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The Evolution Of A Two-Tier Health Insurance Exchange System


August 13th, 2014

Note: In addition to Rosemarie Day, this post is also coauthored by Pamela Nadash and Angelique Hrycko.

Health reform has been a catalyst for change. It has fostered the creation of public health insurance exchanges and accelerated existing trends in health insurance coverage for employees. Many employers are reevaluating their coverage offerings, some employers are no longer providing insurance coverage, and, among those who continue to offer it, high deductible plans with restricted networks are becoming the norm.

In addition, employers are increasingly outsourcing health insurance benefits management by moving employees to private health insurance exchanges – often in combination with a shift toward a defined contribution approach. Estimates vary, but surveys show that anywhere from 9 to 45 percent of employers plan to implement private exchanges in the future.

Accenture (figure 1) has predicted that by 2018, private exchange enrollment will outpace public exchange enrollment.

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Implementing Health Reform: Medicare And The ACA Marketplaces (Updated)


August 12th, 2014

On August 1, 2014, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a set of frequently asked questions on the relationship between Medicare and the marketplaces. This is not the first guidance CMS has published on this topic, and much of the information in the FAQ was already available. The FAQ is also quite repetitive, as it answers the same questions under different headings, such as “general enrollment FAQs” and “consumer messaging,” but does contain useful information. This post briefly summarizes the FAQ.

The FAQ emphasizes the fact that Medicare and marketplaces operate independently, with little overlap. The marketplaces do not enroll individuals in Medicare or in Medicare Advantage plans and do not sell Medicare supplement plans. Indeed, exchanges cannot legally sell coverage to Medicare beneficiaries.

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The Payment Reform Landscape: Accountable Care Organizations


August 5th, 2014

Note: In addition to Suzanne Delbanco, this post is also coauthored by David Lansky.

“The accountable care organization is like a unicorn, a fantastic creature that is vested with mythical powers. But no one has actually seen one,” said former California HealthCare Foundation CEO, Mark Smith, MD, in 2010. Over the last four years, we’ve certainly seen a proliferation of unicorns and we’re now reaching the point where fantasy—at least in a handful of cases—is becoming a reality.

A growing number of large employers are piloting accountable care organizations (ACOs), working through their health plan; in some cases they are doing so directly with provider systems, such as the new Boeing arrangement with Providence Health and Services, Swedish Health Services, and University of Washington Medicine and Intel’s contracting efforts in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Portland, Oregon. The large employers and other health care purchasers with whom we work — eager, if not desperate, for solutions to contain the costs of health care and improve its quality — are watching these first movers carefully to see if ACOs prove to be a viable strategy for improving population health and bending the cost trend.

These leading purchasers intend to set the bar high. They cannot make the investment to pursue these ACO relationships if they are not assured that their populations will see meaningful, measurable gains in their health care and its affordability, as well as their health. That often means contractual commitments to lowering total costs of care and showing improved patient outcomes for targeted populations — like high risk, medically complex patients. Our purchaser colleagues who have been among the early adopters of ACO arrangements have begun to identify the features critical to successful ACOs; these are the elements other purchasers will look for when deciding if it’s worth proceeding.

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Implementing Health Reform: IRS Releases Premium Tax Credit Rules And Draft Forms


July 25th, 2014

Although the focus of activity the week of July 21 was in the courts, the agencies were not totally silent. On July 24, 2014 the Internal Revenue Service released final and temporary and proposed regulations addressing issues that are presented by the premium tax credit program. The IRS also released drafts of the forms that individuals, insurers, and employers will use for reporting information to the IRS necessary for reconciliation of premium tax credits and for the enforcement of the individual and employer mandate programs. Finally, the IRS set the maximum individual mandate penalty for individuals whose income is high enough that they pay the penalty as a percentage of income rather than a flat dollar amount. This amount is established by the statute as the average cost of a bronze level plan for the applicable family size for 2014 and was set by the IRS at $2,448 per individual annually, up to $12,240 for families of five or more.

