overlooked by the opponents of the bill who are so appalled by this hydra-headed monster that they don't have the patience to parse its mind-numbing provision.

Perhaps that indifference will end if the Supreme Court takes a hard look at this new adventure into rate regulation. Traditional public utility regulation applies to such services as gas, electric and water, which were supplied by natural monopolists. Left unregulated, they could charge excessive or discriminatory prices. The constitutional art of rate regulation sought to keep monopolists at competitive rates of return.

To control against the risk of confiscatory rates, the Supreme Court also required the state regulator to allow each firm to obtain a market rate of return on its invested capital, taking into account the inherent riskiness of the venture. The orthodox legal approach was summed up in Justice William Rehnquist's unanimous 1989 decision in Duquesne Light v. Barasch. Duquesne Light allowed the state regulators a wide choice of methods so long as the "bottom line" secured the appropriate rate of return. There's no need to discuss the fine points here, because not one syllable in the Reid bill is dedicated to securing that constitutionally guaranteed minimum rate of return.

Duquesne Light carries extra weight here because health-insurance industries are far from natural monopolies, so that regulating their rates calls for an extra dollop of judicial scrutiny. At this point, the Reid bill is on a collision course with the Constitution. I take it for granted that, constitutionally, the federal government could not just require all private health insurers to liquidate tomorrow, without compensation.

What's done here is a close second. The inexorable squeeze between the constricted revenue sources allowable that insurers get under the Reid bill and the extensive and uncertain new legal obligations it imposes is likely to result in a massive cash-flow crunch that will drive the firms in the individual and small-group health insurance markets into speedy bankruptcy. The Supreme Court should apply the constitutional brakes to this foolhardy scheme if Congress doesn't come to its senses first.

Original Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704304504574610040924143158.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

 

 
PRINTER FRIENDLY
 
LATEST FROM OUR SCHOLARS

‘Afroducking’ The Law: Deadly Excuses For Endangering Others
Nicole Gelinas, 11-17-14

2014’s Most Encouraging Democratic Victory
Daniel DiSalvo, 11-14-14

Bring Deferred Prosecution Agreements Out Of The Shadows
James R. Copland, 11-12-14

Coal Trumps IPCC, Again
Robert Bryce, 11-12-14

World Leaders, Ignore Obama And Do These Five Things Instead
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, 11-12-14

ACA Architect: ‘The Stupidity Of The American Voter’ Led Us To Hide ACA Costs
Avik Roy, 11-11-14

Cancer Drug Prices: A Convenient Scapegoat for a Complex Problem
Paul Howard, 11-11-14

A Supreme Court Case That Could Upend Obamacare
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, 11-11-14

 
 
 

The Manhattan Institute, a 501(c)(3), is a think tank whose mission is to develop and disseminate new ideas
that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility.

Copyright © 2014 Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Inc. All rights reserved.

52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017
phone (212) 599-7000 / fax (212) 599-3494