Putting Public Exchanges in Perspective Notes for Employer Sponsored Coverage | Mercer US

Putting Public Exchanges in Perspective Notes for Employers

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Putting Public Exchanges in Perspective Notes for Employers
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Calendar15 September 2016

First, let’s put public exchange enrollment in perspective. It’s a relatively small piece of the pie, although you wouldn’t know it from the amount of attention it gets. In a Wall Street Journal article, Drew Altman reminds us “about 11 million people are enrolled in the marketplaces. More than 13 times that many, around 150 million, have coverage through employers, and there are 66 million people in Medicaid and 55 million in Medicare.  The marketplaces are an important part of Obamacare. However, more uninsured people have been covered by Medicaid expansions than in the marketplaces, even though 19 states have not expanded Medicaid. Millions of young adults have been covered on their parents’ employer plans.”  Another important point: 24 million Americans still do not have coverage, a number that would be smaller if all states had expanded Medicaid.

Here’s my take on what’s going on in the public exchanges -- and how it may affect employers.


  1. The Risk Pool is still risky. It was expected that the first people to enroll in the public plans would be those previously uninsured and in need of care -- and hence, more costly. Analysis done by CMS documents very little change in the per member per month medical cost from 2014 to 2015. While it may appear the risk pool is stable, the bad news is that it is not getting better. The expectation was that the risk pool would improve over the years as healthier people sign up. So far, that hasn’t been the case. The “young invincibles” are still not signing up, likely because the individual mandate penalty is still considerably lower than the cost of coverage
  1. Big-name carriers are losing money and leaving the market. To be sure, some regional players are entering the market, but overall it appears that fewer insurers will participate in the marketplaces in 2017. That means less competition among those that remain and thus less downward pressure on costs. As the WSJ article points out, affordability is very important in the individual market. Those not relying on a government subsidy may find more choices on the “off exchange” individual market. There are also implications for employers: cost shifting to group plans. When carriers lose money in one market segment, they try to make it up where they can.
  1. Estimates for premium cost increases for 2017 now range from 11% to 23%. A person enrolled in the exchange this year who is looking to minimize their cost increase in 2017 would need to switch to a lower cost plan -- and then would still likely see an 11% premium increase, according to a McKinsey analysis of 18 state exchanges and the District of Columbia. The situation could be even worse in the other states that have not yet filed their premiums for next year. Blue Cross Blue Shield has requested a 62 percent increase for next year in Tennessee and an average 65 percent increase in Arizona. See #1 above for why insurers are raising rates so sharply.
  1. Plans with limited provider networks have been popular. The reward for agreeing to a limited network of providers is a lower price tag for the plan. The downside is that members may have to change doctors, which is also the case when employers implement a narrow network plan. But if most plans on the exchange are narrow network plans, it becomes a less attractive option for early retirees, because the longer you have had a physician relationship -- and/or the greater your health care needs -- the more important those relationships are.
  1. Satisfaction is high among those previously uninsured; not so for those coming to the exchange from employer plans. Over time, exchange plans have begun to look very much like Medicaid plans, but with higher cost sharing. The impact of higher cost-sharing is mitigated by federal subsidies for much of the population with exchange coverage, which may be why they are generally satisfied with their coverage despite limited plan options and limited provider choices. But in most states, a relatively small number of individuals are willing to pay the full cost of the coverage that’s available on the exchange.

This last item -- on satisfaction -- is important. The exchanges are new and have real problems that need to be addressed through some policy changes and greater enrollment. (Policymakers might want to study how employers, through a lot of hard work, have stabilized cost increases at about 4% over the past five years.) As the satisfaction data shows, the exchanges are clearly filling a critical unmet need for Americans who previously lacked access to decent coverage. But so far, they are not delivering an acceptable alternative to employer-sponsored coverage. Unless that changes, they will always play a limited role in the U.S. healthcare system.   

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