Monday, September 28, 2009

The Loss Ratio and Insurance Industry Profits

John Rockefeller is in the Senate Finance Committee right now hammering away in the speech that everyone needs to hear most -- that health insurance companies are bleeding our benefits dry, and that a strong public option is the best solution to the problem.

Most of what I learned about health insurance industry profits, I learned from a single person's writings -- Uwe Reinhardt, Princeton economist and opinion writer for the New York Times. My favorite article on the topic, so far, is this one -- it breaks down the way to answer the question "how much do insurance companies make" in a comprehensive way.

This is important because an insurance company -- and we saw GradMed claim that they don't even collect this data for themselves or the insurance companies that they broker -- will never share this information with potential customers. They are forced by law, however, to share it with potential investors, and that's where Professor Reinhardt comes in. I've seen pictures, but I picture him with a monocle and a handlebar mustache. Egads, he says.

Insurance industry profits -- that's the amount that the company takes out of the economy, free and clear -- usually hang between 3 and 6%, which is not exceptional for most kinds of industry. What is exceptional, though, is the amount in marketing and administrative expenses that the company spends. Keep in mind that, unlike buying a cell phone, where you give a guy some money and he gives you a cell phone, insurance companies essentially take your money and then give it back -- the product you get is the insurance company holding your money, and the money of many others, for you, and then reorganizing it to pay for the medical care of the people that need it. So these costs become extremely important: the money taken out of your premiums, and the money that's left, determines what kind of coverage you get.

Not much of a product, true. But it's even less of a product when the insurance companies are only paying out 84.4% (in Reinhardt's example, Wellpoint in 2008) of the premium money that they've collected. That's an 84% loss ratio -- to the insurance companies, GradMed included, the company has lost 84% of "its" money (actually your money, but held by the insurance company). 84% loss for them means 84% care for you.

Where does the money go? Profits are substantial, but don't explain the whole picture. The rest is marketing -- GradMed paying alumni associations to run advertisements, insurance executives googling their products and leaving dodgy comments, TV ads, newspaper ads, etc. etc. etc -- as well as 'administrative costs', which covers the salaries of the people who work in the insurance industry. What seems absolutely true to me is that even if these costs aren't considered profit on the company's 10-K, they are profit: the company investing in its own future enrichment through advertising, and directly profiting the people who make up the company through salary and benefits.

You have to hand it to them, though. Taking 15% off the top of your health care dollar: not too shabby as a con game. A strong public option would also have administrative costs, but estimates for Medicare put their administrative cost at between 3% and 8% (and their profits at ZERO, where they should be), which is nowhere near the expense and waste we're experiencing with private insurance.

UPDATE: The Rockefeller public option amendment was just defeated, 8 to 15. Democratic senators voting against it were Conrad of North Dakota, Lincoln of Arkansas, Nelson of Florida, and Carper of Delaware.

DOUBLE UPDATE: The Schumer public option amendment was also defeated, 10 to 13. A slightly weaker option, it picked up Thomas Carper and Bill Nelson, but Kent Conrad and Blanche Lincoln (who was wearing an enormous green lapel pin that said "BLURGH") still voted against it. No Republicans, of course, voted for the amendment or even bothered making serious arguments about the bill -- it all seemed to have been posturing for the general senate debate, and insistence on this new weird "defend Medicare" attitude they've all suddenly come to after decades of trying to slash Medicare.

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