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CO-OP health plans: patients’ interests first

4 of the original 23 CO-OPs are operating in 5 states for 2018; they're expected to continue to offer plans in 2019

Which health insurance CO-OPs are still active and what happened to the others?


It’s been a rough few years for the ACA’s Consumer Operated and Oriented Plans (CO-OPs). There were 23 CO-OPs when the first open enrollment period got underway in the fall of 2013, but by 2018, just four CO-OPs are still operational, offering plans in five states:

  • Community Health Options in Maine
  • Mountain Health CO-OP (Montana Health CO-OP) in Montana and Idaho
  • New Mexico Health Connections in New Mexico
  • Common Ground Healthcare Cooperative in Wisconsin

Rate filings for 2019 have not yet been publicized in Idaho or Wisconsin, but the CO-OPs in Maine, Montana, and New Mexico have all filed plans for 2019 — and with smaller rate increases than they had for 2018.

But all of the remaining CO-OPs except Community Health Options once again owe money into the risk adjustment program in 2018, for the 2017 plan year (see this section, below, for the risk adjustment details from 2015 to 2017)

How many people are enrolled in CO-OP plans?

In 2018, there are only about 150,000 people enrolled in those four CO-OPs. That’s down from more than a million enrollees in 2015, when the CO-OPs were at their peak and most were still operational.

  • Community Health Options has about 54,000 enrollees.
  • Mountain Health CO-OP has about 25,000 enrollees in Montana and 24,000 in Idaho.
  • New Mexico Health Connections has about 18,000 members.
  • Common Ground has about 29,000 members.

What are CO-OPs and how are they different?

CO-OPs were created under a provision of the Affordable Care Act. The idea for CO-OPs was proposed by Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) when the original public plan option was jettisoned during the health care reform debate. Lawmakers added the CO-OP provision to the Affordable Care Act to placate Democrats who had pushed for a government-run, Medicare-for-all type of health insurance program.

At the time, progressives who preferred a public option derided CO-OPs as a poor alternative because they can’t utilize the efficiencies of scale that would come with Medicare For All, nor do they have the market clout that a single payer system would have when negotiating reimbursement rates with providers.

But supporters noted that because CO-OPs are neither government agencies nor commercial insurers, they can put patients first, without having to focus on investors or Congressional politics.

Instead of paying shareholders, CO-OP profits are reinvested in the plan to lower premiums or improve benefits (in 2014, only one CO-OP, Maine Community Health Options, had revenue that exceeded claims and administrative expenses – but the reinvestment of profits was the plan for all CO-OPs, once they became profitable). And customers’ health insurance needs and concerns become a top priority because the CO-OP’s customers/members elect their own board of directors. And a majority of these directors must themselves be members of the CO-OP.

CO-OPs are private, nonprofit, state-licensed health insurance carriers. Their plans can be sold both inside and outside the health insurance exchanges, depending on the state, and can offer individual, small group, and large group plans. But they’re limited to having no more than a third of their policies in the large group market (a more lucrative market than individual or small group). Most of the CO-OPs’ membership has been concentrated in the individual market. New Mexico Health Connections was an exception, as they had more enrollees in their employer-sponsored plans (including large group plans) than in their individual market plans. But New Mexico Health Connections partnered with a for-profit entity in 2018 that is now covering their employer-sponsored plans, leaving the CO-OP with just the individual market segment.

Lawmakers had originally planned to provide $10 billion in grants to get the CO-OPs up and running in every state. But insurance industry lobbyists and fiscal conservatives in Congress succeeded in reducing the total to $6 billion, and turning it into loans – with relatively short repayment schedules – instead of grants (and CO-OPs are not permitted to use federal loan money for marketing purposes). Then, during budget negotiations in 2011, those loans were cut by another $2.2 billion. And in 2012, during the fiscal cliff negotiations, CO-OP funding was reduced even further – and applications from 40 prospective CO-OPs were rejected

Ultimately, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) awarded about $2.4 billion in loans to 23 CO-OPs across the country (there were 24 CO-OPs, but Vermont Health CO-OP never became operational. CMS retracted their loan in September 2013 – before the exchanges opened for the first open enrollment – because there were doubts that the program could be viable with Vermont’s impending switch to single-payer healthcare in 2017; ironically, Vermont pulled the plug on their single payer vision in late 2014).

The CO-OP failures have been due in large part to a combination of premiums that were too low, benefits that were too generous, enrollees who were sicker than anticipated, competition from bigger carriers with larger reserves, the risk corridor shortfall that was announced in the fall of 2015, and the risk adjustment payment announcements that were made in June 2016 (see below for a timeline of the closures).

The Trump Administration’s approach to health care reform — including the expansion of short-term plans and association health plans — and GOP lawmakers’ efforts to repeal the ACA (including their success in repealing the individual mandate penalty after the end of 2018), have further increased the uncertainty that insurers are facing, making the situation even more precarious for small insurers like the remaining CO-OPs.

But despite those issues, the four remaining CO-OPs continue to operate successfully. And although 2019 rate filings have not yet been publicized in Idaho or Wisconsin, the CO-OPs in Maine, Montana, and New Mexico plan to continue to offer coverage in 2019, and the rate hikes they’ve proposed are smaller than the ones they imposed for 2018.

Focus on cost savings and reinvested profits

How do CO-OPs increase cost efficiencies?

  • CMS laid out guidelines for CO-OPs to use “private purchasing councils” through which CO-OP carriers can use collective purchasing power to obtain lower costs on a variety of items and services, including claims administration, accounting, health IT, or reinsurance. Private purchasing councils are allowed to use their collective purchasing power to negotiate rates or network arrangements with providers and health care facilities, as antitrust issues could otherwise arise.
  • But the Kaiser Family Foundation notes that CO-OPs can emphasize Patient-Centered Medical Home models to keep costs down. (the PCMH model allows physicians to use health information technology and care managers to provide a full spectrum of care that’s coordinated among each patient’s various providers. The goal is to keep patients healthy – and out of the hospital – by using best practices and evidence-based medicine. If PCMH doctors are successful, they qualify for bonuses).
  • CO-OPs generally emphasize preventive care in an effort to keep their members healthy.
  • A challenge for CO-OPs was developing their provider networks. At least 15 of the original CO-OPs were renting networks from other insurers, which added to their administrative expenses. In Maine, Community Health Options (the one profitable CO-OP in 2014, and one of only four CO-OPs still operational in 2018) built its own provider network from the ground up, a move that CEO Kevin Lewis notes as one of the reasons CHO has been successful. CO-OPs also have the option to hire doctors directly, rather than contract with them through provider networks (the upside for the doctors is that the CO-OP then handles the administrative details, and the doctor can focus on healthcare instead).

2018: 4 CO-OPs selling plans in 5 states

There are four CO-OPs that are offering plans in five states in 2018. Although the vast majority of the original CO-OPs have failed, these four are showing signs of overall stability, with proposed 2019 rates increases that are smaller than the rate increases they implemented for 2018.

