How a Few Private Health Insurers Are on the Way to Controlling Health Care

The public option is dead, killed by a handful of senators from small states who are mostly bought off by Big Insurance and Big Pharma or intimidated by these industries’ deep pockets and power to run political ads against them. Some might say it’s no great loss at this point because the Senate bill Harry Reid came up with contained a public option available only to 4 million people, which would have been far too small to exert any competitive pressure on private insurers anyway.

To provide political cover to senators who want to tell their constituents that the intent behind a robust public option lives on, the emerging Senate bill makes Medicare available to younger folk (age 55), and lets people who aren’t covered by their employers buy in to a system that’s similar to the plan that federal employees now have, where the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management selects from among private insurers.

But we still end up with a system that’s based on private insurers that have no incentive whatsoever to control their costs or the costs of pharmaceutical companies and medical providers. If you think the federal employee benefit plan is an answer to this, think again. Its premiums increased nearly 9 percent this year. And if you think an expanded Medicare is the answer, you’re smoking medical marijuana. The Senate bill allows an independent commission to hold back Medicare costs only if Medicare spending is rising faster than total health spending. So if health spending is soaring because private insurers have no incentive to control it, we’re all out of luck. Medicare explodes as well.

A system based on private insurers won’t control costs because private insurers barely compete against each other. According to data from the American Medical Association, only a handful of insurers dominate most states. In 9 states, 2 insurance companies control 85 percent or more of the market. In Arkansas, home to Senator Blanche Lincoln, who doesn’t dare cross Big Insurance, the Blue Cross plan controls almost 70 percent of the market; most of the rest is United Healthcare. These data, by the way, are from 2005 and 2006. Since then, private insurers have been consolidating like mad across the country. At this rate by 2014, when the new health bill kicks in and 30 million more Americans buy health insurance, Big Insurance will be really Big.

In light of all this, you’d think the insurance industry would be subject to the antitrust laws, so the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission could prevent it from combining into one or two national behemoths that suck every health dollar out of our pockets (as well as the pockets of companies paying part of the cost of their employees’ health insurance). But no. Remarkably, the Senate bill still keeps Big Insurance safe from competition by preserving their privileged exemption from the antitrust laws.

From the start, opponents of the public option have wanted to portray it as big government preying upon the market, and private insurers as the embodiment of the market. But it’s just the reverse. Private insurers are exempt from competition. As a result, they are becoming ever more powerful. And it’s not just their economic power that’s worrying. It’s also their political power, as we’ve learned over the last ten months. Economic and political power is a potent combination. Without some mechanism forcing private insurers to compete, we’re going to end up with a national health care system that’s controlled by a handful of very large corporations accountable neither to American voters nor to the market.

About Robert Reich 545 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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4 Comments on How a Few Private Health Insurers Are on the Way to Controlling Health Care

  1. Reich knows better than what he claims in this post. Here’s how competition works in a local market. Each private carrier tries to extract the lowest reimbursement rates they can from local providers. Lower reimbursements mean lower rates which in turn means more customers. Obviously, the carrier with the largest market share usually gets the best deal as they can drop or threaten to drop a hospital or doc group from their network. Historically BX/BS plans have had the largest market share in many states. They are so ubiquitous that in some markets health insurance is called “Blue Cross” just as tissues are called “Kleenex.”
    If we are to “bend the cost curve” it can only happen through increased competition among hospitals and doctors, PBMs and other suppliers. Price controls, such as “Medicare For All” with providers forced to accept Medicare reimbursement rates is one solution, but the history of price controls in this country is pretty ugly.

      • Two is better than one, but you have a valid point. Breaking into a market is expensive. A carrier usually has to “buy” market share by forgoing profit or even pricing below cost. If better provider contracts don’t follow, and soon, losses will mount. Hence the frequent churn in the small group market as carriers try to establish themselves.

  2. The opening sentence is so politically motivated that it makes the remainder of the article seem questionable. In my opinion, the last sentence ia the only part of this article that rings true or has value. The inference of the article is that big health insurers should not be exempt from antitrust laws, to that I agree.

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