Credit rating agency, researchers give vote of confidence to health insurance sector

Health insurance, pen and stethoscope
The individual market constitutes just a small portion of most health insurers’ earnings and revenues. (Getty/Minerva Studio)

Two new reports offer evidence that policy uncertainty aside, the health insurance industry is doing just fine.

In one report, A.M. Best explains why it decided to change its outlook for the health insurance sector from negative to stable. The credit rating agency said the change “reflects a variety of factors that have led to improvement in earnings and risk-adjusted capitalization.”

RELATED: Fitch upgrades outlook for health insurance industry

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While insurers have experienced losses in the individual exchange business, this market segment has improved in 2016 and 2017—in part due to consecutive years of high rate increases, a narrowing of provider networks and a stabilizing exchange population, the report said. 

A.M. Best also predicted that Congress won’t make repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act a high priority in 2018. And even if it does, health insurers will have time to make adjustments, since legislative changes won’t take effect for two or more years.

The rating agency’s findings about the individual market echo those of a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which examined insurers’ financial data from the third quarter of 2017.

RELATED: Even amid political turmoil, 2017 is shaping up to be good year for individual market insurers

It found that insurers saw significant improvement in their medical loss ratios, which averaged 81% through the third quarter. Gross margins per member per month in the individual market segment followed a similar pattern, jumping up to $79 per enrollee in the third quarter of 2017 from a recent third-quarter low of $10 in 2015.

One caveat is that KFF’s findings reflect insurer performance only through September—before the Trump administration stopped reimbursing insurers for cost-sharing subsidies. “The loss of these payments during the fourth quarter of 2017 will diminish insurer profits, but nonetheless, insurers are likely to see better financial results in 2017 than they did in earlier years of the ACA marketplaces,” KFF said.

As promising as these observations about the individual market are, A.M. Best pointed out that this market segment is just a small portion of most health insurers’ earnings and revenues. In fact, health plans largely owe their overall profitability to the combined operating results of the employer group, Medicaid and Medicare Advantage lines of business.

Looking ahead, the agency predicted that Medicare and Medicaid business lines will remain profitable for insurers—though margins will likely compress for both. It said the employer group segment will also remain profitable, but noted that membership will continue to be flat.

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