MAINE:

Community Health Options (CHO) This was originally called Maine Community Health Options, but the name was changed to reflect the carrier’s expansion outside of Maine. 44,000 people enrolled in coverage through the exchange in 2014, and 83 percent of them selected Community Health Options, making the CO-OP’s first year an amazing success.

CHO expanded into New Hampshire for 2015, fueled by their initial success in 2014 and by a new loan from CMS. During the second open enrollment period, CHO once again dominated the Maine market, securing about 80 percent of the exchange market share. They also enrolled about 5,000 people in New Hampshire. However, CHO reported significant losses in the third quarter of 2015, and decided to limit enrollment in individual plans for 2016. Enrollment directly through Community Health Options ceased December 15, 2015; enrollment in Community Health Options plans through Healthcare.gov ceased December 26.

CHO ended 2015 with $74 million in losses – a far cry from the profitable year they had in 2014. In early 2016, Maine’s Insurance Superintendent proposed putting the CO-OP in receivership and canceling a portion of its plans (about 20,000 members would have been transitioned to other coverage). But CMS didn’t allow that, saying that the plan cancellations would run afoul of the ACA’s guaranteed-renewable provision. The CO-OP is under increased oversight from the Maine Bureau of Insurance, which puts out monthly reports that detail how the CO-OP is faring relative to its business plan. According to the June 2018 report from the Bureau of Insurance, CHO’s revenues and expenses in April 2018 were both lower than projected, and the CO-OP’s surplus was up 43 percent since the end of 2017. BOI cautioned, however, that claims tend to be lower (and surpluses higher) in the early part of the year, before enrollees have met their deductibles.

CHO is the only remaining CO-OP that received money—as opposed to having to pay out money—under the risk adjustment program for 2015 and again for 2016. For 2017, Community Health Options had an average rate increase of 25.5 percent in Maine, where bulk of their members lived. They exited New Hampshire entirely at the end of 2016, and reverted to operating solely in Maine, as they did in 2014. They implemented an average rate increase of 15.8 percent for 2018 in the individual market. For 2019, however, CHO has proposed an average rate increase of just 6.9 percent for individual market plans.

CHO’s total membership was 67,539 at the end of 2016, and had dropped to 44,015 by the first quarter of 2017 (all in Maine, since they’re no longer offering plans in New Hampshire). But by April 2018, the CO-OP’s membership had climbed to 53,939 (of those enrollees, 81 percent were in the individual market).

MONTANA and IDAHO:

Mountain Health Cooperative Montana Health CO-OP started in Montana, and expanded to Idaho in 2015. The CO-OP seems to be on relatively solid financial ground. Then-CEO Jerry Dworak noted in 2015 that the CO-OP didn’t expand too quickly, and maintained substantial reserves; they were not relying as heavily as other CO-OPs on risk corridor payments to shore up their financial position.

Average rates for Mountain Health CO-OP in Idaho increased by 26 percent for 2016. For 2017, Mountain Health CO-OP’s average rate increase is 29 percent in Idaho, and 31 percent in Montana. As of December 22, 2016, the CO-OP ceased enrollments in Montana due to the “large number of new members for 2017.” The enrollment freeze was lifted in July 2017 for off-exchange enrollments; on-exchange enrollments in Montana were expected to become available in the summer of 2017 as well. In both cases, this was ahead of schedule, as the CO-OP had originally expected the lift the enrollment freeze as of November 1, at the start of open enrollment.

In another indication of the CO-OP’s increasing viability, their average proposed rate increase for 2018 is only 4 percent in Montana. This demonstrates that the 31 percent average rate increase for 2017 may have been enough to stabilize the CO-OP and “right-size” the premiums. Ultimately, the average rate increase for 2018 ended up being considerably higher, a 16.6 percent, due to the Trump Administration’s decision to eliminate federal funding for cost-sharing reductions (CSR).

For 2019, the CO-OP has proposed an average rate increase of 10.6 percent. Again, this would be lower if not for the Trump Administration’s decisions to expand access to short-term plans and association health plans, and the GOP tax bill provision that will eliminate the individual mandate penalty after the end of 2018 (all of these changes will serve to reduce the number of healthy people who purchase coverage in the ACA-compliant market).

The CO-OP’s board of directors announced in June 2018 that Richard Miltenberger would serve as the new CEO of Mountain Health CO-OP. In 2018, the CO-OP has about 25,000 members in Montana, and 24,000 in Idaho. In Montana, the CO-OP has more individual market enrollees than either of the other two insurers that offer plans in the state.

NEW MEXICO:

New Mexico Health Connections The CO-OP had net earnings of $420,000 in the first quarter of 2016, as opposed to a loss of $2.3 million in the first quarter of 2015. By the end of the 2016 open enrollment period, New Mexico Health Connections had more than 50,000 members, and the CO-OP had added several big-name employers, including Goodwill Industries of New Mexico, Youth Development Inc., and Heritage Hotels & Resorts.

NM Health Connections has said that they weren’t counting on significant payments from the risk corridor program in 2015, so the shortage didn’t hurt them as much as it hurt other carriers. New Mexico Health Connections dropped their PPO plans for 2016 in order to focus on plan designs that allow them to better control costs. Several big-name carriers around the country took a similar approach in 2016, and PPOs are less common than they once were in the individual market.

For 2017, New Mexico Health Connections had an average rate increase of 33 percent. Their average rate increase for 2018 was 28.2 percent (much lower than the 84 percent average rate increase they initially filed; the lower rate filing came about once it became clear that other insurers would not be exiting New Mexico’s market and the CO-OP did not have to insulate themselves against a flood of new enrollees).

For 2019, New Mexico Health Connections has filed an average rate increase of 14.54 percent. The CO-OP has 17,884 members in 2018. All of those members are in the individual market, as the CO-OP partnered with Evolent Health in early 2018 to create a new for-profit subsidiary that is now insuring the CO-OP’s former employer group members.

WISCONSIN:

Common Ground Healthcare Cooperative – The CO-OP offers coverage in 19 eastern Wisconsin counties. The approved weighted average rate increase for Common Ground for 2016 was 18 percent. The CO-OP had 23,629 enrollees in Wisconsin in 2015. For 2017, the CO-OP had an average rate increase of 12.6 percent.

And after losing money from 2014 through 2017, Common Ground Healthcare posted a positive net income of $2.7 million in the first quarter of 2017.

For 2018, Common Ground’s average rate increase was 63 percent. But it would only have been about 20 percent if the Trump Administration hadn’t eliminated federal funding for cost-sharing reductions. The rate increase for 2018 applied to about 29,000 members who had coverage in the individual market.

2015 risk adjustment: 9 of 10 CO-OPs owed payments

Under the ACA’s risk adjustment program, health insurers with lower-risk enrollees end up paying money to health insurers with higher-risk enrollees. The idea is to prevent insurers from designing plans that appeal only to healthy enrollees, and to ensure that premiums reflect benefit levels, rather than the overall health of a plan’s enrollees.

On June 30, 2016, HHS released data on risk adjustment numbers for 2015. Of the 10 CO-OPs that were still operational at that point, nine had to pay into the risk adjustment program for 2015; only one remaining CO-OP – Community Health Options (operating in Maine and New Hampshire at that point) – received a risk adjustment payment. Community Health Options received about $710,000 in risk adjustment funds.

