By Robert Laszewski

First Posted at Health Care Policy and Marketplace Review on 5/28/2013

Bob Laszewski, Host of Health Care Policy and Marketplace Review

Bob Laszewski, Host of Health Care Policy and Marketplace Review

I have to say I was surprised with the press reports last week that there wasn’t “rate shock” in California when the California exchange offered preliminary information about their new plans and rates.

At least one prominent health actuarial group had predicted a 30% baseline increase in costs for California’s new health insurance exchange plans under the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare”).

As the director of the California exchange put it, “These rates are way below the worst-case gloom-and-doom scenarios we have heard.”

But a few days later there is lots more information coming out and it would appear we have a case of apples to oranges to grapefruit. And, we have a pretty good case of rate shock.

First, the exchange officials pointed out that we have to be careful to compare apples to apples when looking at 2013 rates and comparing them to the 2014 exchange rates because the 2014 exchange plans have far more generous benefits.

Yes we do, particularly when the California exchange forces us to give up our apple and buy a more expensive orange.

One of the reasons health insurance in the exchange will cost a lot more in most states is because the new health law outlaws many of the existing plans now being offered and requires only those much richer plans to be sold.

Are people going to get more coverage for their money? Yes. Do they want more coverage if the premium costs for those plans is a lot higher? Likely yes if taxpayers are paying for most of it. If not, clearly they didn’t want to pay for it before. Come January, lots of California consumers in the small group and individual market are going to get a letter from their existing insurer telling them their current plan is no longer available and the cost of the new required plans will be a lot more.

Simply, the new law is taking plan design choices away instead of letting the consumer decide what is good for them. Does that matter in California?

As the LA Times reported, “The average premium for individual plans sold through EHealthInsurance in California was $177 per month last year. Covered California said the average premium for the three lowest Silver plans statewide will be $321 a month [+81% over two years], albeit for more comprehensive benefits.”

For those insured right now, and the estimated 40% that won’t be eligible for a federal premium subsidy, that sure looks like rate shock to me. For the 60% who will get a subsidy, this means the taxpayers are going to have to fork out lots more money.

Then one of the largest insurers in California, Blue Shield, announced that their average rate increase would be 13% under the new law. That sure looks better than the predicted 30% increase for California exchange plans.

But wait, that Blue Shield exchange plan in LA, for example, does not include UCLA Medical Center or Cedars Sinai. In fact, Shield’s exchange network includes a total of only 24,000 physicians compared to 66,000 doctors in their full PPO network––only 36% of their usual network docs will be available.

Last week a national player told me there is a nationwide trend growing where the insurer offers a very limited list of providers exclusivity in their exchange plans for deeper payment discounts in the 30% range––the narrow network plan would be the health plan’s only offering in the exchange. The tactic was described to me as a “quasi Medicaid strategy for the exchanges.”

Health insurers have long struggled to keep premiums low by offering their customers lower benefit options at renewal. Apparently, with that option limited under the new health law, insurers are now sometimes opting to keep premiums lower by limiting provider options.

Let’s be clear, “narrow network” plans that contract with fewer lower cost providers are a legitimate cost containment strategy. But Shield is only offering the narrow network in the exchange. While some health plans will sell their regular broader network outside the exchange, consumers can only get the federal premium subsidy inside the exchange. Looks like oranges to grapefruit to me.

The California exchange touted its announcement saying, “This is a home run for consumers in every region of California.”

Let’s see what California’s individual and small group market consumers have to say once they start getting those renewal letters and go to the provider directory to see which doctors and hospitals they can go to.

An aside: I have to give LA Times reporter Chad Terhune lots of credit for staying with this story. During the past few days, he has written three articles (see links above). The first generally summarized the California Exchange press conference, the second dug a little deeper, and the third really got to the heart of the matter. In the end, LA readers got the whole story.