Dana P. Goldman, Michael Chernew and Anupam Jena, New York Times - With the re-election of President Obama, the Affordable Care Act is back on track for being carried out in 2014. Central to its success will be the creation of health-insurance exchanges in each state. Beneficiaries will be able to go to a Web site and shop for health insurance, with the government subsidizing the premiums of those whose qualify. By encouraging competition among insurers in an open marketplace, the health care law aims to wring some savings out of the insurance industry to keep premiums affordable.
...But not all health care markets are composed of rational, well-informed buyers and sellers engaged in commerce. Some have a limited number of service providers; in others, patients are not well informed about the services they are buying; and in still others, the quality of the service offerings vary from provider to provider. So the question is: What effect does insurer competition have in a marketplace with so many imperfections?
The evidence is mixed, but some of it points to a counter-intuitive result: more competition among insurers may lead to higher reimbursements and health care spending, particularly when the provider market – physicians, hospitals, pharmaceuticals and medical device suppliers – is not very competitive.
In imperfect health care markets, competition can be counterproductive. The larger an insurer’s share of the market, the more aggressively it can negotiate prices with providers, hospitals and drug manufacturers. Smaller hospitals and provider groups, known as “price takers” by economists, either accept the big insurer’s reimbursement rates or forgo the opportunity to offer competing services. The power of a single or a few large insurers can thus lead to lower prices. For example, Glenn Melnick and Vivian Wu have shown that hospital prices in markets with the most powerful insurers are 12 percent lower than in more competitive insurance markets.
So health insurance exchanges are probably welcome news for hospitals, physicians, and pharmaceutical and medical device companies throughout the United States. If health insurance exchanges divide up the market among many insurers, thereby diluting their power, reimbursement rates may actually increase, which could lead to higher premiums for consumers.