While much has been written about specific aspects of the ACA and how repeal, replace and repair will affect certain populations, the impact on employer-sponsored benefits is more convoluted.
In the world of employee benefits, to properly understand the post ACA world, we must reflect on the confluence of how five separate constituents react to the new health insurance landscape.
The issues and priorities of these five groups: government, carriers, employers, employees, and brokers/consultants, and how they relate to each other will dictate the evolution of health insurance in the post-ACA world.
These insights will illuminate what to expect in a post-ACA climate as the health insurance landscape continues to evolve under President Trump.
Government compliance issues ease
While we all may be a bit weary from the focus on Washington, the fact remains the federal government continues to be the single biggest catalyst for changes in the health insurance and benefits landscape.
For benefits professionals, it is important to recognize that for all the politicization around ACA, there is very little focus on the employer-provided benefits space, especially outside of the realm of small employers. The priority for government involvement in repeal-replace-repair is the individual market and Medicaid expansion.
Having said this, if the Republicans choose to use reconciliation to repeal the ACA with a simple majority, many aspects of the employer-provided system will be affected. Unfortunately, this will perpetuate the preoccupation with compliance in the employer space, continuing the trend of non-value add expenditure of resources that has plagued the industry for the last five years.
Carrier mandates relax
Perhaps surprisingly, the second area of significant change in the post-ACA era will be in the domain of the carriers. Against the backdrop of the Department of Justice opinions on the two proposed mega-mergers, we expect the greatest impact of repeal-replace-repair will manifest itself in the proliferation of new products which were “non-compliant” under the ACA.
Whether correct or not, one of the indictments of the ACA is increased mandates do more to destroy markets in terms of access and affordability than they do to advance these objectives.
Look for the relaxation of these mandates and the commensurate acceleration of new product development which will inevitably follow. Combined with the return of premium reimbursement plans in the small market, we expect the further commoditization of major medical insurance as low risk consumers choose less coverage for less premium.
Employers reallocate benefits compensation
Second only to the carriers, the employers have been the biggest victims of the ACA era. While many have applauded the decline in the rate of health care inflation, the reality is that benefits costs continue to grow more than inflation, placing an ever-increasing burden on total compensation planning.
Add to this the increased cost of compliance in an environment where employers are trying to reduce administrative costs in the face of a slow growth economy and you can understand the “ACA fatigue” many employers report.
Repeal-replace-repair, while it will bring uncertainty in the near term, is likely to lower the burden on employers and allow more strategic thinking about how they allocate compensation to benefits.
The increasing age diversity of their employees will force them to consider altering this allocation in favor of financial wellness (retirement and student debt) perhaps at the expense of traditional health benefits. The war for new talent precipitated by near full employment in skilled professions will only exacerbate this tension.
Employees wise up on benefit choices
For employees, the impact of the politicization of health care will continue to cloud their perception of their role in choosing and consuming the benefit programs offered by their employers.
Related: Dems brace to defend ACA
While much has been written about the promise of “consumerism” to change the hyper-inflationary nature of fee-for-service health care, it is apparent that the deadly combination of employee illiteracy and entitlement about employer-provided health insurance is a greater impediment to real reform in the way health care is consumed in this country.
With the potential deregulation on mandated benefits and the increasing availability of retail health care alternatives, it will be incumbent on all the constituents to accelerate the employees’ education and appreciation for employee benefit choices customized to their informed perception of need and risk mitigation.
Brokers/consultants rise to the challenges
And now, the elephant in the room, the impact on brokers and consultants. One of my early mentors said, “There is profit in confusion.” For the skilled practitioners, I think they would agree that the net effect of the ACA was increased opportunity. It is important to note however, that this opportunity required focus on new disciplines.
No longer were the skills of customer relationship management, procurement management and vendor management sufficient to satisfy the needs of their clients. The best players were forced to develop expertise in compliance, regulatory impact, benefits technology and internal human resources processes that their predecessors could ignore. This, the low cost of money and the aging workforce of benefit producers has contributed to the continued wave of firm consolidation which changes the nature of competition.
Additionally, the widely publicized fall of market disruptors will have a chilling effect on innovation for the near term. In the post-ACA era, benefits professionals will be challenged to balance revenue, client retention and cost-of-service pressures in an environment where the future is uncertain.
The post-ACA era promises to be as exciting as the last five years. To paraphrase Richard Epstein on a separate topic, the real dilemma is that the people working on the problem lack the technical expertise and the political agnostic orientation necessary for real change.
In the meantime, successful participants in this marketplace will be forced to be both diplomats and opportunists, acutely aware of the issues and priorities facing all of the important constituents and balancing these to the most optimum outcome. I, personally, am comforted that we have some of the most creative people I know working on this challenge.