Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Wendell Potter Headshot

The Insurance Industry's Lethal Bottom Line -- and a Solution From Sens. Franken and Rockefeller

Posted: Updated:

There was a time, in the early 1990s, when health insurance companies devoted more than 95
cents out of every premium dollar to paying doctors and hospitals for taking care of their members. No more. Since President Bill Clinton's health reform plan died 15 years ago, the health insurance industry has come to be dominated by a handful of insurance companies that answer to Wall Street investors, and they have changed that basic math. Today, insurers only pay about 81 cents of each premium dollar on actual medical care. The rest is consumed by rising profits, grotesque executive salaries, huge administrative expenses, the cost of weeding out people with pre-existing conditions and claims review designed to wear out patients with denials and disapprovals of the care they need the most.

This equation is known as the medical loss ratio (MLR), an aptly named figure that is widely seen by investors as the most important gauge of an insurance company's current and future profitability. In a private health insurance industry that collected $817 billion this year, a 14 percentage point difference in the MLR represents $112 billion a year! Over 10 years, that would be more than enough to pay for health reform.

Thanks to the efforts of several senators who pushed for a minimum MLR to be included in reform legislation, the current Senate bill requires insurers to provide an annual rebate to each enrollee if non-claims costs exceed 20% in the group market and 25% in the individual market.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is now leading a group including Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) to introduce an amendment that would go further by requiring that 90 percent of the money consumers spend on health insurance premiums go directly to health care costs.

The senators are proposing a reform that strikes at the heart of a health insurance system that puts profits first, and it would have a profound effect. When MLRs increase, that eats into profits, and Wall Street becomes very unhappy. A case in point is Aetna, the nation's third largest publicly-traded health insurance plan. Three years ago, the company reported that its quarterly MLR had inched up from 77.9 percent to 79.4 percent in 12 months. On the day this was disclosed, Aetna's share price plunged 20 percent as investors sold off their shares, reducing the company's market value by billions of dollars.

Wall Street investors expect insurers to pay as little as possible for medical claims. As a result, the nation's health insurance industry has evolved into a cartel of huge for-profit companies that together reap billions of dollars a year at the expense of their policyholders. The seven largest firms -- UnitedHealth Group, WellPoint, Aetna, Humana, CIGNA, Health Net, and Coventry Health Care -- enroll nearly one in three Americans in their health insurance plans. This year the industry will take about $25 billion in profits for getting between American patients and their doctors, according to the industry's trade group.

And they do this by finding every excuse in the book not to pay a claim, even if it means
canceling individual policies when people get sick or ridding their rolls of unprofitable small business group policies if an employee or family member falls seriously ill. They issue confusing benefit statements to members so only highly motivated and persistent challengers of their denials stand a chance of reversing an unfair decision. And in the final analysis, when an insurance company has decided it no longer can make enough profit on a particular person or employer-sponsored group, it drives them away in a process known as "purging." In this unconscionable profit-protection maneuver, an insurer will hike premiums so high that the policyholder has no choice but to pay outlandish rates for what may be a reduced benefit package, find another insurer, or simply go without coverage. The consequences of such decisions can be deadly -- but Wall Street always has the last word when profits are the main consideration.

When Wall Street isn't calling the shots, the outcome is decidedly better for health care consumers. Government-operated plans, such as Medicare, and some organizations that provide coordinated care, consistently maintain higher medical loss ratios. Kaiser had a 90.6 percent MLR in 2007. Between 1993 and 2007, Medicare's MLR hasn't dropped below 97 percent.

The health care reform bill now being debated in the Senate must include a provision, such as that proposed by Sen. Franken, that sets a minimum medical loss ratio to keep insurers from gouging consumers and leaving patients without the care they need. Instead of being a formula to reward investors, a properly regulated medical loss ratio in combination with other cost containment measures in the legislation would be a reliable tool for keeping insurance company profits and administrative waste in check.