You hate your health insurance company for the same reason you hate your cable company

It’s not all their fault.

According to a recent Harris Poll, health and life insurance companies are among the least-trusted companies in the US. Just 7% of the surveyed 2,250 adults told Harris they trusted their health insurance company, while 10% said the same of life insurance companies…

…The health and life insurance sectors narrowly beat out telemarketing and social media companies, with a 6% approval rating; oil companies with 4%; and tobacco companies with an abysmal 3%.

Insurance Business America, June 16, 2015

Ouch.

I spent four years working at Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, most of which was spent answering calls from members. As the face of the company, I felt that mistrust directed right at me. I was often the bearer of bad news, and people tend to shoot the messenger. And, in a way, that’s also what health insurance companies are: the messengers of bad news about our healthcare system.

(Side note: Please be kind to the people answering the phone. They are at the bottom of the totem pole, and they’re not the ones making the decisions. They have highly stressful jobs, and they’re really trying to help you as much as they possibly can.)

Is that mistrust of the health insurance industry justified? Yes and no.

Running a health insurance company is an endless series of tradeoffs and competing priorities. There’s no way to please all of the people all of the time, and that holds especially true in this industry.

So, here are a few things to consider that you might not have thought about.

1) Health insurance plans and premiums are tightly regulated. Each state has a department of insurance that must approve all health plan premiums based on their actuarial value and claims experience. Setting these amounts is really just a question of math, and that’s why actuaries are so valuable. Not only that, but insurers are required by law to keep a large amount of cash reserves on hand to pay claims. Different insurance companies offer different sets of plans, but the fundamental rules remain the same. And, with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, insurers must pay out at least 80 percent of their premiums out in claims or send their customers a refund for the difference. So, that leaves the other 20 percent for shareholder profits, buildings, technology, marketing, employees, and everything else. Note that these ratios are based on the premiums and claims for an entire group and not just you as an individual.

2) You’re probably not the primary customer. If you have an employer-sponsored health plan, your employer chooses your plan. They have many health plans competing for their business, and one of the primary concerns (if not the primary concern) is price. Health insurers offer a variety of plans that are more and less comprehensive, but employers will understandably gravitate toward plans that cost less. The plans that cost less are going to be less generous with benefits because of what I mentioned before about actuarial value. So, if you are dissatisfied with your benefits, it’s not because the health plan didn’t offer a more generous plan; it’s that your employer didn’t want to pay for it. Even if you buy your own health insurance, you undoubtedly face these same cost pressures and need to strike the right balance between paying premiums and paying potential medical bills that the insurance doesn’t.

3) Your health insurance company is kind of like a TV provider. You have probably seen TV networks or local stations getting dropped from cable (or satellite or streaming) subscriptions or warning you that they are about to be dropped. Ultimately, the TV network is having a contract dispute with the cable provider. In order to keep carrying the channels you want to watch, your cable provider has to pay up to the networks. When contracts are up for renewal, there are often disputes about how much the provider has to pay. And it’s exactly the same thing with health insurance companies getting into contract disputes with physicians and hospitals over reimbursement rates. If the health insurance company has to pay higher reimbursement rates to physicians and hospitals in order to keep them in the network, they have to pass that increased cost along to its customers in terms of premiums. I had to answer a lot of questions about these network disputes with people worrying that their doctor or hospital was about to go out of network, and the only thing I could explain was that they’re having a dispute about money. As long as there are multiple sources of revenue, physicians and hospitals can play them off each other as they seek higher reimbursement rates.

At the top of this post, I said the mistrust wasn’t all their fault. With perhaps a few exceptions, they are following the law, and they have lawyers and compliance officers to make sure of it.

Yet some of the mistrust by consumers is well-deserved, and that mistrust should be directed at their political activities. Private health insurance companies simply can’t fix the medical arms race and skyrocketing reimbursements on their own, and that’s because there are multiple insurers. Health insurance companies spend large amounts of money on lobbying and advertising to resist regulations unfavorable to them or being legislated out of existence altogether.

There is one solution that really can help, and that’s a single-payer system. If the government were the sole source of revenue for healthcare providers, then that would be a monopsony. And monopsony power can drive down costs. They would have to accept what the government reimbursed or stop practicing altogether. (Yes, shortages are a real danger of monopsonies that we would have to consider.)

It’s already rare to hear about providers no longer accepting Medicare, even though the reimbursement is lower than from private insurance, because so many patients are on Medicare. If every patient of every age were on Medicare, then that would decrease physicians’ and hospitals’ leverage even more.

Only a single-payer system can truly address the exorbitant prices for medical services in the USA. Insurers have been unable to contain these costs for the reasons I described earlier, and the result is that even insured patients are paying higher and higher medical bills while their employers pay higher and higher premiums.

Although private insurers aren’t the primary cause of the cost problem, they need to get out of the way of a solution that could really contain costs.

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