Private health premium increases might be the lowest in years, but that doesn’t mean they’re justified



Those facing large price increases might drop or downgrade their cover.
Wayhome studio/Shutterstock

Nathan Kettlewell, University of Technology Sydney

Every year private health insurers raise premiums and every year we rue the hit to our hip pocket. This cycle is heavily regulated: insurers apply to the health minister who must approve premium hikes unless deemed contrary to the public interest. Premiums then change on April 1.

This time the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, has managed to keep average premium growth to 2.92% – the lowest in 19 years. This news comes two weeks after he rejected an industry proposal to increase premiums by 3.5%.

While the government celebrates this apparently modest price rise, consumers are right to point out that premium growth continues to outstrip inflation and wage growth. How do insurers justify this?




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Premiums up, rebates down, and a new tiered system – what the private health insurance changes mean


The case for higher premiums

Australians have come to expect that come April 1 each year, their private health insurance costs will go up – often by a lot.

These increases have been substantially more than wage growth or inflation. Between 2011 and 2019, the cumulative growth in nominal premiums (before rebates) was 49%. Over the same period wages grew by 21% and CPI by 16%.

Insurers have justified the growth in premiums by pointing out that benefits – the money private health insurers pay out when we go to hospital or have treatment – have also grown substantially.

Benefits grew on average 5.3% per year between 2014-2019. However, while earlier this decade benefit growth consistently outpaced premiums, this is no longer the case.

Growth in benefits is due to both higher medical costs and more claims. In fact, benefits per service have hardly changed since 2014 and have actually fallen for prostheses (such as hip and knee replacements), which highlights the importance of growth in number of claims.

Insurers are also facing growing cost pressure due to the exodus of young people from insurance and an ageing insurance pool.

Traditionally young people have cross-subsidised the higher expenses of older people, but increasingly they are deciding that private insurance is a bad deal. In the past 12 months, the number of people aged 20-34 with private hospital cover has declined by almost 50,000.




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Are insurers’ profits too high?

Insurers can point out that their profit margins are not unusually high compared to other forms of insurance. Figures from the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority show that in 2019 after-tax profits were 9.5% of premium revenue for general insurers. Meanwhile, after-tax profits for private health insurers were 5.6% (6.4% for for-profit funds).

Insurers can also point out that their net margins and benefits-to-premiums revenue ratios have been relatively stable over the past decade. Against this, growth in premiums has mostly acted to sustain profit margins rather than extend them.

But does this really matter for assessing price hikes? While shareholders would like to maintain the margins they’re accustomed to, there’s nothing intrinsically meaningful about historical figures.

The profits in one sector also don’t entitle insurers to the same profit in a different sector.

Ultimately, it’s hard to know what the “right” level of profit is. For now, private health insurance remains a relatively profitable industry.

What will the price increase mean for you?

Forty-four percent of Australians have private hospital cover and 53% have general treatment cover for things like dental and optical. For these Australians, the health minister estimates singles will pay an average of A$35 more per year (A$0.68 per week) and families A$103 more per year (A$1.99 per week).

It’s important to recognise that the 2.92% figure is a weighted industry average. Some policies will increase by more (and less) than 2.92%. You will find out by how much your plan is increasing early next year.

Those facing large price increases might downgrade their cover and some may drop it altogether. If healthier people drop out of insurance, that will put upward pressure on premiums in the future.

Australia’s private health insurance system relies on young people who don’t use their insurance to subsidise older Australians who do.
wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

So, is the 2020 premium increase justified?

With the information at hand, 2.92% seems reasonable by historical standards. Growth in benefits has been declining since 2017 and this should flow to premiums.

Going forward, the government will need to do more than crack down on premium-setting if it wants to arrest growing costs. The biggest pressures are from rising hospital and medical fees and an ageing insurance pool.




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Recent attempts to reduce costs by negotiating a better deal with medical device manufacturers was a good move, although insurers claim it failed to meaningfully lower their costs because manufacturers increased the volume of devices sold.

Higher premium rebates for young people are more dubious since rebates are only cost-effective if they cause lots of people to take up insurance who wouldn’t otherwise.

It’s been 21 years since the last Productivity Commission inquiry into the private health insurance industry. Perhaps it’s time for another one.The Conversation

Nathan Kettlewell, Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Economics Discipline Group, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Premiums up, rebates down, and a new tiered system – what the private health insurance changes mean



File 20190327 139377 12fjpz7.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
This year’s premium increase is small in comparison to previous years – but it still outweighs wage inflation.
From shutterstock.com

Peter Sivey, RMIT University and Terence Cheng, University of Adelaide

If you have private health insurance, or are considering getting it, a series of changes coming into effect on April 1 are worth knowing about.

These include the annual premium increase, a small decrease in rebates, the introduction of a new tiered system designed to simplify things for consumers, and some premium discounts for young people.

This year’s premium increase is quite small compared to recent years, and the reforms are generally sensible. But cost pressures and confusion in private health insurance cannot be fixed overnight.