Some of the remaining CO-OPs had begun to be profitable in early 2016 (details below), but their financial situations now had to be considered in conjunction with the fact that the CO-OPs had to pay out the following amounts in risk adjustment payments, making their financial futures even more uncertain (of the nine CO-OPs that owed money in 2016 for the risk adjustment program, six have closed or are facing impending closure; only the CO-OPs listed in bold continue to be fully operational)

  • Mountain Health CO-OP/Montana Health CO-OP (Idaho and Montana): $481,000
  • Oregon Health CO-OP (Community Care of Oregon): $914,000 (closed; plans ended July 31, 2016)
  • Common Ground CO-OP (Wisconsin): $1.9 million
  • Minuteman (operates in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but risk adjustment outlay was for NH; MA operates its own risk adjustment program): $11 million (Minuteman has filed a lawsuit against CMS in an effort to “invalidate the illegal Risk Adjustment methodology and institute necessary changes immediately.” Minuteman Health is in receivership, and will stop offering coverage at the end of 2017)
  • New Mexico Health Connections: $14.6 million. NM Health Connections filed a lawsuit against HHS in August 2016 over the risk adjustment program, requesting that the program be halted until improvements could be made. A judge sided with the CO-OP, and the Trump Administration briefly halted all risk adjustment collections and payments in response to the ruling. This would have been destabilizing to the individual markets nationwide if it had continued, but CMS announced in late July 2018 that insurers expecting risk adjustment payments for 2017 would receive them, on schedule, in the fall of 2018.
  • Healthy CT: $13.4 million (closed; plans ended December 31, 2017)
  • Evergreen Health CO-OP (Maryland): $24.2 million (Evergreen filed a lawsuit in 2016 to block the collection of the risk adjustment payments; a district judge denied the CO-OP’s request, and the CO-OP immediately appealed the decision; Between $2 million and $3 million of the risk adjustment payment was to be withheld by CMS in mid-July from funds owed to the CO-OP for premium subsidies and cost-sharing reductions, and the remainder of the payment had to be remitted by Evergreen by August 15). Evergreen noted that they would have profited between $2 million and $3 million in 2016 if it weren’t for the $24 million they had to pay into the risk adjustment program. As a result of the losses, they began the process of being acquired by private investors and converting to a for-profit entity (this process ultimately didn’t happen fast enough for Evergreen to be able to sell or renew individual plans for 2017; in July 2017 the investors terminated the acquisition, and Maryland regulators ultimately placed Evergreen Health in receivership).
  • Land of Lincoln (Illinois): $31.8 million (the state ordered Land of Lincoln to withhold payment until if and when the CO-OP received the money they were supposed to get in 2015 for the 2014 risk corridors program. That tactic didn’t work however, and in July 2016, Illinois regulators began the process of closing Land of Lincoln Health; the CO-OP was placed in liquidation as of October 1, 2016).
  • Freelancer’s CO-OP (Health Republic Insurance of New Jersey): $46.3 million (in September 2016, regulators placed Health Republic in rehabilitation, and the CO-OP stopped selling new plans; the risk adjustment payment — which was much more than they had previously been advised it would be — was cited as a primary reason for the CO-OP’s financial instability).

HHS implemented changes to the risk adjustment program for 2018, to make it more equitable and less burdensome for new, smaller carriers. But risk adjustment has remained a contentious issue well into 2018. New Mexico Health Connections sued the federal government over the risk adjustment formula, arguing that it disadvantaged smaller, newer insurers (like the CO-OP) and favored larger, more established insurers. A judge agreed with the CO-OP, and ruled that the federal government needed to justify its risk adjustment formula for 2014-2018.

The Trump Administration responded by announcing in July 2018 that all risk adjustment payments and collections, nationwide, would cease for the time being, which caused widespread uncertainty and concern among health insurers and state regulators. But in late July, CMS announced that they would resume payments under the risk adjustment program, and insurers due to receive a total of $5.2 billion in risk adjustment payments for 2017 will receive that money in the timely fashion in the fall of 2018.

2016 risk adjustment: 4 out of 5 remaining CO-OPs once again owe money

On June 30, 2017, HHS published the risk adjustment report for 2016. Maine Community Health Options was once again the only remaining CO-OP to receive funding under the risk adjustment program; they got $9.1 million.

The report also detailed the amount that insurers owe or would receive for 2016 under the ACA’s temporary reinsurance program (2016 was the last year for the reinsurance program). All five of the remaining CO-OPs received money from the 2016 reinsurance program, but in most cases, it was not as much as they had to pay out under the risk adjustment program.

Maine Community Health Options — the only remaining CO-OP receiving funding under the risk adjustment program for 2016 — also received $21 million under the 2016 reinsurance program, which was far more than any of the other CO-OPs received.

  • Common Ground CO-OP had to pay $3.7 million in risk adjustment (but received $10.5 million in reinsurance)
  • Mountain Health CO-OP/Montana Health CO-OP had to pay $8.3 million in risk adjustment (but received $2.9 million in reinsurance)
  • New Mexico Health Connections had to pay $8.9 million in risk adjustment (but received $3 million in reinsurance) NM Health Connections sued the federal government in 2016 over the risk adjustment program, arguing that the system was set up in a way that ultimately ends up taking money from smaller, newer insurers and giving it to larger, more established insurers. A judge sided with the CO-OP, and the Trump Administration responded by briefly suspending payments and collections under the risk adjustment program nationwide.

Minuteman, which closed at the end of 2017, had to pay $25.4 million in risk adjustment for 2016 (but received $3 million in reinsurance). Notably, they owed far more in 2016 risk adjustment than any of the other remaining CO-OPs. They explained in June 2017, in conjunction with their announcement that they would no longer be a CO-OP after 2017 (at that point, they hoped to re-open as a for-profit insurer, but that plan was scrapped when they were unable to raise enough capital to secure a license for 2018), that the amount they had been forced to pay into the risk adjustment program amounted to about a third of the premiums they had collected.

2017 risk adjustment

On July 9, 2018, CMS published the risk adjustment report for 2017, showing which insurers owed money into the program, and which would receive money. Ironically, this came just three days after CMS had announced that they would freeze risk adjustment transfers as a result of the New Mexico court ruling regarding the risk adjustment methodology. But by the end of July, the risk adjustment program had been restarted (with additional justification for the methodology, the comply with the judge’s request), and payments to insurers were expected to be made on schedule, in the fall of 2018.

But once again, CHO is the only CO-OP that will receive funds under the risk adjustment program for 2017. The other three remaining CO-OPs all owe money:

  • Community Health Options will receive $10 million into the risk adjustment program.
  • Common Ground CO-OP has to pay $1.15 million into the risk adjustment program. This is due to their small group plans; they’ll receive a small amount of money under the risk adjustment program for their individual market plans, but it’s more than offset by the amount they have to pay in the small group market.
  • New Mexico Health Connections has to pay $5.6 million into the risk adjustment program.
  • Mountain Health CO-OP/Montana Health CO-OP has to pay $36.6 million into the risk adjustment program.

