Even as they’ve retreated from the Affordable Care Act exchanges, the country’s biggest for-profit health insurers have become increasingly dependent on Medicare and Medicaid for both profits and growth.
In fact, Medicare and Medicaid accounted for 59% of the revenues of the “big five” U.S. commercial health insurers—UnitedHealthcare, Anthem, Aetna, Cigna and Humana—in 2016, according to a new Health Affairs study.
From 2010 to 2016, the combined Medicare and Medicaid revenue from those insurers ballooned from $92.5 billion to $213.1 billion. The companies’ Medicare and Medicaid business also grew faster than other segments, doubling from 12.8 million to 25.5 million members during that time.
All these positive trends, the study noted, helped offset the financial losses that drove the firms to reduce their presence in the individual marketplaces. Indeed, the big five insurers’ pretax profits either increased or held steady during the first three years of the ACA’s individual market reforms (2013-2016). Their profit margins did decline during those three years, but stabilized between 2014 and 2016.
Not only do these findings demonstrate the “growing mutual dependence between public programs and private insurers,” the study authors said, but they also suggest a useful policy lever. The authors argued that in order to help stabilize the ACA exchanges, federal and state laws could require any insurer participating in Medicare or state Medicaid programs to also offer individual market plans in those areas.
Nevada has already done something similar: It offered an advantage in Medicaid managed care contract billing for insurers that promised to participate in the state’s ACA exchange. The state credited that policy with its ability to coax Centene to step in and cover counties that otherwise would have lacked an exchange carrier in 2018.
It’s far less certain, though, whether such a concept will ever be embraced at the federal level during the Trump administration, since its focus has been on unwinding the ACA rather than propping it up.
Either way, recent events underscore the study’s findings about how lucrative government business has become for major insurers. One of the main goals of CVS’ proposed acquisition of Aetna is to improve care for Medicare patients, which would help the combined company “be more competitive in this fast-growing segment of the market,” CVS CEO Larry Merlo said on a call this week.
Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini added that the transaction has “incredible potential” for Medicare and Medicaid members, as the goal is to provide the type of high-touch interaction and care coordination they need to navigate the healthcare system.