Are Administrative Costs Evil?

Published May 31, 2016

Most health policy wonks do not seem to be bothered by bureaucracy in any field other than health care. For example, I almost never meet anyone who complains about high administrative costs in health care who makes the same complaint about education, where the problem is much more severe.  When Congress passed President Obama’s health care law, it definitely made things worse than they otherwise would have been by trying to regulate how much health insurance companies can spend on administration.

A medical loss ratio (MLR) is the percent of health insurance premiums that is spent on medical care. The popular term for the remainder is “administrative costs.” Obamacare mandates a minimum MLR of 80% for individual and small group insurance. That means these plans must spend at least 80% of their premium income on “medical care.” Conversely, they can spend no more than 20% on “administration.” If they fall below the MLR minimum, they must give back the amount of the deficit to enrollees in the form of premium rebates. The minimum is 85% for large groups.

Undesirable Constraints

Here’s one immediate problem: no one knows how to define “administration.” It isn’t a line item in any organization’s budget. Think about a doctor’s office and ask yourself what goes on there that you would be inclined to call “administration” or “overhead” and what you would call “medical care.” Arguably, the physical facility, the equipment, and the utilities are all overhead. The personnel who admit you and discharge you are engaged in administration, are they not? Ditto for the taking of your medical history and your vitals — and even ascertaining the nature of the complaint that brought you there. In fact, you could make a case that unless someone is actually drawing blood, giving you a shot or ordering a prescription, it’s all overhead.

You could argue that about 95% of everything that goes on in a doctor’s office is administration and overhead! Conversely, a clever accountant might also be able to argue the reverse — that only 5% is really overhead.

Let’s think about insurance companies for a moment. The MLR is a ratio. Medical care spending is in the numerator and premium income is in the denominator and there are hundreds of decisions that have to be made in deciding how to measure each of these. The minimum MLR is a constraint that potentially limits sales efforts, profit, efforts to ferret out fraud and any other non-medical expense. Sales commissions to insurance brokers who service health policies are considered overhead – as are the tasks of answering enrollees’ questions. Insurers will view the MLR as an undesirable constraint.

Perverse Incentives

Of all the perverse incentives this kind of regulation creates, I want to focus on five that I think will be especially pernicious.

First, just about any payment an insurer makes to a doctor or hospital is going to count as medical care, no matter how large the administrative costs are for the provider. So both entities have an incentive to find ways of shifting administration costs from the insurer to the provider. The most obvious way of doing that is for the insurer to contract with an HMO, give the HMO a fixed fee per enrollee and let the HMO manage all the care, no questions asked. If you thought managed care in the 1990s was abusive, you haven’t seen anything yet.

Second, almost anything the insurer does that conforms to the Obama administration’s view of “improving quality” — managed care, coordinated care, integrated care, electronic medical records, etc. — will count as “medical care.” But efforts to detect and prevent fraud will not count. Doctor “credentialing” won’t count either. One way to think about this is to realize that everything insurers are doing today to hassle good doctors will be encouraged and everything they do to get rid of bad doctors will be discouraged.

Third, the days of the insurance broker are probably numbered. Since broker commissions won’t count as “medical care” and since the MLR is averaging about 70%, rather than 80%, in the individual market, insurers will cut back on commissions and brokers may leave the market completely.

In today’s bureaucratic health insurance system, employers and brokers act as advisors and protectors. They answer questions, correct mistakes, eliminate confusion, etc. If employers begin to drop insurance in large numbers and agents vanish, millions of people will be at the mercy of impersonal insurance bureaucracies.

Insurer Exodus

Fourth, the minimum MLR restricts what insurers can spend to complete with each other in a way that favors larger firms and discriminates against smaller ones. An exodus of insurance companies from the market that is already occurring, resulting in the inevitable slide toward monopoly.

Finally, insurers will be constrained in their ability to realize profits on their insurance business, but there will be no constraint on their profits from invested reserves. This means that in the business of insurance, the insurer will be like a regulated utility. There will be no incentive to take risks on developing new products, because the insurer will not be able to reap the rewards of successful innovation. On the other hand, the insurer can realize the full return form risky investments outside the business of insurance.