Obamacare Flying Machine Begins a Death Spiral

The Supreme Court decision in King v. Burwell, the case challenging the Obama administration’s decision to award tax credits for health insurance sold through federally established exchanges, could turn on the question of whether a ruling that ends the tax credits on federal exchanges might cause something known as a “death spiral” in health insurance markets.

The good news is the answer is probably no, but the bad news is that’s only because the death spiral has probably already started.

A death spiral generally occurs when insurers are forced to raise premiums sharply to pay promised benefits. Higher premiums cause many of the healthiest policyholders, who already pay far more in premiums than they receive in benefits, to drop coverage.

When healthy policyholders drop coverage, it leaves the insurer with little choice but to raise premiums again because they now have a risk pool that is less healthy than before. But another premium increase means many of the healthy people who remained now drop their policies, too, and this continues until the only people willing to pay the now-very-high premiums are those with serious medical conditions.