The article below was published on August 19, 2017 by Green Bay Press-Gazette, written by Mike Ferguson.
Wisconsin lawmakers are at an impasse over the state budget. Senate leaders can’t agree with their Assembly counterparts on how to fund road repairs, schools, and various agencies.
Resolving this dispute would be easier if lawmakers hadn’t rejected a reform of the state’s costly health insurance program. Switching state employees and their families to a “self-insured” plan could have freed up tens of millions of dollars.
Under such a plan, the state would have covered employees’ medical expenses directly, instead of paying a traditional health insurer and hoping premiums don’t increase. Cutting out the insurance company middleman could have saved millions and enabled Wisconsin to offer higher quality benefits to government workers. It’s a missed opportunity — one that lawmakers should reconsider next year.
The purpose of health insurance is to minimize financial risk. Individuals’ health spending can fluctuate from one year to the next. That’s why people pay premiums to insurers to protect themselves against costly, unpredictable events.
Organizations with hundreds of thousands of employees like the state of Wisconsin don’t experience such fluctuations. They have a steady mix of young and old workers, and healthy and sick ones, making expenses for the entire organization predictable.
The risk of a spike in expenses is virtually nonexistent. So it makes sense for employers like Wisconsin — which offers health coverage to 250,000 government workers and family members — to pay for care directly rather than fork over premiums to traditional insurers.
Budget analysts predicted that self-insuring would save Wisconsin at least $60 million over two years, according to the Wisconsin Group Insurance Board. Private research firm Segal Consulting found that switching to a self-insured plan would save the government $42 million annually.
Despite these projections, Wisconsin’s politicians rejected self-insurance. Instead, the state will continue buying traditional premiums from 17 local insurance carriers.
Some legislators worried that shifting state employees onto a self-insurance plan would deprive traditional insurers of business and force them to raise premiums on other large organizations.
That’s akin to arguing that taxpayers should continue wasting millions of dollars on inflated premiums to subsidize coverage for other large organizations.
Others argued that a switch to a self-insured plan is risky, given the uncertainty surrounding Congress’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But this uncertainty is actually an excellent reason to switch. Self-insured organizations don’t have to worry about premiums swinging wildly or facing a raft of new compliance burdens. Self-insurance is governed by a 40-year-old federal law that will be largely unaffected no matter what happens in Washington.
Instead of addressing the rising health care costs that drive up premiums, Wisconsin lawmakers have decided to shift those costs onto workers in the form of higher deductibles. They’re also raiding the state’s rainy day fund to help pay the coming year’s premiums. This isn’t a strategy for cutting costs.
Twenty-nine states already self-insure their employees’ coverage. Nineteen others self-insure at least some of their health plans. In fact, Wisconsin has been self-insuring its employees’ dental and pharmaceutical benefits for years with excellent results.
Private companies further prove the model’s effectiveness. Fifty-eight percent of all private sector employees are enrolled in self-funded plans. Businesses that self-insure save up to 12 percent on health expenses.
It’s unclear why state lawmakers left tens of millions of dollars on the table by rejecting self-insurance this budget session. But they’ll have the chance to correct their mistake during next year’s inevitable budget crunch.
For the sake of taxpayers and state employees, let’s hope they take it.