The six-year underwriting cycle for group health has been uncannily consistent over the years
By Darrell Knapp
Is it time for the downside of the group health insurance cycle to return? Many pricing actuaries at health insurance companies say they are being “selectively aggressive” with rates while insisting that they have no intention of encouraging a downturn by engaging in underpricing. No wonder the chief financial officers at these companies are having sleepless nights.
While the crystal ball is a little cloudy, our best guess is that the increased Medicare provider reimbursement levels will restrain medical cost trends enough to make 2004 another profitable year for group health carriers. However, the burgeoning surplus levels of many not-for-profit carriers will likely increase the pressure on profitability in 2005.
The six-year underwriting cycle for group healththree years of profitability followed by three years of losseshas rolled along with uncanny consistency over the years. The extended period of profitability ushered in by the advent of managed care in the early 1990sthe so-called “managed care dividend”was a rare exception to that pattern. Now, health insurance executives are getting anxious as they spot the signs that a downturn may once again be headed our way. Those signs include:
The closing of the gap between pricing trends and experience trends. Recently, pricing actuaries have used trend levels to set premiums that are slightly higher than what experience seems to call for, bearing in mind what happened in the late 1990s when a spike in medical costs caused losses for many health plans. However, the affordability of health insurance is a growing issue, and the market is no longer as accepting of the higher rates. Many carriers now are reporting pricing trends at or even 1% to 2% below recent experience based on projections of more favorable provider contracts and utilization levels.
Surplus level concerns. Many not-for-profit carriers have developed robust levels of surplus. To address concerns about excessive surplus, they are trying approaches ranging from premium rebates and “holidays” to specific price reductions at renewal. All of these techniques will adversely affect industrywide premium levels.