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A modest increase in premiums

Private health insurance premiums will increase by an average of 3.25% in 2019. These increases are relatively modest, as premiums have been rising at between 4% and 6% per annum for more than 10 years.

However, compared to consumer price index inflation of 1.8% and wage inflation of 2.3%, premiums are still rising substantially in real terms for Australians.

But in the current environment, above-inflation premium rises are not unexpected.

For comparison, consider the public health system, where spending increased at nearly 7% per year in the decade to 2017.

Out-of-pocket spending by patients also had an above-inflation trend of 5.1% per year over the past decade.

So both public and private expenditure on health are increasing substantially. Driving this is the increased usage and price of health care. Hospital visits are growing at 4% a year, and health price inflation is a further 2% per year.

Many hospital procedures such as cardiothoracic surgery, colonoscopies, hip and knee replacements, are increasing in volume by over 5% a year. So as patients use their health insurance more, it’s reasonable for the price to rise.




Read more:
Here’s what’s actually driving up health insurance premiums (hint: it’s not young people dropping off)


Rebates continue to decrease slowly

Most Australians with private health insurance receive a rebate from the Australian government to help cover the cost of premiums.

Means testing of rebates along income tiers was introduced in 2012. This sees individuals and households with higher incomes receive lower subsidies.

From 2014, the government began indexing rebates every year, using a formula that is calculated as a difference between the consumer price index, and the industry weighted average increase in premiums.

As a result of indexation, rebate entitlements have been gradually falling.

Government rebates for private health insurance go down a small amount each year.
From shutterstock.com

For example, this means in 2013/14, a person aged 65 or below earning less than $88,000 (base tier) would have received a 30% rebate. Today, a person of the same age in the base tier would receive a rebate of just over 25%.

From April 1, rebates will decrease between 0.1% to 0.5% from their levels in 2018/19, depending on the income tiers that people fall into.

For a typical family policy that covers both hospital and extras (with premiums approximately A$140 a fortnight), the decrease in the rebate translates to a very small rise in premiums of A$1 a fortnight.

Basic, bronze, silver or gold?

One key initiative starting on April 1 is the introduction of four tiers of private health insurance coverage: basic, bronze, silver, and gold. This is distinct to the income tiers we talked about above.

In this case, each tier mandates the minimum set of treatments (defined by clinical categories) that insurers must cover.




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For instance, policies in the “basic” tier are required to cover rehabilitation services, hospital psychiatric services, and palliative care.

Insurers can include other types of treatments which are not mandatory under the basic tier, if they choose to do so. Each additional tier covers a wider range of treatments, in addition to services mandated in lower tiers.



The Conversation/Australian Government, CC BY-ND

This simplified categorisation of policies is designed to help consumers understand how comprehensive their cover is, and enable them to more easily compare products offered by different health funds.

While this initiative provides consumers with greater clarity on the types of services covered by each type of health insurance product, it still does not standardise care completely.




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Private health insurance premium increases explained in 14 charts


Health funds can offer to cover, in lower tier products, treatments that are mandated only in higher tiered policies (such as providing coverage for pregnancy in a basic policy).

This may confuse patients if they assume their policy covering pregnancy will also cover other costly private procedures such as joint reconstructions (bronze), or back, neck and spinal surgery (silver).

Young people

From April 1, health funds will be able to offer discounts on premiums of 2% for each year a person is under the age of 30 when he or she takes up private health insurance. Premium discounts are capped at a maximum of 10%. The discount is retained until the person reaches the age of 41, after which it will be gradually phased out.

This initiative is being introduced to encourage young Australians to purchase private health cover and to stem the decline in private health insurance ownership among younger people. From September to December 2018, the largest net decrease in insured persons was recorded in people aged 25 to 29.

These discounts on premiums for young people complement the Lifetime Health Cover policy introduced in 2000, which was designed to encourage Australians to take up private hospital insurance earlier, and also to maintain cover.

Under the Lifetime Health Cover policy, which is still in force, people above the age of 30 without private cover are required to pay a 2% loading on premiums for each year they are over 30, if they choose to take up private cover later on.

Other changes

Another key change is that health funds are permitted to offer private hospital policies with a higher excess, in return for lower premiums. The maximum permitted excess is increasing from A$500 to A$750 for singles, and A$1,000 to A$1,500 for families.

Travel and accommodation benefits will be allowed to be included in hospital insurance plans for customers living in regional and rural parts of Australia. This will assist patients and their carers to meet the additional costs of having to travel to urban centres or capital cities to receive specialised treatment.

Natural therapies such as yoga, naturopathy, pilates and reflexology will no longer be covered under a general treatment policy. A total of 16 natural therapies are excluded. A review undertaken by the National Health and Medical Research Council concluded there is no clear evidence of the efficacy of these therapies.

Finally, to strengthen consumer protection, the role of the private health insurance ombudsman will be expanded, giving the agency new powers and greater capabilities to address issues and complaints.The Conversation

Peter Sivey, Associate Professor, School of Economics, Finance and Marketing, RMIT University and Terence Cheng, Senior Lecturer, School of Economics, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.