Where is the risk?

That’s the question Thomas Cox, an RN with insurance experience and expertise, says should be asked about any health care financing mechanism.

The whole idea of insurance is distributing risk widely so that it can be shared over a wide group of people and thus become manageable. That’s why people need insurance at all, and that’s also why schemes that put too much of the onus on individuals are a very bad idea – as has happened in recent years to a number of people,  the “insured” individual can incur costs that are more than he or she can bear.

In general, insurance is most solid when it’s over a larger group. Each major increase in group size distributes the risk further and makes the healthcare financing system stronger. Cox has an interesting paper on this which he presented at an American Statistical Association meeting.

In general, large insurers are an order-of-magnitude more sound than small ones, and nationwide insurance systems (such as Medicare) have a distinct actuarial edge over state-based insurance (think, for example, California earthquake). For this reason, it’s a shame that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has state exchanges as its primary mechanism rather than one single federal exchange; risk dispersal is inferior.

Looking at the risk question, there’s a real problem with affordable care organizations (ACOs), which are one of the primary ways the ACA aims to keep down future costs. Essentially, ACOs are a form of capitation, and (Cox maintains and I think he’s right) capitation is essentially a mechanism to push risks down from the insurer or from Medicare to providers. Pushing risks to smaller groups is a terrible idea and will worsen the system. With ACOs having  smaller covered populations, they are far more subject to being the victim of events they can’t control, whether that’s having a large number of huge-cost, high-needs patients in a single year or having a large number of patients affected by an epidemic or natural disaster.

Providers are not trained or qualified to manage risk well, nor do they have the financial reserves to do so.  Cox calls this “professional caregiver insurance risk.”  Burdening providers with a task they are very ill-suited for is a truly bad idea. As Cox comments:

Pushing risks elsewhere removes the only real function we are paying insurance companies for.  If insurance companies are pushing down their risks elsewhere, we are paying them money for nothing of value. Insurance companies don’t provide healthcare – if they don’t manage risk either, what good are they? Of course, if they can sit there and siphon off profits without taking risks, it may not trouble profit-making insurers . . . but it should trouble the public [if they are] issuing policies, passing the insurance risks on to health care providers, and walking off with guaranteed profits year after year.

And (particularly for the ACO that has been “unlucky” and has incurred larger-than-expected costs), the financial risk can be a force for corruption, pushing organizations toward denying care and undertreatment.

Of course, with the enormous amount of unnecessary care and overtreatment in the US medical system today, some ACOs may indeed manage to give really good care for quite a while provided they are reasonably lucky. But this is a strategy with diminishing returns (as unneeded care dwindles in amount). At root, pushing down insurance risk to smaller entities is, Cox has persuaded me, a fundamentally flawed direction.

And I’ll never look at a health care financing proposal in future without asking myself: “Where is the risk?”