2016: New HHS regulations to stabilize CO-OPs, but ultimately too little too late for most CO-OPs

In May 2016, after extensive input from stakeholders, HHS issued new regulations in an effort to help the remaining CO-OPs become financially viable. Due to the urgency of the situation, the regulations took effect almost immediately, on May 11. The new regulations made a variety of changes to make it easier for CO-OPs to seek outside investments and expand their coverage offerings beyond the individual and small group markets:

  • Prior to 2016, there were relatively strict rules governing the makeup of CO-OP boards. CO-OP board members could not be representatives or employees of any federal, state, or local government entity, and they could also not be representatives or employees of any health insurance carrier that was operational as of July 2009. These rules were established to prevent conflicts of interest among CO-OP board members (for example, an employee of a competing insurance company might have a conflict of interest and might not make decisions solely based on the best interests of the CO-OP). The new regulations relaxed these rules, as HHS had discovered that the rules were too strict, and were preventing well-qualified experts from joining CO-OP boards. The new regulations allow government employees and representatives to be on CO-OP boards as long as they’re not in senior or high-level positions in the government. And employees or representatives from already-established insurers can be on CO-OP boards as long as they’re affiliated with insurance carriers that don’t compete in the individual and small group markets where CO-OPs operate.
  • The old rules also required all of a CO-OP’s board of directors to be elected by CO-OP members, and required all members of the board of directors to also be members of the CO-OP. The new regulations allow for some leeway here too. Only a majority of the board members must be elected by CO-OP members, and board members are no longer required to be members of the CO-OP. This allows outside entities that are providing loans, investments, and services to the CO-OP to have representatives on the board of directors, and will — in theory — make it easier for CO-OPs to attract new investments. HHS noted that including investor representatives on boards of directors is a common practice in the private sector. The old rules made it difficult for CO-OPs to find willing and qualified individuals to serve on their boards of directors, and the new rules allow them to seek outside experts to provide assistance via being on the board of directors. The CO-OPs are member-driven though, as the majority of board members must still be elected by CO-OP members. New Mexico Health Connections announced in 2016 that they planned to work with Raymond James, a New York based investment firm, to raise “a substantial amount” of funding for New Mexico Health Connections. Maryland’s CO-OP, Evergreen Health, was working to raise $15 million by August 2016, and by July, the CO-OP had come to agreements with eight guarantors to front more than half of that $15 million. But Evergreen Health later opted for the ultimate private investor arrangement, with plans for private investors to acquire the CO-OP in 2017. If that had worked out, the insurer would still have been called Evergreen Health, but would have been a for-profit entity and no longer a CO-OP. Ultimately, the new arrangement didn’t receive federal approval in time to continue to offer coverage for 2017, and Maryland’s Insurance Commissioner announced on December 8 that Evergreen would not sell or renew any individual plans for 2017. They had planned to return to the individual market in 2018, but the private investors terminated the acquisition in July 2017, and Maryland regulators imposed an administrative order that ultimately resulted in the CO-OP entering receivership.
  • The ACA requires that at least two-thirds of a CO-OP’s policies must be issued in the individual and small group markets in the state where the CO-OP is licensed. Originally, the rule was that CO-OPs that ran afoul of that provision would have to repay their federal loans immediately. The new regulations allow for more leeway: CO-OPs that aren’t meeting the two-thirds rule don’t necessarily have to repay their loans immediately, but they do have to demonstrate a plan for getting into compliance with the two-thirds rule, and be acting in good faith to achieve that standard (most CO-OPs only operate in the individual and small group markets thus far, but HealthyCT in Connecticut was an exception – they offered large group plans in addition to individual and small group plans. New Mexico Health Connections also had large group enrollments until 2018, when they partnered with a for-profit entity that is now covering their employer groups; New Mexico Health Connections is continuing to provide CO-OP coverage for their individual market enrollees). The new flexibility allows CO-OPs to enter into other markets – including large group, Medicare, Medicaid, and ancillary products such as dental and vision, without having to be overly concerned with running afoul of the two-thirds rule and triggering an immediate payback requirement for federal loans.
  • Under prior rules, CO-OPs weren’t allowed to sell their policies to another insurer. So when 12 CO-OPs failed by the end of 2015, the only option was to send their members back to the general market – on or off-exchange – to seek new coverage. The new HHS regulations allow insolvent CO-OPs to sell their policies to another insurer, although the transaction would have to be approved by CMS. The idea here was to preserve coverage for existing members if additional CO-OPs fail. But of the ten CO-OPs that were still operational when the new rules were finalized, six have since folded, and all of their members have had to purchase new coverage, as none of the failed CO-OPs have been purchased by other insurers.

Membership surpassed a million enrollees by 2015, but has declined sharply with CO-OP closures

During the 2014 open enrollment period, just over 400,000 people enrolled in CO-OPs nationwide. That climbed to over a million by the end of the 2015 open enrollment period – despite the fact that CoOpportunity (Iowa and Nebraska) stopped selling policies in December 2014, and their once-robust enrollment (120,000 members) had dropped to about 2,000 people by mid-February 2015. While enrollment in private plans through the exchanges increased by 46 percent in 2015 (from 8 million people in the first open enrollment period, to 11.7 million in the second open enrollment period), enrollment in CO-OPs increased by 150 percent.

At the end of 2015, however, more than 500,000 of those enrollees had to switch to a different plan, as 11 of the 22 remaining CO-OPs closed at the end of 2015 (in large part due to the fact that insurers did not receive most of the risk corridor money they were owed for 2014). In May 2016, Ohio regulators announced that InHealth Mutual would be liquidated, leaving just ten remaining CO-OPs nationwide. And only three of them were not subject to enhanced federal oversight as of 2016: New Mexico Health Connections, Mountain Health Cooperative (Montana and Idaho), and Minuteman Health, Inc (Massachusetts and New Hampshire). The other eight CO-OPs still in operation at that point were all under “corrective action plans” from the federal government.

Seven of the eleven CO-OPs that were still operational at the end of 2015 had at least 25,000 enrollees as of mid-2015, which was the minimum number that CMS said was necessary for financial solvency. The other four had not yet achieved that benchmark by early 2016, and two of them—in Oregon and Ohio—were among the four CO-OPs that had failed by July 2016. Of the remaining six CO-OPs, five had membership in excess of 25,000 people as of mid-2015.

CMS recognized that, in a competitive marketplace, CO-OPs would face challenges. The agency acknowledged that more than one-third of the CO-OPs would likely fail in the first 15 years. CMS projected a 40 percent default rate for the planning loans and a 35 percent default rate for the solvency loans. But with only four of 23 CO-OPs still in business as of 2018, the failure rate is 83 percent, after four and a half years of operations.

