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How Alaska fixed Obamacare

Vox.com logo Vox.com 4/16/2017 Sarah Kliff
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Last year, Alaska’s Obamacare marketplaces seemed on the verge of implosion. Premiums for individual health insurance plans were set to rise 42 percent. State officials worried that they were on the verge of a “death spiral,” where only the sickest people buy coverage and cause rates to skyrocket year after year.

So the state tried something new and different — and it worked. Lori Wing-Heier, Alaska’s insurance commissioner, put together a plan that had the state pay back insurers for especially high medical claims submitted to Obamacare plans. This lowered premiums for everyone. In the end, the premium increase was a mere 7 percent.

"We knew we were facing a death spiral," says Wing-Heier. "We knew even though it was a federal law, we had to do something."

Now other states are interested in trying Alaska’s idea, especially because Wing-Heier is working with the Trump administration to have the federal government, not the state, cover those costs.

There are rampant concerns about the future of Obamacare right now. We don’t know whether its marketplaces will remain stable in 2018 or, as the president has predicted, explode as premiums rise and insurers drop out. But Alaska’s experiment is a reminder that the future of Obamacare isn’t entirely up to Republicans in Washington. The work happening 3,000 miles away in Alaska shows that states have the ability to fix Obamacare too — and that the Trump administration might even support those policies.

How Alaska prevented an Obamacare horror story — and is trying to make the federal government pay for it

Premiums in the individual market went up a lot last year. The national average was a 25 percent hike. Alaska was bracing for an even higher 42 percent increase from its one remaining Obamacare insurer, Premera Blue Cross.

That’s when Wing-Heier and other Alaska officials had an idea. The state already had a tax on insurance plans (not just health but also life and property insurance). Usually the money goes to a general Alaska budget fund, but the state decided to divert $55 million of the tax revenue into a reinsurance program.

This would give Obamacare insurers — at this point, just Premera — extra money if they had some especially large medical claims. Reinsurance essentially backstops insurers’ losses; it guarantees they won't be on the hook for the bills of a handful of exceptionally sick patients.

The new reinsurance program convinced Premera to only raise rates 7 percent in 2017. Alaska suddenly went from having one of the highest rate increases in the nation to one of the lowest.

This didn't just save customers money. The federal government subsidizes premium costs for 86 percent of Alaska's Obamacare enrollees. With cheaper premiums, the federal government didn’t have to spend as much money. The cost of these subsidies fell by $56 million when Alaska created the reinsurance fund.

This got Wing-Heier thinking: Why shouldn't we get that money back?

"Why shouldn't the money come back to us to fund the reinsurance program?" she recalls thinking. "It was that simple."

Alaska applied for a waiver in late December, asking the federal government to refund its spending. The state got conditional approval in mid-January from former Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell. Current HHS Secretary Tom Price has spoken favorably of the Alaska approach too.

In a letter last month to governors, he described their idea as an example for other states to follow. It was, he said, an "opportunity for states to lower premiums for consumers, improve market stability, and increase consumer choice."

Alaska officials say the Trump administration has so far been easy to work with, helping them make sure the application looks right and moves quickly toward review.

If the waiver does go through — and Wing-Heier says she is "confident" the Trump administration will approve it — Alaska expects that Obamacare rates might actually do something unheard of in 2018: They might decrease. The state estimates that an additional 1,650 people will join the marketplace due to the lower premiums.

Other states want to get that same kind of funding too

Alaska’s marketplace is far from perfect. The state only has one insurance plan selling coverage on its Obamacare marketplace, and doesn’t project any more to join in 2018. Premiums are high in Alaska; the state is large and rural, which means it can be expensive to get patients to a hospital or a specialty doctor. A midlevel plan on the Obamacare marketplace there cost, on average, $904 in 2017.

But even with those problems, Wing-Heier says, it’s still a whole lot better than where the state would have been without this policy change.

"Do I think it's a perfect solution? No, but it works for us," she says. "It's working in the right direction. It did what it was intended. It brought stability to our market, and the waiver is going to bring funding to us."

Alaska’s approach has inspired other states. Minnesota is looking into building a reinsurance fund. At the insurance conference I went to last weekend, regulators from New York were asking lots of questions about Alaska’s approach.

It's easy to see why this is appealing to other states, given the combination of additional federal money and lower Obamacare premiums. Most interesting, though, is that Alaska’s approach is something the Trump and Obama administrations apparently agree on. There aren't many examples of that right now — so the ones that exist are certainly worth watching.

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