Aetna slashes exchange presence; administration cries foul

Aetna, one of the nation’s largest health insurance companies, is slashing its marketplace participation by removing its current offerings from 536 counties. For plan year 2017, it will only offer marketplace plans in 242—as opposed to 778—counties in Delaware, Iowa, Nebraska, and Virginia. The company publicly stated that it based its decision on financial losses that it contends result from an unbalanced risk pool. The Obama Administration, however, argues that Aetna is following through on threats it made in a recent letter to the Department of Justice (DOJ) related to actions the DOJ has taken to block Aetna’s merger with Humana, indicating that Aetna would “immediately take action to reduce [its] 2017 exchange footprint” if the merger were “challenged and/or blocked.”

Reduction in presence

The insurer stated on its website that it suffered a “second-quarter pretax loss of $200 million and total pretax losses of more than $430 million since January 2014” in its individual products. Aetna maintains that marketplace insurers nationwide are struggling financially due to an unbalanced risk pool. It noted that its 2016 exchange membership increased by 55 percent in 2016 and that individuals requiring high-cost care now represent “an even larger share” of the exchange population. It also faulted “an inadequate risk adjustment mechanism” for the financial strain insurers face. The company promised to communicate options to those affected by its decision prior to the 2017 open enrollment period and reminded the public that it will continue to offer off-exchange plans in most affected counties.

Following through on a threat?

The announcement comes on the heels of a CMS analysis suggesting that higher enrollment has actually led to a more balanced risk pool and a decrease in costs (see Higher enrollment leads to lower costs, reflects healthier risk pool, Health Reform WK-EDGE, August 17, 2016). Obama administration officials, have suggested that Aetna’s move is retaliation for the government’s recent efforts to block the company’s desired merger with Humana (see DOJ lawsuit steps in between Aetna-Humana and Anthem-Cigna mergers, Health Reform WK-EDGE, July 27, 2016).

In a July 5, 2016, letter signed by Aetna Chairman & CEO Mark Bertollini and obtained by the Huffington Post, Aetna told the DOJ that the company’s ability to withstand losses incurred under the ACA “is dependent on . . . . achieving anticipated synergies in the Humana acquisition.” After explaining that challenges to the merger would force it to reduce or eliminate its exchange presence, it noted that if the merger were to proceed, “without the diverted time and energy associated with litigation, we would explore how to devote a portion of the additional synergies (which are larger than we had planned for when announcing the deal) to supporting even more public exchange coverage over the next few years.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) noted in a Facebook post that Aetna recently referred to exchange participation as a “good investment.” She lambasted the insurer, stating, “The health of the American people should not be used as bargaining chips to force the government to bend to one giant company’s will.”