The Department of Health and Human Services attempted to reassure private insurers on Thursday that they'll be able to recover losses from participating in Obamacare by claiming it was an "obligation" of the U.S. government to bail them out.
At issue is a provision within the law known as the risk corridors program. Under the program, which runs from 2014 through 2016, the federal government is to collect money from health insurers doing better than expected and use those funds to provide a federal backstop to other insurers who incur larger than expected losses from rising medical claims. The idea was to provide training wheels to insurers in the first years of Obamacare's implementation, and to take away any incentive for insurers to cherry pick only the healthiest customers.
Republicans, fearing that this could turn into an open-ended government bailout in the event of industry-wide losses, included a provision in last year's spending bill that limited the program, requiring HHS to pay out only from the pool of money collected, rather than supplementing it with other sources of government funding. President Obama signed that bill.
Now that insurers have been able to look at medical claims, what they've found is that enrollees in Obamacare are disproportionately sicker, and losses are piling up. For the 2014 benefit year, insurers losing more than expected asked for $2.87 billion in government payments through the risk corridors program, but HHS only collected $362 million from insurers performing better than expected. Thus, the funds available to the federal government only amounts to 12.6 percent of what insurers argue that they're owed.