Wellmark asking for excessive health insurance hike

Thousands of Wellmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield customers learned late last year that their health insurance premiums would go up by 11 percent in 2011. Yesterday state Insurance Commissioner Susan Voss received reports from two actuaries who found that rate hike to be too steep:

Close to 46,000 Iowa policyholders under age 65 will see an increase in their base premium rate of 10.8 percent, effective April 1, 2011, if approved. Another 3,000 basic and standard policyholders will receive an increase of 11.3 percent. Approximately 2,500 Blue Transitions policyholders will receive an increase of 15 percent.

The company raised rates by 18 percent in May of 2010. [...]

Lewis & Ellis Inc., of Overland Park, Kan., said Wellmark's proposed rate increase is too high. They recommend a 7.5 percent instead of the proposed 10.8 percent increase.

The Insurance division's in-house actuary is recommending a 9 percent increase.

Tom Alger with the Iowa Insurance Division said the reports will weigh heavily in Voss' decision about whether Wellmark will get the rate increase it wants.

Voss also presided over a public hearing yesterday, at which an attorney for Wellmark defended the rate hike, and some customers asked Voss to reject the insurer's proposal. But a rate increase of 7 percent or 9.5 percent would still be unaffordable for many customers, and there are other problems too:

State Rep. Janet Petersen, who last year pushed legislation requiring the hearings and the independent actuarial review, called the recommendations a small victory.

The Des Moines Democrat noted that even if Wellmark is denied permission to raise its base rates as much as it wants, it still can impose big increases for people who shift into new categories, including as they age.

For individuals and families who buy their own health insurance, Wellmark has a virtual monopoly in Iowa. Giving Americans the option of buying into Medicare would not instantly make health insurance affordable, but it might constrain the excessive rate increases from companies like Wellmark.

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