From premiums to politics: 5 predictions for the health insurance industry in 2018

Businessman uses a crystal ball
We don't have a crystal ball, but we do have some ideas about what the health insurance industry will face this year. (Getty/turk_stock_photographer)

After the demise of two major insurer mergers and multiple Affordable Care Act repeal attempts, few could argue that 2017 wasn't an eventful year for the health insurance industry.

But 2018 is shaping up to be just as interesting—complete with more political wrangling, M&A intrigue and evidence that, despite all this uncertainty, insurers are pushing ahead and embracing innovation.

Read on for our predictions about what's in store for the industry in the coming months.

1. The CVS-Aetna deal will have a domino effect in the healthcare industry

While the lines between payer, provider and pharmacy benefits manager have been blurring for a while now, CVS’ $69 billion deal to purchase Aetna is undoubtedly a game-changer.

Humana building
Humana could be a player in the next big merger. (Humana)

The move was likely motivated by a desire to compete with UnitedHealth’s thriving Optum subsidiary, which has its own PBM and an increasing presence in care delivery. So it stands to reason that other major insurers will try to strike deals of their own that mimic that scale and level of diversification.

Already, Humana has made a bid to purchase part of hospice- and home-health giant Kindred Healthcare. There’s also been speculation that it is preparing to be acquired—possibly by Cigna, or in a deal that would mimic CVS-Aetna, Walmart or Walgreens.

Other insurers may also seek to build PBM capabilities, following in the footsteps of UnitedHealth, a combined CVS-Aetna and Anthem, which announced in October that it would team up with CVS to create an in-house PBM called IngenioRx.

It’s certainly possible, however, that CVS’ purchase of Aetna will not pass regulatory muster. While it would require less divestment than the ill-fated Anthem-Cigna and Aetna-Humana deals, the DOJ’s decision to block another vertical deal—between AT&T and Time Warner—doesn’t bode well for its chances.

2. Republicans and Democrats will be forced to work together on ACA fixes

With one less Republican senator—thanks to Alabama’s election of Democrat Doug Jones—the GOP likely won’t have the votes to pass a repeal bill without bipartisan support. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged as much before Congress’ holiday recess, though he clarified the next day that he would be happy to pass an ACA repeal bill if there are enough votes for it.

McConnell also owes Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, as he had promised her he’d pass her reinsurance bill and a bill that would fund cost-sharing reduction payments this year. While Collins held up her end of the bargain—voting for the GOP tax bill—the ACA fixes didn’t make it into the stopgap spending bill Congress passed on Dec. 21.

RELATED: Special Report—8 ways to fix the Affordable Care Act

Democrats, meanwhile, will also be motivated to reach across the aisle. The repeal of the individual mandate will likely put the ACA on more unstable footing, lending more urgency than ever to the task of shoring up the exchanges.

Both parties will also likely face pressure from the healthcare industry's biggest lobbying groups to get some sort of ACA fix passed. The push to do so, however, will be complicated by the full slate of legislative priorities Congress is facing in the new year, including reauthorizing funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program.

3. There will be more premium hikes and insurer exits in the individual market

The individual mandate is now gone, and arguments about its effectiveness aside, that was one of the mechanisms that encouraged healthy people to buy insurance and stay covered. Even if the effect on coverage levels is minimal, the move is probably going to be enough to push risk-averse insurers to raise rates and even exit more rating areas in 2019.

Exit sign
More insurers could flee ACA exchanges in 2018. (Pixabay)

There is also little indication that large insurers that have exited will come back anytime soon. After all, why invest resources in an unstable market when there are far more steady and lucrative markets like Medicare Advantage?

Adding to the policy uncertainty for the remaining insurers, there is no guarantee that Congress will authorize short-term funding for cost-sharing reduction payments. Many insurers raised their 2018 rates to account for the possibility of them disappearing—which turned out to be a wise move—so it stands to reason they’d have to do the same for 2019.

Perhaps the best harbinger of what’s to come came from a study conducted in November, which noted that the actions insurers and state regulators took to fill in “bare counties” on the ACA exchanges are “temporary and unsustainable without long-term federal action.” And with Republicans in charge, federal action to patch up the exchanges is unlikely.

4. Federal agencies will start to carry out Trump’s executive order—and states will push back

Although it was overshadowed by all the repeal-and-replace drama, Trump’s healthcare-focused executive order has huge implications for the industry. Put simply, it paves the way for expanded use of association health plans, short-term health plans and employer-based health reimbursement arrangements.

In 2018, we’re likely to see the relevant agencies start issuing rules to implement the order, which could dramatically change the individual market as we know it—and not for the better. Such rulemaking would also set the stage for a power struggle between the federal government and left-leaning states.

In fact, a coalition of healthcare organizations have urged state insurance commissioners to take steps to override any rules resulting from the executive order. For example, states could restore the three-month limit on short-term health plans if agencies unwind that Obama-era rule on the federal level.

Since only certain states are likely to heed these suggestions, the upshot of Trump’s executive order will be to create a patchwork of individual market rules across the country. If that sounds strangely like what the individual insurance markets were like before the ACA, well, that’s precisely the point.

5. Payers’ move to value-based payment models will continue, with or without the feds leading the way

Donald Trump speaking
The Trump administration isn't pushing value-based care. (C-Span)

On the one hand, the Trump administration clearly wants to scale back the federal government’s role in pushing payers and providers away from fee-for-service payment models. The surest sign was CMS’ announcement late last year that it would end mandatory bundled payment models for hip fractures and cardiac care.

Some have worried that moving away from those mandatory programs would be a setback for the move to value-based payments, given that the feds play a powerful role in galvanizing the industry to change. In addition, the administration wants to take the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation in a “new direction”—one that CMS Administrator Seema Verma said would “move away from the assumption that Washington can engineer a more efficient healthcare system from afar.”

But even if the federal government will take a lighter touch in the move from volume to value, it’s not likely that the private sector will take that as a cue to reverse course. On the payer side, especially, too many industry-leading companies have invested heavily in alternative payment models to turn back now. And they have compelling business reasons to keep investing in those models, given their potential to lower costs and improve care quality.