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Survey on rates may have misrepresented Spokane

If Spokane had the highest health insurance premiums in the nation, it wouldn’t surprise Penny Arter.

Even though she’s a working registered nurse, Arter has no health coverage for herself, her husband or their 5-year-old son, Logan. At $600 a month, the premiums just cost too much, the Spokane woman said.

“It’s just cheaper to take the risk,” said Arter, 43, who headed to a public health clinic Monday for Logan’s kindergarten immunizations.

As it turns out, though, Spokane’s rates might be high, but they’re not nearly as high as they seemed in a survey that generated national buzz. Abridged results of the annual survey by eHealthInsurance of 5,000 plans from 140 providers in 100 U.S. cities were printed Sunday in the Parade magazine newspaper insert.

In the report, Spokane was tapped as the nation’s least affordable city for health insurance premiums, with a cost of $962 a month. It ranked far behind the most affordable city, Grand Rapids, Mich., with a $159.06 a month premium, and behind No. 34, Jacksonville, Fla., with a premium of $286.55. Spokane even fell behind Seattle, where the rate was logged at $617 a month.

The news startled Spokane residents such as Peter Anders, 66, who barely had opened the Sunday paper when his phone started ringing with incredulous calls from far-flung family members. Seems they had seen a tiny story tucked on Page 16 of the insert that circulates each week in 32.7 million newspapers.

“My cousin in Queens, New York, my daughter in Idaho, my other daughter in Texas – they all read it,” the retired police officer said. “Now, I’ll never get them to move here.”

But, using the survey’s own methods and parameters, a quick scan of the eHealthInsurance Web site Monday showed the lowest premium available in Spokane was $304 a month. In Grand Rapids it was $217.96 a month and in Jacksonville, it was $402.20 a month.

“We’re just glad it’s not true,” said Anna Beard, strategic communications manager for the insurance firm Asuris Northwest Health. “We can provide a similar policy to a family for about $500.”

The Washington State Insurance Commission was also startled by the report. “When we opened it up, frankly, I about fell off my chair,” said Beth Berendt, a deputy commissioner, “because I knew it was wrong.”

Berendt said Monday she plans to investigate whether the survey, conducted by the insurance firm eHealthInsurance, violated state insurance advertising regulations.

“It misrepresents the availability and affordability of health insurance in Spokane,” Berendt said.

A spokeswoman for eHealthInsurance conceded Monday that it is possible to find Spokane health insurance for far less than the amount reported in its survey. “When we took the survey in March, we didn’t have some of the carriers that we’ve added since then,” explained Emily Fox, spokeswoman for the Mountain View, Calif., firm. “We have some we’ve added in the past two months.”

Fox said the report was consistent and methodical and that the company simply picks one point in time to analyze rather than continually updating the information.

“If we did that, we’d never be able to do any kind of report,” she said.

But Berendt said the company didn’t amend the information even when she objected after the survey’s original release in July.

“One would assume, as a reader, that before they did the study, they would have everything current,” she said.

One reason that Spokane and Seattle have higher premiums is that Washington is a state with community rating regulations that prohibit discrimination against insurance clients based on health status, health history or health risk.

In such states, the rates for younger people might be higher than in non-community-rated states, but the rates for older people would be lower.

“The risk is spread out across a wider pool,” Berendt said. “If they had taken a couple of 55-year-olds with kids, Spokane would look a lot more favorable.”


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