The draft forms operationalize the reporting requirements established by rules published earlier. Insurers and self-insured health plans will provide a Form 1095-B to each of their enrollees and members, and file these forms, together with a transmittal form 1094-B with the IRS. Large employers must provide a form 1095-C to each employee, and transmit these, together with a transmittal form 1095-B to the IRS. Exchanges will provide their enrollees a form 1095-A. Individuals who receive premium tax credits will file a form 8962 with the IRS, while individuals claiming an exemption from the individual mandate will file a form 8965. Though the forms are not accompanied by instructions, they are quite straightforward and track closely the earlier released rules.

The final and temporary rules address several situations that will arise under the premium tax credit program that have not yet been addressed by the premium tax credit rules. The temporary rules are identical to the proposed rules and will cease to apply once the proposed rules are finalized.

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The Latest Health Wonk Review


July 21st, 2014

Over at Wing of Zock, Jennifer Salopek offers some fresh thoughts in her “Polar Vortex” Health Wonk Review. Jennifer highlights Health Affairs Blog posts on the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision by Tim Jost, John Kraemer, and Sara Rosenbaum and coauthors, as well as a slew of other great posts.

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Implementing Health Reform: Hobby Lobby Response, The ACA In The Territories, And More


July 18th, 2014

July 17, 2014 was a remarkably active day in an otherwise quiet week for Affordable Care Act implementation. First, the Departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health and Human Services issued their first response to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision —a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) guidance requiring ERISA plans to provide notice to their participants and beneficiaries if they do not intend to cover contraceptives. Second, the Department of Health and Human Services sent letters to the territories (the Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico) informing them that insurers that market individual insurance policies in the territories are no longer required to comply with the ACA’s insurance market reforms.

Third, HHS released an enrollment bulletin at its REGTAP website describing how insurers in the federally facilitated exchange should handle enrollment for 2015 for individuals whose coverage was terminated in 2014 for non-payment. This post describes these issuances, as well as the May Medicaid enrollment report released on July 11, 2014 by HHS

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Income Verification On The Exchanges: The Broader Policy Picture


July 14th, 2014

The Affordable Care Act scandal de jour (or at least one of them) is the difficulty the exchanges have faced in verifying the eligibility of many premium tax credit applicants. Two Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General Reports in early July documented the existence of these problems. One reported that as of the first quarter of 2014, the federal exchange alone had been unable to resolve 2.6 or 2.9 million data inconsistencies. Another reported that internal controls at the federal and two state exchanges were not fully effective in ensuring that individuals enrolled in exchanges were in fact eligible.

House Republicans claim that in fact there are 4 million data inconsistencies affecting half of all enrollments. In House Energy and Commerce hearings on June 10, 2014, Republican Representative Charles Bustany Jr. claimed that $44 billion in improper payments would be made over the next 10 years. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Bush Administration official, who testified at the hearings claims that improper payments may equal $152 billion. The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee is holding further hearings on data inconsistencies on July 16.

The seriousness of verification issues should not be overestimated. The administration has been put in place procedures to verify carefully premium tax credit applications. Many of the discrepancies CMS is attempting to resolve do not relate to income eligibility, and those that do may result ultimately in a finding of eligibility for increased, rather than decreased, premium tax credits. A discrepancy that could result in the need for additional documentation may be as trivial as a hyphen left out of a name or a digit transposed on a Social Security number.

Unfortunately, programs proposed by Republicans and other ACA opponents that in fact make a serious attempt to cover the uninsured will require income reporting and face similar difficulties. Current reform proposals that avoid coverage eligibility determinations will not in fact cover the uninsured. While the administration could have perhaps done a better job in making eligibility determinations, any means-tested program faces a similar challenge. It is possible to design a system that does not rely on means testing and could cover low-income and high-cost uninsured Americans, as I describe below. But it would be a very different system than the ACA or alternatives currently being proposed.

