The tone of the CMS officials who spoke with me was a kind of restrained panic. Among the insurance company officials (who, I should stress again, work in the Washington offices of some large insurers, and so are basically policy people and lobbyists), there was much less restraint. The insurers are very, very worried about the viability of the exchange system—especially but not exclusively at the federal level.
One key worry is based on the fact that what they’re facing is not a situation where it is impossible to buy coverage but one where it is possible but very difficult to buy coverage. That’s much worse from their point of view, because it means that only highly motivated consumers are getting coverage. People who are highly motivated to get coverage in a community-rated insurance system are very likely to be in bad health. The healthy young man who sees an ad for his state exchange during a baseball game and loads up the site to get coverage—the dream consumer so essential to the design of the exchange system—will not keep trying 25 times over a week if the site is not working. The person with high health costs and no insurance will. The exchange system is designed to enable that sick person to get coverage, of course, but it can only do that if the healthy person does too. The insurers don’t yet have a clear overall sense of the risk profile of the people who are signing up, but the circumstantial evidence they have is very distressing to them. The danger of a rapid adverse selection spiral is much more serious than they believed possible this summer.
The whole system relies on healthy young people who don't think they need health insurance deciding to help out people they don't know (anonymous unhealthy older people somewhere else in the country), not just by buying a product, but by overpaying for it, and not just by overpaying for it, but by navigating a ridiculously frustrating, badly designed website to do it. I don't think that's a business plan that can work. What's amazing and strange is that anyone anywhere anytime ever thought that it would.