Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Separating Self-Insurance Facts From Fiction

Note: The following commentary appears in the February 20, 2012 edition of Business Insurance Magazine as part of its special spotlight report on self-insurance for the middle market.

Small and midsize companies are looking at self-insurance as a cost-effective health care benefits solution as Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act deadlines approach. Michael W. Ferguson serves as chief operating officer for the Self-Insurance Institute of America Inc., looks at facts and myths surrounding the decision to self-insure.

As more smaller and midsize companies look to self-insurance solutions to control escalating group health care costs in the wake of passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, this proactive risk management approach has attracted increased negative attention from traditional health insurance industry and state regulators who warn of various calamities.

Of course, this criticism is largely predictable, as health insurance carriers are worried about market-share erosion, and state regulators don’t like the fact they cannot directly regulate self-insured group health plans because of Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) pre-emption. Nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out some of the more frequently repeated canards in order to help clear up any confusion this may cause for employers considering self-insurance.

But first the disclaimer: Self-insurance is not the best option for every employer, regardless of size. In fact, it could be a very bad option based on a variety of considerations. In this regard, it is highly recommended that employers engage in the same type of thorough due diligence they would rely on for any other major financial decision.

That said, let’s jump in and separate some important myths from realities.

Perhaps the most unfortunate allegation is that a primary motive for many employers to self-insure is that they can escape regulation, raising consumer protection concerns. While it is true that self-insured plans are not subject to state benefit mandates, there is no evidence to suggest that self-insured employers scrimp on covered benefits. In fact, it is widely acknowledged that self-insured plans incorporate more robust coverage terms for key health services because they have the ability to customize their plans to meet the specific needs of their employees.

And for employers switching to self-insurance since the passage of PPACA, they don’t evade any new substantive federal regulations—except those specifically geared for commercial health insurance carriers—because, by definition, they would establish “non-grandfathered” plans.

The reality is that self-insured employers actually subject themselves to more regulatory requirements because they are governed by ERISA, which prescribes strict federal rules for plan fiduciaries, among other requirements designed to protect the interests of plan participants.

Some critics also claim that self-insured health plans are more cost-effective because they deny claims at a higher rate than fully insured plans. But in a report issued by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services last year, HHS-contracted researchers from RAND Corp. concluded that there is no evidence of such disparity.

Then there’s the belief that self-insured plan participants pay higher premiums than their fully insured counterparts. The available data does not support this conclusion, either.

As part of a U.S. Department of Labor report on self-insured health plans released last year, Deloitte Financial Advisory Services L.L.P. and Advanced Analytical Consulting Group, Inc. found that from 2009 to 2010 for employers with more than 200 covered lives, the average per employee premium contribution to be covered by fully-insured plans increased by $808 compared to average increase of $248 for self-insured premiums.

Most recently, influential academics and public policymakers predicted that such self-insured plans would contribute to adverse selection when insurance market reforms are fully implemented, suggesting that employers would switch back and forth between self-insured and exchange-offered plans based on their claims experience on a yearly basis.

That’s a nice conspiracy theory for sure, but it does not match up with marketplace realities. The fact is that due to ongoing administrative and compliance requirements, employers cannot simply switch their self-insured plans on and off.

Moreover, once an employer transitions to a fully insured health plan, it loses possession of claims data, which makes it more difficult to re-establish a self-insured plan in the future regardless of other considerations.

Claims data is arguably the most important health plan asset, as it can help employers control future health plan costs and can be used to customized plan design details. Giving up this asset over one bad claim year is not a decision to be taken lightly by plan sponsors.

The health care marketplace is certainly evolving, creating shifting roles for self-insurers, commercial health insurance companies and public sector payers. All three industry segments contribute in different ways to ensure that coverage is as available and affordable for the widest population possible.

Those who disseminate misleading information about any of these segments do a disservice to the ongoing public dialogue on how to improve the country’s health care system.

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