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Implementing Health Reform: A Follow-Up Supreme Court Contraceptives Decision At Odds With Hobby Lobby


July 4th, 2014

On July 3, 2014, the Supreme Court decided its second contraceptive case of the 2013-2014 term, Wheaton College v. Burwell. The decision demonstrates why more Americans now believe that the justices are doing a poor job (27 percent) than believe they are doing an excellent or good job (26 percent combined), and why 76 percent of Americans believe that the justices decides cases based on their own personal and political opinions rather than legal analysis.

The Wheaton College decision seems to contradict directly the Hobby Lobby decision the Court had entered three days earlier. The Court offered virtually no justification for its change of position. Indeed, one wonders whether the men on the Court, in their haste to get out of town even bothered to read the scathing but well-reasoned dissent filed by Justice Sotomayor for the women of the Court, with which they did not engage.

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After Hobby Lobby: How Might Policymakers Mitigate The Decision’s Impact On Women And Families?


July 3rd, 2014

Editor’s note: In addition to Sara Rosenbaum, Adam Sonfield and Rachel Benson Gold also coauthored this post. 

On June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling that has the potential to undermine an important provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that establishes for women a federal guarantee of coverage for their full range of contraceptive methods, services, and counseling without any out-of-pocket costs. This guarantee is administered through private health plans, whether purchased in the individual market or made available through the insurers and plan administrators that provide group coverage.

The 5-4 ruling in Burrell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, written by Justice Samuel Alito on behalf of the Court’s conservative bloc, held that closely held for-profit corporations that assert a religious objection to some or all forms of contraception cannot be required to include such coverage in the health plans they sponsor for employees and their families. As emphasized by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissent (joined in whole by Justice Sotomayor and in part by Justices Kagan and Breyer), the Court’s decision could have serious and widespread consequences.

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The Supreme Court And The Contraception Mandate: A Temporary Setback For Contraception Coverage


June 30th, 2014

Editor’s note: See Health Affairs Blog for more coverage of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision.

Today, the United States Supreme Court ruled that for-profit companies may avoid providing contraception coverage to employees if the companies sincerely object on religious grounds. At its narrowest interpretation, this decision is a significant but remediable setback for women’s reproductive health. At its broadest (but least likely interpretation), the decision has the potential to wreak havoc on public health regulation.

The legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) contraception mandate have been well described in three previous Health Affairs Blog posts. To briefly recap, though, the ACA requires preventive services to be covered without copayments or other cost sharing in most employer-supported health plans. To implement this requirement, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued regulations that include all FDA-approved contraceptives, and a company that does not provide no-cost coverage of contraception is subject to substantial penalties.

Three groups of employers are exempt from the mandate: small businesses with less than 50 employees, purely religious employers, and “grandfathered” plans that have not changed meaningfully since the ACA was passed. Additionally, religiously affiliated non-profits (such as universities and hospitals) received a special accommodation from HHS by which women can receive contraception from third-party insurers at no extra cost to employees or the organization if the organization objects to covering contraception and identifies an alternate insurer.

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Implementing Health Reform: Exchange Eligibility Redeterminations; Small Employer Tax Credit


June 27th, 2014

While it seems like the 2014 open enrollment period just ended, the 2015 open enrollment period, which begins on November 15, is in fact only four and a half months away. On June 26, 2014, the Department of Health and Human Services released a proposed rule addressing eligibility redeterminations for 2015. Together with the proposed rule, HHS issued a guidance describing how the federally facilitated exchange intends to redetermine eligibility, as well as draft standard notices for health plans to use when discontinuing or renewing plans in the individual and small group market and instructions for completing those notices.

On the same date, the Internal Revenue Service released final rules governing the small employer tax credit program. This post will discuss these rules and guidances, as well as another court decision rejecting a challenge to the individual mandate and another spate of FAQs on the SHOP exchange program.

