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Health Insurance & Affordable Care Act

Employers Eye Moving Sickest Workers To Insurance Exchanges

WebMD News from Kaiser Health News

By Jay Hancock

Tue, May 06 2014

Can corporations shift workers with high medical costs from the company health plan into online insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act? Some employers are considering it, say benefits consultants.

"It's all over the marketplace," said Todd Yates, a managing partner at Hill, Chesson & Woody, a North Carolina benefits consulting firm. "Employers are inquiring about it and brokers and consultants are advocating for it."

Health spending is driven largely by patients with chronic illness such as diabetes or who undergo expensive procedures such as organ transplants. Since most big corporations are self-insured, shifting even one high-cost member out of the company plan could save the employer hundreds of thousands of dollars a year -- while increasing the cost of claims absorbed by the marketplace policy by a similar amount.

And the health law might not prohibit it, opening a door to potential erosion of employer-based coverage.

"Such an employer-dumping strategy can promote the interests of both employers and employees by shifting health care expenses on to the public at large," wrote two University of Minnesota law professors in a 2010 paper that basically predicted the present interest. The authors were Amy Monahan and Daniel Schwarcz.

It's unclear how many companies, if any, have moved sicker workers to exchange coverage, which became available only in January. But even a few high-risk patients could add millions of dollars in costs to those plans. The costs could be passed on to customers in the form of higher premiums and to taxpayers in the form of higher subsidy expense.

Here's how it might work. The employer shrinks the hospital and doctor network to make the company plan unattractive to those with chronic illness. Or, the employer raises co-payments for drugs needed by the chronically ill, also rendering the plan unattractive and perhaps nudging high-cost workers to examine other options.

At the same time, the employer offers to buy the targeted worker a high-benefit "platinum" plan in the marketplaces. The plan could cost $6,000 or more a year for an individual. But that's still far less than the $300,000 a year that, say, a hemophilia patient might cost the company.

The employer might also give the worker a raise to buy the policy directly.

The employer saves money. The employee gets better coverage. And the health law's marketplace plan --required to accept all applicants at a fixed price during open enrollment periods -- takes on the cost.

"The concept sounds to[o] easy to be true, but the ACA has set up the ability for employers and employees on a voluntary basis to choose a better plan in [the] Individual Marketplace and save a significant amount of money for both!" says promotional material from a company called Managed Exchange Solutions (MES).

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