And it is because of those losses that we are seeing what looks more than a little like the start of a health insurance death spiral in the exchanges. This is far from certain, and will depend in significant part on the results of the next open enrollment period, which starts later this year, as well as the decisions made by other health insurers under the law. But there are a number of warning signals to be watching.
We know what a health insurance death spiral looks like because we’ve seen them before, in states such as New York, New Jersey, and Washington. The experience in those states varied somewhat, but they all shared several essential qualities: The states put in place regulations requiring health insurers to sell to all comers (guaranteed issue), and strictly limiting the ways that insurance could be priced based on individual health history such as preexisting conditions (community rating). As a result, insurers ended up with large numbers of very sick customers who were very expensive to cover. Because they were subject to limits on how they could price health history, they responded by signficantly raising premiums for everyone. The new, higher premiums caused the healthiest, most price sensitive people to drop coverage entirely, which caused insurers to raise premiums further, resulting in yet more individuals dropping coverage, and so on and so forth, until all that remained was very small group of very sick, very expensive individuals.