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Behind The Numbers: Slight Rise In Health Care Spending Growth Projected


June 24th, 2014

PwC’s Health Research Institute (HRI) released its ninth annual Medical Cost Trend: Behind the Numbers report today. This forward-looking report is based on interviews with industry executives, health policy experts, and health plan actuaries whose companies cover a combined 93 million members. Findings from PwC’s Health and Well-being Touchstone Survey of 1,200 employers from 35 industries are also included.

HRI projects that after a five-year contraction in spending growth in the employer-sponsored market, the growth rate will rise to 6.8 percent in 2015, up from the 6.5 percent projected last year.

What are the biggest drivers of the growth in health care costs? We identify four cost inflators in this report, and I would like to highlight two. First, the economy. More than five years after the end of the Great Recession, the improved economy is finally translating into greater medical spending. Consumers are now addressing health issues they ignored or postponed previously.

Secondly, the high cost of specialty drugs. While only four percent of patients use specialty drugs, those medications account for 25 percent of total U.S. drug spending. And estimates are that U.S. specialty drug spending will quadruple by 2020

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Implementing Health Reform: Employer Orientation Periods; Risk Corridor Payments


June 21st, 2014

It has long been apparent to those of us who follow Affordable Care Act regulatory activity that the implementing agencies have a penchant for releasing rules on Friday afternoons in the 4:15 Federal Register post. True to form, at 4:15 on June 20, the Departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health and Human Services released a final rule clarifying the effect of orientation periods on a provision of the ACA that prohibits employer-sponsored health plans from imposing a waiting period of more than 90 days before the beginning of coverage for full-time employees.

Section 2708 of the Public Health Services Act, enacted through the ACA, forbids group health plans and insurers that cover groups from imposing waiting periods on new enrollees that exceed 90 days. The provision, enforced by all three agencies, is incorporated by the ACA into ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code and thus applies to all employers; it does not apply to individual plans. The agencies had released a guidance on waiting periods in 2012 and and published a final rule in 2014 The penalty for violating this prohibition is $100 per employee per day of violation.

The earlier final rule clarified that a “waiting period” is the period that may elapse before an employer must cover an employee or dependent who is otherwise eligible to enroll under the terms of a group health plan. To be otherwise eligible to enroll the employee must meet the plan’s substantive eligibility conditions (for example, being in an eligible job classification, achieving job-related licensure requirements specified in the plan’s terms, or being a full-time employee), but such requirements cannot be mere subterfuges for the passage of time. One such legitimate requirement specified in the final rule is completing a reasonable and bona fide employment-based orientation period.

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How Much Market Power Do Hospital Systems Have?


June 12th, 2014

Sometimes big game hunters find frustration when their prey moves by the time they’ve lined up to blast it. That certainly appears to be the case with the health policy target de jour: whether providers, hospital systems in particular, exert too much market power. A recent cluster of papers in Health Affairs and policy conferences this spring have targeted the question of whether hospital mergers have contributed to inflation in health costs, and what to do about them.

Hospitals’ market power appears to be one of those frustrating moving targets. The past eighteen months have seen a spate of hospital industry layoffs by market-leading institutions, and also a string of terrible earnings releases from some of the most powerful hospital systems and “integrated delivery networks” in the country. These mediocre operating results raise questions about how much market power big hospital systems and IDNs do, in fact, exert.

The two systems everyone points to as poster children for excessive market power-California-based Sutter Health and Boston’s Partners Healthcare, both released abysmal operating results in April. Mighty Partners reported a paltry $3 million in operating income on $2.7 billion in revenues in their second (winter) quarter of FY14. Partners cited a 4.5 percent reduction in admissions and a 1.6 percent decline in outpatient visits as main drivers. Captive health insurance losses dragged down Partners’ patient care results.

