Because the health insurance exchanges were highly controversial already, says Dr. Ku, who sits on the board of the Washington, D.C. Health Benefits Exchange Authority, every problem is likely to be magnified by critics. Although he doesn’t expect “huge changes” in physician payment rates from plans in the exchanges, he says varying degrees of competition could drive down insurers’ prices in some markets.
Doctors also are likely to encounter plenty of confusion among the newly insured, and Dr. Ku hopes educational sessions will help healthcare professionals take more of a leading role in helping patients navigate an often bewildering system.
“One of the most important things that a hospital can do to help in the beginning is to help on the enrollment end of things,” he says. “Help patients who don’t quite understand how to get in, how to use these systems.”
It’s too early to say whether the exchanges can still meet the Congressional Budget Office’s prediction of 7 million enrollees by the end of the 2014 enrollment period (and 13 million by 2015). But analysts say the composition of the risk pool—something that should be clearer this spring—may provide a glimpse into the ACA’s long-term financial viability.
Instead of a consistent pattern across the country, the exchanges will be shaped by local market forces, such as the number of competitors and the extent to which cheaper plans will try to limit access to providers. To minimize their costs, some exchange-based plans are promising in-network hospitals higher patient volumes in exchange for discounted reimbursements. Other hospitals now find themselves excluded from most private plans in favor of cheaper options.
In exchange for lower premiums, some of these insurers are offering “skinny networks” that give consumers more limited provider options.
“A primary objective in the marketplace is to offer the cheapest plan possible, and to do that the insurers are going to look at who are the least expensive providers,” says Christiane Mitchell, director of federal affairs for the Association of American Medical Colleges. Not surprisingly, some of the costliest providers tend to take care of sicker or higher-risk patients.
“It’s a very, very strong concern, and it’s one that we have been very vocal on since the enactment of the Affordable Care Act,” Mitchell says. The association also has expressed concern that lower-income patients buying into the cheapest plans may not have access to the specialty services they need the most. That possibility, she says, increases the importance of navigators helping the newly insured pick out the best plans.
A Question of Access
Another big question is how the healthcare system will accommodate the influx of newly insured. Because hospitals already have been the safety net for many patients lacking access to preventive and primary care, urgent and specialty care may go through a bigger adjustment period, says Dr. Hilger, who sits on SHM’s Public Policy Committee.
The growing provider shortage certainly won’t help. By 2015, the AAMC predicts a shortfall of 63,000 doctors, almost evenly split between primary and specialty care. By 2025, that number is expected to more than double.
Mitchell says the gap between supply and demand is worsening due to the sheer number of baby boomers entering Medicare. At the same time, she says, one in three doctors in the U.S. is now over the age of 60 and nearing retirement age. Whether through Medicaid or the marketplace, the ACA’s coverage expansion will exacerbate the shortages. “It’s not to the level of the boomers entering Medicare, but it certainly is having a major impact on access issues and exacerbating the shortage, again, across specialties,” she says.