Sunday, December 6, 2009

Aetna prepares for loss of 600,000 members as it raises 2010 prices

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By Emily Berry

Back when it was the largest private health plan in the country, Aetna downsized its membership by millions but boosted profits during an overhaul of its business several years ago.

Now it looks to be making a similar — but smaller — move with a planned price increase for many of its customers in 2010.

The company figures it will lose between 600,000 and 650,000 members next year because of the price hikes.

In a conference call with investment analysts to discuss the company’s third-quarter earnings, Chair and CEO Ron Williams told analysts, “The pricing we put in place for 2009 turned out to not really be what we needed to achieve the results and margins that we had historically been delivering.”

Aetna President Mark Bertolini laid out how the company planned to raise prices to improve the company’s profit margin. He said the firm had “implemented a combination of underwriting enhancements, pricing actions and plan design changes, intended to ensure that each customer is priced to an appropriate margin.”

Laying out specific expected membership losses is “pretty candid,” said David Gibbs, a retired health insurance industry consultant from San Luis Obispo, Calif. He worked for and consulted with health insurers, including Aetna, for 25 years.

He said Aetna’s decision comes from a system that encourages insurers to drive away sicker members — a strategy not unique to one insurer. “They’re running a business, and their obligation is a very singular one: to increase shareholder profits.”

Gibbs said simply raising prices probably would not get Aetna what it wants. That actually tends to result in sick people who are more “desperate” for coverage to keep it, and healthier groups to drop it. Instead, Aetna might change benefit designs, scaling back prescription drug coverage, for example, which sicker populations tend to value but healthier ones don’t notice as much.

This act by Aetna indicates the level of sincerity the insurance industry has in its alleged new effort to cooperate in ensuring that everyone has the health care coverage that they need. Aetna is redesigning and repricing its products in order to dump over 600,000 of its less profitable members. They need to be sure that “each customer is priced to an appropriate margin.” And, above all, they owe it to their shareholders “to drive away sicker members.”

But that’s one of the ways that markets work – improve profits by cutting losses. We keep hearing that markets improve quality while reducing costs, yet in a bit of irony, for those healthier populations that remain with the Aetna, the insurer is reducing quality through product redesign, and increasing costs through higher premiums.

Once Aetna dumps these members, what private insurer is going to jump in to capture this higher cost population? None you say? And under reform? The higher cost individuals buy into the weak public option driving premiums up through adverse selection to even more unaffordable levels?

Try to imagine Medicare dumping over 600,000 patients because they need more medical care. That is unthinkable and would be reprehensible in a public social insurance program such as Medicare. Yet for the private insurance industry, it’s business as usual. And President Obama and Congress want to keep these marketeers in charge? Talk about reprehensible!

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