HIX: Finding the pony hidden within the ACA’s “exchange concept”


Change is coming to the U.S. health insurance market and the road will be bumpy.  Nowhere is the change more apparent than the current debate surrounding the state-run public health insurance exchanges. Our research underscores that the Affordable Care Act of 2010 underestimated the cost and complexity of establishing public exchanges. In spite of these issues, new and unforeseen opportunities are emerging relative to health insurance distribution. The application of retail, product design and customer service expertise could be transformational relative to the health insurance market for individuals.

As the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marks its first anniversary, a number of key questions remain. One of the largest revolves around the costs and benefits for the federally mandated and state-run competitive marketplaces called Health Insurance Exchanges (HIX), where individuals will be able to shop for and purchase health insurance. The public (state-run) HIX is one of the cornerstones of the health reform legislation, and for individuals without healthcare coverage today – an estimated 34 million people – the public HIXs are the intended mechanism by which individuals will acquire health insurance.

Our latest research report assesses the ACA requirement that each state build and operate a multi-channel (i.e. online, phone, and paper-based) marketplace where any qualified individual can shop for and buy health insurance.  The legislation provides some specifics as to what types of “essential health benefits” must be provided within the exchange, dictates guidelines and mandates as to how the states must run the HIX, and defines specific features the exchanges must possess. These include:

  • A choice of certified and approved health plans from different carriers.
  • Simple plan comparison tools that allow consumers to research and select the best policy for their needs.
  • Enrollment assistance for those purchasing private insurance, and eligibility information for those qualified to receive government subsidies or Medicaid enrollment.
  • A process for recouping operational costs of the HIX through surcharges in order to make them self-sustaining.


For these exchange-based insurance policies, federal and state law will closely regulate the products and benefits offered and the prices insurance companies can charge for their products. To keep the HIXs viable, insurance companies are forbidden from undercutting prices of products sold on a public exchange with competing products in the open market. They will also be required to pool risks across exchange and non-exchange participants. Further, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will mandate a set of essential health benefits that must be provided under each policy, including coverage and deductible tiers for each plan offered.

While the public HIX concept seems simple and straight forward, our research predicts that their implementation will be fraught with costs, technical challenges, and sustainability issues that are neither recognized nor acknowledged, much less understood. Thus far, much of the debate about HIXs has focused on constitutional questions – and therefore political issues – related to the individual mandate which would compel citizens to purchase health insurance. As the states ramp their HIX implementation efforts in order to meet the 2014 deadline, we anticipate that several new challenges will come to the forefront. They will need to be addressed and will propel further change.

Healthcare reform and the resultant need for serving the individual market are propelling new approaches to capturing share in the insurance marketplace, and we expect that a range of new market entrants are just around the corner. Recognizing that it is still early in the progression of these alternative, free-market approaches, this report will review the concept of “private” insurance exchanges and reveal how they will likely serve a larger population than their public counterparts, and will provide more compelling insurance options and opportunities.

Thanks and have a great week.

Scott Donahue
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