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Implementing Health Reform: SHOP Employee Choice State Opt-Outs And Navigator Grants (Updated)


June 10th, 2014

On June 10, 2014, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released the list of federal exchange states where employee choice will not be available for the SHOP exchange for 2015. CMS had provided that the federal exchange would, beginning in 2015, permit employers in the SHOP exchange to either 1) choose a single plan for their employees, or 2) choose a metal tier (bronze, silver, gold, or platinum) and then allow employees to choose any plan offered within that tier, with the exchange aggregating premiums from the various plans chosen by employees and allowing the employer to pay a single premium. In the 2015 exchange final rule, however, CMS permitted state insurance commissioners in federal exchange states to ask that their states be allowed to opt out of employee choice for 2015 if they concluded that employee choice would cause adverse selection within their small group insurance markets.

Apparently, 18 state insurance commissioners asked that their states be allowed to opt out and all requests were granted. Federal exchange states that will not offer employee choice in 2015 include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Employers in these states will be able to offer their employees a single health and a single dental plan through the SHOP exchange.

Employee choice will be available in 14 states: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Employers in these states will be able to either offer their employees a single health and dental plan, or offer them a choice of health plans within a single metal level and dental plans within a single coverage level.

Barring a further change in policy, employee choice will be available in all federal exchange states in 2016. Employee choice was already available in most of the state exchange states for 2014, and presumably will continue to be so in 2015

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Implementing Health Reform: State Opt-Outs From Employee Choice In SHOP And Other Developments


June 4th, 2014

If any further evidence were needed that the release of Affordable Care Act regulations has largely ceased for the immediate future, the Office of Management and Budget Spring Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions provides it. The Regulatory Agenda reveals that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is currently working on final rules governing third party payments of qualified health plan (QHP) premiums and fair hearing and appeal procedures for Medicaid and exchange enrollment, as well as proposed rules for accepted benefit plans and, eventually, the 2016 notice of benefit and payment parameters; however, nothing seems likely to be released very soon.

The Internal Revenue Services (IRS) is drafting proposed rules on reporting of minimum essential coverage and final regulations on reporting of information for health insurance exchanges, defining minimum value for employer coverage, and determining whether employment-related health insurance is affordable for the family of an employee (the family glitch). It is also working on further regulations addressing the small employer premium tax credit, minimum essential coverage and other individual responsibility requirement issues. Most of these are topics on which the IRS has already provided partial rules, interim final rules, or other guidance, and no major new developments are anticipated imminently.

State opt-outs from employee choice in the 2015 SHOP exchange. Despite the lull in rulemaking, HHS continues to be very active at the subregulatory level as it prepares for 2015. In particular, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has been very focused on getting the SHOP exchange operational. CMS failed to implement many elements of the SHOP exchange program for the 2014 open enrollment period, including employee plan choice and aggregation of premiums. These elements were to be implemented for 2015.

Under the 2015 Exchange Rule, however, state insurance commissioners were allowed to ask that their states be excused from employee choice in the SHOP exchanges by submitting to CMS a written recommendation “adequately explaining that it is the State Insurance Commissioner’s expert judgment, based on a documented assessment of the full landscape of the small group market in his or her State, that not implementing employee choice would be in the best interests of small employers and their employees and dependents.”

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Repeal, And Replace, The Employer Mandate


June 4th, 2014

As it enters its fifth year, the Affordable Care Act has chalked up an impressive list of accomplishments. More than 8 million Americans have chosen a health plan through the ACA exchanges. At least another five million have likely enrolled in Medicaid. The minimum medical loss ratio requirement has saved privately insured Americans billions of dollars, while the closing of the doughnut hole has saved Medicare beneficiaries billions more. The percentage of Americans who are uninsured is dropping precipitously and is already at the lowest level it has been for years.