In terms of recent enrollment totals for the remaining CO-OPs:

  • Common Ground CO-OP had 29,030 members in 2017 (up from 19,300 members in 2016)
  • Mountain Health CO-OP/Montana Health CO-OP has roughly 25,000 members in Montana in 2018, and 24,000 members in Idaho.
  • New Mexico Health Connections membership had grown to 50,000 by 2016. But the CO-OP partnered with Evolent Health in 2018 and employer group members are now insured under a separate for-profit subsidiary. In the individual market, the CO-OP is continuing to cover 17,884 members as of 2018.
  • Community Health Options: 53,939 members as of April 2018 (of those enrollees, 81 percent were in the individual market). That’s an increase from 44,015 members in the first quarter of 2017.

The CO-OPs that failed

The following CO-OPs had closed by 2018:

  • ARIZONA CLOSED Meritus Health Partners In a deviation from the norm, Meritus offered year-round enrollment outside the exchange until late summer 2015; tax credits were only available inside the exchange, and regular open enrollment dates applied to plans purchased in the exchange. Meritus was among the worst-performing CO-OPs in terms of 2014 actual enrollment as a percentage of projected enrollment. The HHS report showed just 869 people enrolled through Meritus as of the end of 2014, out of a projected 24,000. Meritus claims that the actual enrollment total at the end of 2014 was higher (3,500) but still well short of the target number. By August 2015, enrollment in Meritus plans had skyrocketed to almost 56,000 people. But just two days prior to the start of the 2016 open enrollment period, the Arizona Department of Insurance announced that Meritus could no longer sell or renew policies, and that existing plans would terminate at the end of 2015.
  • COLORADO CLOSED Colorado HealthOP – The CO-OP got roughly 13 percent of the exchange market share in 2014 (the second highest of any carrier in the exchange), but they lowered their prices considerably for 2015, and garnered nearly 40 percent of the exchange’s enrollees during the second open enrollment period. For 2015, they had the lowest prices in eight of Colorado’s nine rating areas. Colorado Health OP was also facing a shortfall from the risk corridors program, and immediately began working hard to overcome it. But their efforts were not sufficient, and the Colorado Division of Insurance decertified them from the exchange on October 16, 2015.
  • CONNECTICUT CLOSED HealthyCT – The CO-OP had 15.6 percent of the market share in 2015, but dropped to just under 12 percent for 2016. The CO-OP raised their premiums by an average of 7.2 percent for 2016. Unlike many other CO-OPs, HealthyCT wasn’t counting on the risk corridors payout that they were owed for 2014, so the shortfall wasn’t as significant for HealthyCT as it was for some of the other CO-OPs. Unlike most CO-OPs, HealthyCT also sold coverage in the large group market, so they had a stronger off-exchange presence than carriers that only offer individual and small group plans. HealthyCT also built its own provider network, instead of having to rent an already-established network from another carrier, as many CO-OPs did. But ultimately, the CO-OP succumbed to the $13.4 million bill that they received for the 2015 risk adjustment program. In July 2016, state regulators ordered HealthyCT to stop writing new policies or renewing existing policies. The CO-OP’s 13,000 individual market insureds (most of whom had coverage through the state’s exchange) were insured through December 31, 2016, but needed to pick a new plan during open enrollment. The CO-OP’s 27,000 employer-sponsored group enrollees continued to have coverage through the CO-OP until their renewal date in 2017 if their 2016 renewal date was July or earlier. Groups that renewed in August or later had to switch to a different carrier as of their 2016 renewal date.
  • ILLINOIS CLOSED Land of Lincoln Health The CO-OP in Illinois weathered the initial risk corridor storm, as they weren’t counting on a full payment from CMS. But they limited small group enrollments for the last two months of 2015, and they also capping 2016 enrollment at about 65,000 to 70,000 people (roughly a 30 percent increase over their 2015 membership) in order to sustainably manage their growth. Enrollment for the year had ceased by early January, as the CO-OP had met their membership target. During the first quarter of 2016, Land of Lincoln lost $7.1 million, up from the $5.3 million they lost in the first quarter of 2015. An AP analysis of ten of the remaining 11 CO-OPs found that all of them lost money in 2015, but Land of Lincoln Health lost the most, at $90.8 million. Nevertheless, the CO-OP is on the hook for a $31.8 million payment for 2015 risk adjustment. In late June, state regulators ordered Land of Lincoln to withhold payment until if and when the CO-OP receives the $73 million they were supposed to get in 2015 for the 2014 risk corridors program. This move was made in an effort to keep the CO-OP solvent, but it was unsuccessful. On July 12, regulators in Illinois announced that they were beginning the process of shutting down Land of Lincoln Health; the CO-OP will close on September 30, 2016. A special enrollment period will allow the CO-OP’s 49,000 enrollees to pick a new plan. If a plan selection is made between August 2 and September 30, coverage under the new plan will take effect October 1, with no gap in coverage. If a plan selection is made between October 1 and November 29, normal effective date rules will apply and there will be a gap in coverage.
  • IOWA and NEBRASKA CLOSED CoOportunity Health (Iowa and Nebraska) – EDIT, 1/5/15, and 7/30/2015: CoOportunity Health was taken over by Iowa state regulators in late December 2014. Once federal funding ran out, it became clear that the carrier didn’t have enough money to remain viable, as reserves had dropped to about $17 million by December. At the time, HHS said that the other 22 CO-OPs appeared to still be financially viable early in 2015. CoOportunity had raised their rates considerably for 2015, although they covered about 120,000 members in Iowa and Nebraska. Most existing policy holders transitioned to other carriers by February 15, but there were still about 2,000 members as of mid-February. Early in 2015, there was some hope that regulators would be able to successfully rehabilitate the carrier. But by February 18, the Insurance Division announced that they would begin the process of liquidating the carrier before the end of the month, and the remaining insureds had to transition to other carriers by March 1.
  • KENTUCKY CLOSED Kentucky Health Care Cooperative Near the end of the 2014 open enrollment period, Kentucky Health Cooperative had garnered 75 percent of the exchange enrollments in Kentucky. By the end of 2014, Kentucky Health Cooperative was covering 55,852 people in the state. The CO-OP had planned to expand into West Virginia for 2015, but backed out just a week before open enrollment over worries that their infrastructure wasn’t ready for the new influx of members. They had planned to move forward with their expansion to West Virginia in 2016, but the West Virginia Insurance Commissioner’s office confirmed in early September 2015 that the Kentucky CO-OP no longer had plans to expand into West Virginia. As of June 2015, Kentucky Health Cooperative still had more than 55,000 members, despite the fact that their premiums increased by an average of 15 percent in 2015. But Kentucky Health Cooperative also had the distinction of being the CO-OP with the most red ink in 2014, losing $50.4 million by the end of 2014 (although losses had diminished considerably in 2015; by the end of the first half of the year, losses totaled just $4 million). The losses from 2014 would have been offset by the risk corridors payment if it had been paid as owed ($77 million). Instead, the CO-OP was going to receive less than $10 million from the risk corridors program, and that simply wasn’t enough to sustain them. Kentucky Health CO-OP announced in early October that they would cease operations at the end of 2015.
  • LOUISIANA CLOSED Louisiana Health Cooperative Inc. – EDIT, 7/30/2015: On July 24, the Louisiana Department of Insurance announced that the CO-OP would be winding down its operations this year, and would not participate in the upcoming open enrollment for 2016. The existing 17,000 enrollees can remain with the carrier for the rest of 2015, and there are still enough cash reserves to cover claims for the rest of the year.
