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HMSA Will Remain Goliath

Little local Davids and even Mainland Goliaths have very little chance of beating it

(page 2 of 3)

Big deal for Summerlin

Perhaps the most promising sign for rate regulation occurred this winter, when Summerlin Insurance, a Nevada-based company, outbid HMSA to insure the 600-plus employees at The Honolulu Advertiser. Schmidt had been courting Summerlin for some time. “We began to talk to Summerlin my first year on the job,” Schmidt says. “They had been doing some business in the state as a third-party administrator for union plans, so they had some networks built up, and that provided them some comfort coming into the market.” Nevertheless, Summerlin — which declined to comment for this story — remains a small player in Hawaii and its arrival hardly represents a dramatic change.

Bill Donahue, executive director of the 700-member Hawaii Independent Physicians Association, says there isn’t any new competition resulting from the return of rate regulation “and there never will be.”

Bill Donahue,
executive director of
Hawaii Independent Physicians Association

“During the 1970s, we passed a statute called the Prepaid Healthcare Act,” he says. The first of its kind in the United States, the PHCA requires that all employers provide health insurance for their employees. It placed a tremendous economic burden on the state’s employers, but Hawaii has the highest rate of health insurance coverage in the country. “It was a wonderful and tremendously progressive piece of legislation,” Donahue says.

As do most revolutionary changes, this one came with unintended consequences. Requiring employers to provide coverage is meaningless without establishing what must be covered, so PHCA required that any health insurance company had to offer coverage equivalent to “the prevailing plan.” Since HMSA controlled the majority of the market, that meant any new insurer’s plan had to match what HMSA offered. (Moreover, both HMSA and Kaiser have representatives on the commission that decides whether new entrants to the marketplace meet these standards.) The result is that HMSA determines what constitutes health insurance coverage in the state.

“Let’s say you were Aetna or United Health,” Donahue says, referring to two of the largest medical insurers on the Mainland. “If you came here, you would be coming into a marketplace where your competitor dictates the rules.

“And that’s in addition to the problem of the premium tax,” he says. “You’re already operating at a 4.5 percent disadvantage.”

Furthermore, Donahue, like many other industry observers, says there’s no large population in Hawaii to entice large, national insurers. “We’re a small marketplace in the middle of the ocean,” he says. “What are there, like 1.3 million people here? That’s like Boston, but without Rhode Island or New Hampshire or the rest of Massachusetts nearby.”

Niche players

Commissioner Schmidt, of course, also has hopes for the so-called “little sisters”—companies like Summerlin, the Hawaii Medical Assurance Association and the University Health Alliance. He points out that UHA is increasing membership, and HMAA, which once operated almost like a closely held corporation, is creating an independent board and seems eager to grow. “The additional competition is, I think, a very good thing for the people of Hawaii,” Schmidt says. Donahue demurs. “They’re just niche players,” he says. “They have relationships with certain employers, but they’re not in a position to make a break-out move.”

It’s an opinion confirmed in conversations with executives at the little sisters. Rodney Park, CFO of HMAA, points out, “We never try to take on 300- or 400-employee companies; we focus on mom-and-pops. They’re looking for service. They don’t have an HR department or know all the nuances of insurance. A lot of the time, we deal directly with the proprietor.” Although this approach has garnered HMAA a consistent share of the market, that share has always been less than 5 percent.

UHA COO Howard Lee notes that, with more than 50,000 members, UHA is probably the third-largest commercial insurer in the state; but it’s still dwarfed by the 700,000-plus membership of HMSA. “If we continue to be successful, we would like to expand our market share,” he says. “But we have to make sure that we’re prudent so we can be here for the long run.” Modest ambitions like these reflect a kind of fatalism about the dominance of HMSA.

John McComas, CEO of AlohaCare and a respected observer of the health insurance industry, points to another HMSA advantage. “They have the vast majority of the employers in the state,” he says. This “utilization experience” — the actuarial data that comes from handling so many groups for so long — is the lifeblood of the insurance industry. “It allows you to predict with a great deal of accuracy what your expenses are going to look like. Other groups don’t know that.” This means other insurers — especially newcomers like Summerlin — lack the basic information to make long-term pricing decisions. And yet, for the employers who purchase insurance, price is typically the major consideration.

McComas notes, “In order for me to take a group away from HMSA, I have to offer better benefits or lower premiums. And it can’t be 2, 3 or 4 percent lower — that wouldn’t be worth the trouble. Employers are saying, ‘Come to me with a 15, 20, 25 percent decrease in my healthcare costs.’ ” But the truth is, other insurers will never be able to compete with HMSA on price. “Because HMSA is such a large buyer, they have much more leverage in negotiations with hospitals and physicians,” McComas says. “Consequently, HMSA is probably going to have the best hospital rates out there.” This is the value of a monopsony.

Of course, neither monopolies or monopsonies are all bad. Even Bill Donahue, who describes himself as “one of the biggest critics of HMSA,” is quick to point out some of its saving graces: lower rates for consumers, financial assistance for doctors and hospitals to modernize their record-keeping, and online care for those unable to visit their physician.


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