Wellmark customers will pay more starting May 1

Approximately 80,000 Iowans will face substantial health insurance premium hikes beginning May 1. An independent review has confirmed the “need” for Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield to raise rates by an average of 18 percent. The higher rates were intended to go into effect on April 1, but last month Governor Chet Culver ordered a delay pending an review of the matter. The Des Moines Register reports today,

[Iowa Insurance Commissioner Susan] Voss said in a memo to Culver that Wellmark’s losses supported “the need for the rate increase” based on two separate actuarial analyses conducted by INS Consultants, a Philadelphia actuary. The group also found that the insurance division’s rate review process is actuarially “acceptable” and “reasonable” compared with INS’s methodology.

Birny Birnbaum, head of the Center for Economic Justice, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group in Texas, said it’s unlikely that INS would disagree with the rate increase.

“While INS is technically independent, there is no way the firm would contradict and embarrass the agency which hired the firm,” Birnbaum said Monday. “If INS were to contradict the insurance division, it would likely not be hired in the future by the Iowa Insurance Division or any other insurance regulator.”

Speaking to the Register, State Representative Janet Petersen touted legislation passed during the 2010 session, which is intended to give consumers more information and warning regarding health insurance premium increases. After the jump I’ve posted some key points from Senate File 2201 and Senate File 2356.

These bills contain a lot of good provisions but probably won’t solve this particular problem for many Iowans. Wellmark dominates the insurance market in this state. Giving people a few weeks to shop around won’t magically allow them to find a better deal. In addition, health insurers can still exclude coverage for pre-existing conditions until 2014. The only real choices Wellmark’s individual customers have are: 1) pay a lot more, like my family, or 2) downgrade to a policy that’s less comprehensive and/or involves higher out-of-pocket costs for medical care.

Iowa House Republican leader Kraig Paulsen showed his creative side yesterday, finding a way to blame Democrats for Wellmark’s rate hikes:

Paulsen pointed out that the Democrat-controlled Legislature has voted in recent years to impose several health insurance mandates, such as coverage of cancer clinical trials and prosthetics.

“It’s indisputable that those add to rates. That’s just the way it works,” he said.

Health insurance mandates drive up costs for Iowans, Paulsen said.

“Mandates aren’t necessarily requirements that insurance companies sell something. They’re requirements that purchasers buy something,” he said.

One legislative proposal would have allowed state-regulated health insurance companies to provide mandate-free coverage “for those who want a less comprehensive product,” Paulsen said.

That idea by House Republicans failed, as did a proposal to study allowing out-of-state insurers to offer policies in Iowa, which could help Iowans find cheaper policies, he said.

Come on, Mr. Paulsen, who ever anticipates needing prosthetics someday, or being in a position to benefit from a cancer clinical trial? Anyway, that cancer clinical trial bill passed both the Iowa House and Senate unanimously. Also, allowing out-of-state insurers to sell policies here would spark a “race to the bottom” in terms of consumer protection.

Share any relevant thoughts in the comments.

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Health insurers hit individuals with steep rate hikes

How does a 15 to 20 percent increase in one of your household’s major expenses sound to you? About 80,000 Iowans (including me) better get used to the idea:

About 80,000 Iowans who buy their own health insurance through Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield will pay an average of 18 percent more this year, the largest increase in four years.

The state’s largest health insurer will begin notifying the individual policyholders this week of the increase.

Rising health care costs are driving the premium increases, said Rob Schweers, a Wellmark spokesman. Premium increases, which take effect April 1, range between 10 percent and 25 percent, the company said.

It’s the largest average annual increase since 2006, Wellmark data show.

Last year, Wellmark raised insurance rates for individual policyholders by an average of 9.3 percent.

This year’s increases “are a combination of medical cost inflation and increased usage,” Schweers said. “Also, people are getting sicker as a population. There are more chronic diseases.”

Premiums tend to be more volatile for individual policies than for those bought by employers and other large groups, which can negotiate for lower rates and spread risk among employees and members.

Hey, it could be worse: about 700,000 Anthem Blue Cross customers in California will see an average rate increase of 25 percent in May, and many of those will see their insurance premiums go up 35 to 39 percent. The rate hike cannot be justified by increasing medical costs alone. According to California’s insurance commissioner, medical costs in that state have gone up about 10 to 15 percent.

The U.S. inflation rate in 2009 was about 2.7 percent, by the way. Many people have seen their wages decrease during the recession.

Not many businesses can get away with increasing prices for goods or services by many times the rate of inflation year after year. The health insurance industry is different because most of their customers have no place else to go. In most parts of the country, one or two insurance companies dominate the market. Wellmark controls about 70 percent of the market in Iowa, for instance. Wellmark customers may not be able to find another insurance company willing to cover them, especially if they have any pre-existing conditions.

Aren’t you glad Republicans and cowardly Democrats “saved” us from “government-run” health care in the form of a public health insurance option?

The Des Moines Register’s editorial board cited the insurance premium hikes as evidence that the U.S. needs comprehensive health care reform with a “public option.” I couldn’t agree more, but the events of the past few months give me zero hope that Congress will approve any decent health care legislation.

Eight Democratic senators are urging Majority Leader Harry Reid to include a public option in a new health care bill that could be passed using the Senate’s budget reconciliation rules. Bills passed that way are not subject to a filibuster and can pass with 51 votes, or in this case 50 votes plus Vice President Joe Biden. Some bloggers are asking activists to contact Senate Democrats to get them on board with this effort. If you are so inclined, feel free to contact Senator Tom Harkin’s office. He was a vocal advocate of the public option last year. Frankly, I don’t feel like wasting my time anymore. If 50 Democratic senators were committed to passing a good health care bill through the reconciliation process, Reid would have been working on that option six months ago.

More important, if President Barack Obama had been interested in passing a strong health care bill, he would have been pushing for reconciliation all along instead of cutting backroom deals with industry while his spokesman praised efforts to find a bipartisan compromise in the Senate. It was obvious last summer that Republicans like Chuck Grassley were just stringing out the process with a view to killing reform.

The White House summit that Obama is convening next week looks like nothing more than a photo-op to me. I can’t see what good can come out of that other than PR for the president.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: More than a dozen Senate Democrats have signed on to passing health care reform with a public option through reconciliation.

LATE UPDATE: We received a letter from Wellmark on February 23 informing us that our premiums will go up 22 percent as of April 1, 2010.  

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