  • MASSACHUSETTS and NEW HAMPSHIRE Minuteman Health Inc. (CLOSED) Enrollment exceeded 22,500 in the first quarter of 2016, and the CO-OP ceased its advertising campaign in an effort to avoid enrolling too many members. The CO-OP had a profitable first quarter of 2016, as opposed to the $3.8 million loss they suffered in the first quarter of 2015. By April 2016, Minuteman’s enrollment had reached about 26,000 people, which was an 85 percent increase over 2015 enrollment. More than 21,000 of Minuteman’s QHP enrollees were in New Hampshire, and the state also has more than 3,400 Premium Assistance Program (privatized Medicaid) members with Minuteman coverage. All Minuteman Health enrollees in New Hampshire and Massachusetts needed to secure new coverage for 2018, as the CO-OP closed at the end of 2017.
  • MARYLAND Evergreen Health Cooperative Inc. (CLOSED) Enrollment was under 30,000 at the end of 2015, and had grown to 40,000 by March 2016. Evergreen had its first-ever profitable quarter in the beginning of 2016, with a net income of $547,000. That’s compared with a loss of $2.3 million in the first quarter of 2015. For 2015, Evergreen Health CO-OP lost money, as did all of the CO-OPs. But their loss was the smallest of the 11 remaining CO-OPs, at $10.8 million. In 2016, Evergreen would have been profitable for the full year, except for the $24 million they had to pay into the risk corridor program for 2015. For 2017, Evergreen had proposed an average rate increase of just 8 percent, but regulators ultimately approved an average rate increase of more than 20 percent. Evergreen owed CMS $24.2 million in risk adjustment funds for 2015, which was more than a quarter of the carrier’s total revenue. They had worked out an arrangement under which they would be acquired by private investors and converted to a for-profit (ie, not a CO-OP) insurance company, but the investors terminated the acquisition in July 2017, leading state regulators to determine that the CO-OP was no longer financially viable. The CO-OP was placed in receivership in 2017, and did not offer plans for 2018.
  • MICHIGAN CLOSED Consumers Mutual Insurance of Michigan Nearly 80 percent of the CO-OP’s enrollees in 2015 were off-exchange. Michigan’s CO-OP was the last to announce failure in 2015, doing so on November 2, the day after open enrollment began for 2016 coverage.
  • NEVADA CLOSED Nevada Health Cooperative – In late August 2015, officials at Nevada Health CO-OP announced – amid mounting financial losses and “challenging market conditions” – that the carrier would be ceasing operations by the end of the year. The CO-OP had about a third of the individual enrollments in the Nevada exchange for 2015, but they had to switch to another carrier for 2016.
  • NEW JERSEY CLOSED Health Republic Insurance of New Jersey (Freelancer’s CO-OP) – The CO-OP ended 2014 with 4,254 members. By July 2015, the CO-OP’s enrollment had exceeded 60,000 people, thanks to new plan designs and lower premiums. Rate increases for 2016 ranged from 9 percent to 18 percent. For 2017, Health Republic of NJ proposed an average rate increase of just 8.5 percent, but ultimately the carrier was placed in rehabilitation in mid-September, and had to stop offering new plans at that point. State regulators initially said that it was possible the CO-OP could return to the market in 2018, but that ultimately was not the case, and an order of liquidation was filed in February 2017). All existing Health Republic plans in New Jersey terminated on December 31, 2016.
  • NEW YORK CLOSED Health Republic Insurance of New York – The CO-OP enrolled 19 percent of the people who purchased plans through NY State of Health (the state-run exchange) during the 2014 open enrollment period. Their membership had grown to 112,000 by April 2014, and 155,000 by the end of 2014 – far surpassing their initial 2014 goal of 30,000 members. In 2015, they again garnered 19 percent of NY State of Health’s private plan enrollees, and had total enrollment of about 200,000 people by the time regulators announced in September 2015 that the CO-OP would be closing. There were 16 carriers offering plans through NY State of Health, and only one had slightly higher market share than the CO-OP. But Health Republic of NY lost $35 million in 2014, and $52.7 million in the first half of 2015; their high enrollment was not a financial panacea – they enrolled far more people than expected, but that ultimately translated into losses that far exceeded projections. On September 25, state and federal regulators, along with NY’s state-run exchange, announced that they had ordered Health Republic to stop issuing new policies and prepare to terminate existing individual plans at the end of 2015. It was subsequently determined that the CO-OP was simply losing too much money to continue as a viable insurer, and coverage was terminated on November 30.
  • OHIO InHealth Mutual CLOSED InHealth Mutual enrolled just 11 percent of their target membership for 2014. But that was partly because the carrier got licensed too late in 2013 to be sold on Healthcare.gov. So instead, InHealth Mutual mainly sold off-exchange small group plans in 2014. But for the 2015 open enrollment period, InHealth Mutual was available through the exchange, and enrollment had more than doubled to 16,000 by mid-January. However, during the first six months of 2015, InHealth reported $9.1 million in net losses. Ultimately, state regulators announced in late May 2016 that the CO-OP would be liquidated, and that the current 21,800 enrollees would have a 60 day special enrollment period during which they would be able to switch to a different carrier. Enrollees who remained with InHealth Mutual had coverage through the end of 2016, but it was through the state guaranty fund, which means it had a cap of $500,000 and would subject the enrollees to the ACA’s penalty for not having minimum essential coverage.
  • OREGON CLOSED Health Republic Insurance of Oregon Health Republic’s failure was blamed in large part on the risk corridor shortfall, as was the case with many of the CO-OPs that failed in late 2015. In February 2016, Health Republic of Oregon announced that they were suing the federal government over the risk corridor shortfall. Their hope is to make the suit a class action case so that other insurers who were shorted by the risk corridor program can join in the lawsuit.
  • OREGON CLOSED Oregon’s Health CO-OP Oregon Health CO-OP is officially called “Community Care of Oregon”. It had just 1,582 members at the end of 2014. By January 2015, their membership had grown to 10,000 people, and by April 2015, they said they were on track to hit 20,000 by the end of the year, and had “healthy financial reserves.” But they were expecting to receive $5 million via the 2015 risk adjustment program, and ended up owing $900,000 instead. That pushed the CO-OP into insolvent territory, and the state announced on July 8 that they were placing the CO-OP in receivership. All Oregon Health CO-OP plans terminated on July 31, 2016. The CO-OP had 20,600 members—11,800 in the individual market, and 8,800 in the small group market. Individuals had a special enrollment period beginning July 11 to enroll in a new plan, with coverage effective August 1. To get an August 1 effective date, members had to pick a new plan by July 31. Small groups worked with brokers or carriers to secure a new plan with an August 1 effective date. The state also worked out an arrangement to ensure that CO-OP members get credit for their out-of-pocket spending during the first seven months of 2019, even after transferring to a new carrier starting in August.
  • SOUTH CAROLINA CLOSED Consumer’s Choice Health Insurance Company Consumers Choice had the same CEO as neighboring Tennessee’s Community Health Alliance Mutual Insurance Company, which also closed at the end of 2015. Consumer’s Choice had 67,000 members in 2015.
  • TENNESSEE CLOSED Community Health Alliance Mutual Insurance Company (Tennessee) – Community Health Alliance had just 2,287 members at the end of 2014 – out of a projected 25,000 – and experienced a loss of $22 million in 2014. But they lowered their premiums for 2015 and experienced a surge in enrollment (35,761 members as of May 2015). Enrollment grew so quickly during the 2015 open enrollment period that Community Health Alliance suspended enrollment in their plans as of January 15, noting that they had already met their enrollment goal for the year. They proposed a 32.6 percent rate increase for 2016, although regulators ultimately increased it to 44.7 percent in order to preserve the CO-OP’s viability. The CO-OP had planned to resume selling coverage during the 2016 open enrollment period, but regulators announced in mid-October 2015 that the carrier would instead be closing at the end of the year, and all members would need to transition to another carrier for 2016.
  • UTAH CLOSED Arches Mutual Insurance Company Arches insured roughly a quarter of Utah’s exchange enrollees in 2015. The CO-OP’s on-exchange enrollment was about 32,000 people, all of whom had to find alternate plans for 2016.