Recent polling, however, seems to show that Americans are not yet impressed — a majority still oppose the Affordable Care Act. Significantly, however, polling also consistently shows that Americans are not giving up on the law–a substantial majority of Americans are against repealing the ACA and would rather that problems with the ACA be fixed. Support for amending the law should create an opening for lawmakers who can identify real problems with the ACA and propose practical solutions.

One provision of the ACA that cries out for repair is the employer mandate. The Urban Institute has recently raised the question, “Why Not Just Eliminate the Employer Mandate?Conservative advocacy groups have called for its repeal for some time. Repeal of the employer mandate might, in fact, not be such a bad idea, as long as the current mandate was replaced with a better alternative.

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Implementing Health Reform: Final 2015 Exchange And Insurance Market Standards Rule (Part 2)


May 18th, 2014

This is the second of two posts on the May 16, 2014 Exchange and Insurance Market Standards for 2015 and Beyond final rule. The first post covered what I consider to be the five most important issues addressed by the rule. This post covers the remaining issues. It will also analyze guidance issued on May 16, 2014 by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Internal Revenue Service.

Many of the issues that are covered by the rule but not analyzed in my first post are quite technical. The final rule, for example, includes complex procedures through which plan sponsors of self-funded, non-federal governmental plans can opt out of requirements of title XXVII of the Public Health Services Act that antedate the ACA, such as mental health parity, newborn and mother coverage, and reconstructive surgery following mastectomies coverage mandates. Another section provides that the ACA’s guaranteed availability requirement does not require insurers to sell coverage where the sale would otherwise be prohibited by federal or state law. An example of such a prohibition is the provision of the Social Security Act that forbids the sale of individual coverage to anyone who is entitled to Medicare Part A coverage or enrolled in Medicare Part B or Premium Part A coverage. (Medicare eligibility is not, however, a grounds for termination or non-renewal of individual coverage).

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Implementing Health Reform: Final 2015 Exchange And Insurance Market Standards Rule


May 17th, 2014

On May 16, 2014, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a final rule on Exchange and Insurance Market Standards for 2015 and beyond. The rule was accompanied by a fact sheet and a set of Frequently Asked Questions.

This is a lengthy rule, running to over 400 pages including the preface. This is remarkable, given that the notice of proposed rulemaking on which it is based was published less than two months ago, in mid-March. I blogged about it here. The rapid turnaround on this rule indicates the urgency CMS has felt to lay down the rules that insurers must play by for 2015, as they are even now deciding whether or not to offer coverage through the exchanges and establishing their rates for 2015.

The rule not only establishes exchange and insurance market rules for 2015, however; it also addresses a range of issues that had been left unresolved by earlier rulemaking. Some of these are very technical, but others are quite important.

This post will address five of the most important and controversial issues addressed by the final rule: the regulation of navigators; changes in the premium stabilization programs; the regulation of fixed-indemnity plans; provisions for state regulators to veto employee choice in the SHOP exchange for 2015; and procedures for enrollees to obtain an exception to formulary restrictions in exigent situations.A subsequent post will analyze the remaining issues addressed by the rule. The second post will also discuss the FAQ and guidance released by the IRS on May 16.

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Managed Competition 2014: Rescued By The Private Sector?


May 12th, 2014

Managed Competition (MC) among health care financing and delivery systems was first conceived as a proposed public policy to drive delivery system change in the private sector by assuring consumers that they have choices, as well as rewards for choosing high-value providers. Many legislative proposals have used MC ideas in whole or in part. The Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) exchanges reflect the MC idea, but the three percent of the population they cover is too small to drive large scale change.

The new private corporate exchanges are also based on MC. While they cover few people now, private exchanges have the potential to change the incentives for tens of millions of consumers, and — if done right — to drive large scale delivery system reform. The combination of both kinds of exchanges could be powerful.

This post puts the idea of managed competition in a historical context, then describes how private exchanges are operationalizing the concept. I conclude with a brief look at how managed competition may develop going forward, and how MC may change the health care system.

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