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.  

  • I got my letter today

    I got my letter today, and they are hitting me up for another 22%.  This is certainly not justified by my usage.  In the last year, I had a routine physical (which was clean), and a minor, in-office procedure.  Blue Cross didn’t even pay any part of my bills, because I have a really high deductible.

    Although I’m going to write to Harkin, Grassley and Loebsack, I know that they can’t or won’t do anything about it.  However, I am also writing to Culver, and my state legislators.  Maybe they can at least reduce the size of the increase.

    At this rate, individual health insurance, will be extinct within a few more years.  When even  high-deductible policies cost as much as a typical mortgage, soon no one will be able to afford them.

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