A timeline of the CO-OP closures

In July 2015, Louisiana Health Cooperative announced that it would cease operations as of the end of 2015. LHC was the second CO-OP to fail; CoOpportunity, which served Nebraska and Iowa, received liquidation orders from state regulators in February 2015.

At the end of August, the Nevada Health CO-OP announced they would also close at the end of 2015. And in September, New York officials announced that Health Republic of New York, the nation’s largest CO-OP, would begin winding down operations immediately, and that individual Health Republic of NY policies would terminate at the end of 2015.

On October 1, 2015 the federal government notified health insurance carriers across the country that risk corridors payments from 2014 would only amount to 12.6 percent of the total owed to the carriers. The program is budget neutral as a result of the 2015 benefit and payment parameters released by HHS in March 2014. And the “Cromnibus bill” that was passed at the end of 2014 eliminated the possibility of the risk corridors program being anything but budget neutral, despite the fact that HHS had said they would adjust the program as necessary going forward.

But very few carriers had lower-than-expected claims in 2014. So the payments into the risk corridors program were far less than the amount owed to carriers – and the result is that the carriers essentially get an IOU for a total of $2.5 billion that may or may not be recouped with 2015 and 2016 risk corridors funding (risk corridors still have to be budget neutral in 2015 and 2016, so if there’s a shortfall again, carriers would fall even further into the red).

Many health insurance carriers – particularly smaller, newer companies – faced financial difficulties as a result of the risk corridors shortfall. CO-OPs were particularly vulnerable because they were all start-ups and tended to be relatively small. All of the CO-OPs that announced closures in the last quarter of 2015 attributed their failure to the risk corridor payment shortfall.

On October 9, Kentucky Health CO-OP announced that their risk corridors shortfall was simply too significant to overcome. (The CO-OP was supposed to receive $77 million, but was only going to get $9.7 million as a result of the shortfall.) The CO-OP did not offer plans for 2016, and their 2015 policies terminated at the end of the year. About 51,000 CO-OP members in Kentucky had to shop for new coverage for 2016.

And then on October 14, Tennessee regulators announced that Community Health Alliance would also close at the end of the year. CHA stopped enrolling new members in January 2015, but it had planned to sell policies during the 2016 open enrollment period, albeit with a 44.7 percent rate increase. Ultimately, the risk of the CO-OP’s failure in 2016 was too great, and it wound down operations by the end of the year instead.

Two days later, on October 16, Colorado Health OP was decertified from the exchange by the Colorado Division of Insurance, resulting in the CO-OP’s demise; Colorado Health OP’s 80,000 individual members all needed to transition to new carriers for 2016.

Almost immediately after that, Oregon’s Health Republic Insurance, also a CO-OP, announced that it would not offer 2016 plans, and would wind down its operations by the end of 2015. Health Republic had 15,000 members.

On October 22, The South Carolina Department of Insurance announced that Consumers Choice would voluntarily wind down its operations by year-end, and would not sell plans for 2016. Consumers Choice was run by the same CEO – Jerry Burgess – as Community Health Alliance in Tennessee. 67,000 Consumers Choice members had to switch to a new carrier for 2016. The South Carolina Department of Insurance put together a series of FAQs for impacted plan members.

On October 27, the Utah Insurance Department announced that they were placing Arches Health Plan in receivership, and the carrier would wind down operations by the end of the year. Arches Health Plan garnered roughly a quarter of Utah’s exchange market share in 2015, but those enrollees had to switch to a new carrier for 2016.

On October 30, just two days before the start of the 2016 open enrollment period, the Arizona Department of Insurance announced that Meritus would cease selling and renewing coverage, and existing plans would terminate at the end of 2015. Healthcare.gov removed Meritus plans from the exchange website, and current enrollees — who comprised roughly a third of the private plan enrollees in the Arizona exchange at that point — had to obtain new coverage for 2016. Meritus was unique in that they allowed people to enroll off-exchange year-round up until late-summer 2015. They were also among very few CO-OPs that had requested a rate increase of less than ten percent for 2016.

Open enrollment for 2016 coverage began on November 1, 2015, and coverage was still available at that point from the remaining 12 CO-OPs. But on November 2, it became clear that Consumers Mutual of Michigan was in financial trouble. The carrier announced that they would not offer plans in the exchange in 2016, although at that point, there was still a possibility that they would continue to offer plans outside the exchange. But on November 4, they announced that they would wind down their operations by the end of the year, and all 28,000 members would need to find new coverage for 2016.

In May 2016, state regulators in Ohio announced that InHealth Mutual would shut down and that members would have a 60 day special enrollment period to select a new plan.

In July 2016, state regulators in Connecticut announced that HealthyCT would shut down at the end of 2016 (employer groups were able to keep their coverage through the renewal date in 2017, as long as the plan’s renewal date in 2016 was July or earlier).

In July 2016, state regulators in Oregon announced that Oregon Health CO-OP would shut down at the end of July 2016.

In July 2016, state regulators in Illinois announced that they were beginning the process of taking over Land of Lincoln Health and winding down the CO-OP’s operations. A special enrollment period was created for the CO-OP’s 49,000 enrollees.

In September 2016, state regulators in New Jersey placed Health Republic Insurance of New Jersey into rehabilitation, and the CO-OP ceased selling new plans. Health Republic’s existing plans terminated at the end of 2016.

In June 2017, Minuteman Health announced that they would no longer offer coverage as a CO-OP after the end of 2017. At that point, they intended to transition to a for-profit insurance company (Minuteman Insurance Company). However, they were unable to raise enough capital by the August 2017 deadline for securing a license for 2018, and thus did not re-open as a for-profit insurer. Minuteman Health is in receivership, and enrollees needed to obtain new coverage for 2018.

