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Linnaean Regulation in Health Insurance and Information Technology, Part I

Posted Jan 24 2011 12:24am

pasquale I was recently listening to Health Affairs’s “ Newsmaker Breakfast with Karen Pollitz .” She gave a fascinating presentation on the challenges she faces as she develops HealthCare.Gov as a portal for information about health insurance . As I noted a few years ago , health insurers can easily mislead consumers about the nature of their coverage, and disclosure charts can be very helpful.

But even disclosure charts run up against the slipperiness of language. Pollitz noted that for some plans, a “deductible” was not really a deductible; you could easily spend much more out-of-pocket on health care than the stated “deductible level” before coverage kicked in.

How can an individual make an informed choice when words lose their meaning in a tangle of qualifications and conditions? At what point does a deductible cease being a deductible? While this might seem like a relatively technical question of insurance regulation, it is reflects a more general information-gathering problem that will confront regulators in coming years. Scientists could only predict and control aspects of the natural world when they could be named and classified. Any successful regime of healthcare reform will depend, at a bare minimum, on a flexible yet standardized classification system that can map what health insurers are doing. Like Linnaeus patiently organizing a welter of living forms, regulators will need to taxonomize pullulating permutations of insurer practices.

The Rise of Health Care’s Middlemen

The United States leads the world in payments to private insurance providers. The industry has extraordinary power over access to health care. In 2010, long-standing dissatisfaction with the sector culminated in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). Congress rejected changes like a public option in healthcare, in favor of a complex and reticulated statutory scheme to better regulate insurers. There have not been dramatic changes in the way that health insurance companies are run, and their stock prices tended to rise as reform became more certain.

The ACA has set in motion dozens of regulatory proceedings. The government also allocated $20 billion toward equipping all medical offices with electronic health records in the 2009 stimulus bill, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Health regulators must now try to catch up with technologically advanced intermediaries in insurance and IT fields.

Immediately after the ACA passed, naysayers on both left and right complained that divisions like OCCIO were unprepared for their new regulatory roles. Perhaps the most compelling case for repealing the ACA is a belief that regulatory agencies will inevitably be captured, or overwhelmed with information from far far better funded attorneys and lobbyists representing insurance and IT firms.*

Nevertheless, the ACA has catalyzed one very important process: the development of an infrastructure of monitoring and reporting that will be necessary for any future informed regulation. It’s shocking to consider how inadequate past reviews were here. As of 1997 , the “US Department of Labor had resources to review each employer-sponsored group health plan under its jurisdiction once every 300 years.” The Bush years did not significantly address that shortage. Moreover, “state insurance department staff levels declined 11% in 2007 while premium volume increased 12%.” The personnel simply haven’t been around .

Starting essentially from scratch, Pollitz and her fellow regulators are engaging in a painstaking rebuilding of the foundations necessary for substantial regulation. Having long neglected even to closely monitor the sharp practices of health insurers, federal regulators are now beginning new programs of surveillance.**

*The latter point does appear to be valid with respect to the public record now being compiled in dozens of rulemaking processes. In rule after rule, industry comments overwhelmingly dominate public interest or academic contributions. It’s sad to think that groups like Campaign for America’s Future, or labor unions, having spent so much time getting the ACA passed, are now ceding much of the regulatory field to insurers. On the other hand, given the Administration’s recent appointments, and recent McSurance waivers , who knows whether good comments would have an impact.

**For more on the importance of ongoing surveillance in complex business environments, see Larry Cata Backer on SarBox , and the last part of my earlier post on high finance.

Part II

X-Posted: Concurring Opinions .

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