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Revisiting the Health Cooperatives Morass

By Clive Riddle, January 22, 2016

A new Wall Street Journal article, Obama Administration Works to Fix Health Insurance Co-Ops, covered Andy Slavitt’s - acting CMS administrator – testimony to the Senate Finance Committee regarding how to recoup federal loans from failing co-ops, how so many co-ops failed, and what future fixes are planned for the cooperatives, including reducing funding restrictions. A graphic accompanying the article re-hashes the $1.5 billion lent to co-ops that have failed, which range from $265 million in New York to $60.6 million in Oregon. Yesterday’s edition of Inside Health Policy  reported that Slavitt has indicated risk adjustment changes proposed for 2017 may come sooner. The natural fallout from the failed and failing cooperatives continue to surface in the news. For example, this week it was announced the failed Kentucky Health Cooperative was placed in liquidation.

What CMS can do to mitigate the tenuous position the remaining cooperatives are in is news. But the bulk of current media discussion of cooperatives continues to beat the dead horse of the number of failed cooperatives, their cumulative losses and unpaid federal loans, all which was significantly covered in the fall. There was plenty of blame to go around: co-ops underpricing themselves in the market, CMS policy restricting their abilities to capitalize, CMS risk adjustment policy and congressional reduction in funding for said policy. The dead horse will continue to be beaten in the news – after all it is an election year.

But perhaps a more fundamental issue that wasn’t talked about enough was simply that start-up health plans are going to initially lose significant amounts of money in new markets even under the best of circumstances, and the start-up losses weren’t adequately budgeted, capitalized or communicated in setting stakeholder expectations.

If you’re keep tabs of the continuing status and travails of the cooperatives, two sites are worth bookmarking: U.S. Health Policy Gateway's Co-op Performance by State and the National Conference of State Legislature’s Health Insurance Purchasing Cooperatives and Alliances: State and Federal Roles.

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