In July 2017, Maryland regulators issued an administrative order blocking Evergreen Health from selling or renewing any plans (they only had group plans in force at that point, having terminated individual market plans at the end of 2016). The order noted that it was expected that the process would culminate in receivership, and the receivership announcement came by the end of July.

CO-OPs’ unique challenges

In July 2015, HHS released financial and enrollment data for the 23 CO-OPs, as of December 2014. The outlook based on the report was not particularly great: all but one of the CO-OPs operated at a loss in 2014, and 13 of the CO-OPs fell far short of their enrollment goals for 2014. The audit called into question the CO-OPs’ ability to repay the loans that they received from the federal government under Obamacare.

The risk corridor shortfall was directly implicated in the failure of CO-OPs in Kentucky, Tennessee, Colorado, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, Arizona, and Michigan. There is no way around the fact that such a significant financial blow is hard to overcome, particularly for carriers that were new to the market in 2014. Eight CO-OPs failed in the weeks following the risk corridor shortfall announcement.

Those eight CO-OPs were in serious financial jeopardy as a result of the risk corridor shortfall and other factors, and state Insurance Commissioners made the difficult decision to shut them down prior to the start of open enrollment, or shortly thereafter. It’s much less complicated to wind down operations in an orderly fashion in the last couple months of a year than it is to have a carrier become financially insolvent mid-year.

That, coupled with the late announcement regarding the risk corridors shortfall, explains the rash of CO-OP failures announced in late 2015. It should be noted that it was not just CO-OPs feeling the pain from the risk corridor shortfall; in Wisconsin, Anthem exited the exchange market in three counties and scaled back operations in 34 other counties for 2016, partially as a result of the risk corridor shortfall. And in Wyoming, WINhealth exited the individual market because of the risk corridor shortfall; in Alaska and Oregon, Moda nearly exited the market for 2016, due in large part to the risk corridor shortfall (Moda ultimately left Alaska’s market at the end of 2016, in order to focus fully on the Oregon market).

But with 12 out of 23 CO-OPs going under in 2015, it wasn’t surprising that the mood in late 2015 was relatively pessimistic regarding the CO-OP model. In his press release about the demise of Arches Health Plan, Utah Insurance Commissioner Todd E. Kiser noted that “It is regrettable that the co-op model has not worked across the country.” That didn’t bode well for the remaining 11 CO-OPs, and ultimately only four of them are still operational in 2018.

All 11 of the remaining CO-OPs suffered losses in 2015, amounting to a total of about $400 million (Evergreen lost the least, at $10.8 million; Land of Lincoln lost the most, at $90.8 million). The bulk of the losses were in the fourth quarter, indicating that consumers try to get as much value as possible from their coverage before the end of the plan year.

The fact that lawmakers decided at the end of 2014 to retroactively require the risk corridors program to be budget-neutral was a significant blow to the CO-OPs. The CO-OPs – along with the rest of the carriers – had set their premiums for 2014 (and by that time, for 2015 as well) with the expectation that risk corridors payments would mitigate losses if they experienced higher-than-expected claims.

Clearly, that did not pan out, and it certainly put the CO-OPs in a tough spot. To clarify, HHS said in 2013 that the risk corridor program would NOT be budget-neutral, and that federal funds would be used to make up any shortfalls; carriers set their rates for 2014 based on that.

But then in 2014, HHS announced in 2014 that they had made several adjustments to the risk corridor program, and that they projected “that these changes, in combination with the changes to the reinsurance program finalized in this rule, will result in net payments that are budget neutral in 2014. We intend to implement this program in a budget neutral manner, and may make future adjustments, either upward or downward to this program (for example, as discussed below, we may modify the ceiling on allowable administrative costs) to the extent necessary to achieve this goal.” But this was after rates for 2014 were long-since locked in, and enrollment nearly complete. At the end of 2014, congress passed the Cromnibus Bill, requiring risk corridors to be budget neutral, with no wiggle room for HHS.

We do have to keep in mind, however, that CMS knew from the get-go that some CO-OPs would fail. They expected at least a third of them to fail in the first 15 years, and that was long before the risk corridors program was retroactively changed to be budget neutral.

Will the few remaining CO-OPs survive?

It’s too soon to tell. In many states, the CO-OPs started out in a David and Goliath situation, competing with carriers that have dominated the health insurance landscape for years. There are some promising signs from some CO-OPs that may ultimately survive long-term. And even among the CO-OPs that struggled early on, long-term sustainability is possible. Premiums that carriers — including CO-OPs — set for 2014 and 2015 were little more than educated guesses from actuaries, since there was very little in the way of actual claims data on which to rely (there was no data at all when the 2014 rates were being set, and only a couple months of early data available when 2015 rates were being set). Once the CO-OPs had more than a year of claims history in the books, they were able to be more accurate in pricing their policies.

But the uncertainty that the Trump Administration and GOP lawmakers have created for the insurance markets resulted in spiking premiums for 2017 and 2018 (not just for CO-OPs, but for the majority of insurers in most states). That uncertainty is continuing into the 2019 rates, with the Trump Administration’s plan to expand access to short-term plans and association health plans, and GOP lawmakers’ tax bill that will repeal the individual mandate penalty after the end of 2018. But the CO-OPs’ proposed rate increases for 2019 are smaller than the rate hikes they implemented for 2018.

CO-OP supporters had hoped that the new carriers would disrupt existing markets, driving down premiums and shaking up the market share among commercial insurers. Although CO-OPs struggled financially in their first year, average premiums market-wide were lower in both 2014 and 2015 in states that have CO-OPs than in states without CO-OPs. A GAO report found that average CO-OP premiums in 2014 and 2015 in most states tended to be lower than the average premiums across all carriers in those states. And enrollment in CO-OPs increased at a much faster pace than overall enrollment growth (across all carriers) from 2014 to 2015.

CMS acknowledged from the start that not all of the CO-OPs would be likely to succeed – just as a crop of new for-profit health insurance carriers wouldn’t all be expected to succeed. But over the next few years, the remaining CO-OPs will have an opportunity to refine their business models, reinvest any profits they make, and grow their enrollment — especially as grandmothered plans cease to exist by the end of 2019, increasing the number of people who need to purchase ACA-compliant plans (that’s assuming that there isn’t another extension granted for grandmothered plans; extensions have thus-far been granted each year, and the majority of the states have gone along with the extensions).

The retention of grandmothered plans has benefited health plans that were already in place prior to 2014, since enrollees on grandmothered plans had to go through underwriting to obtain their coverage; on the other hand, new insurers like CO-OPs have had to contend with a population that’s less healthy than expected, partly because people with grandmothered plans have not yet all transitioned to ACA-compliant plans. In short, it’s too soon to know how the CO-OPs will fare. With only four remaining in 2018, the odds certainly haven’t seemed to be in their favor. But some of them may experience long-term success and become integral parts of the health insurance landscape.


Louise Norris is an individual health insurance broker who has been writing about health insurance and health reform since 2006. She has written dozens of opinions and educational pieces about the Affordable Care Act for healthinsurance.org. Her state health exchange updates are regularly cited by media who cover health reform and by other health insurance experts.