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Smart Bombs: Buying health insurance? You better shop around

The confusion and fear caused by people receiving notices of rate increases on their health care policies is exacerbated by insurers failing to inform customers of their options. The insurers’ viewpoint is this: Why tell current customers they can get a better deal?

But when insurers blame government for the change while staying mum about the solution, it illustrates how the profit motive is an impediment to reform. It also demonstrates why so many people wanted a public health insurance option. Unfortunately, intense lobbying from the insurance industry killed that.

Reporter Dylan Scott conducted an investigation into this issue for Talking Points Memo, a liberal online site, and highlighted the case of a 56-year-old Seattle woman named Donna. In September, she received a notice from LifeWise, a subsidiary of Premera Blue Cross, informing her that to retain a plan that most closely resembled the current one, which covered two adults and a child, she would have to pay an additional $300 a month. Why? Affordable Care Act requirements had forced the company to bump up the family to a policy with more coverage.

However, the letter, which TPM posted online, did not mention that the health care exchange would be soon be available. It did mention possible tax credits that could lower Donna’s bill, but left it to her to call LifeWise to get more information. The letter noted: “If you’re happy with this plan, do nothing.”

If she were “happy,” she would’ve paid $1,024 a month. Her bill before reform was $724 a month for a catastrophic coverage plan with a $10,000 deductible, according to TPM. But she ended up shopping in the exchange, where she discovered that her daughter qualified for Medicaid. And, when she factored in the subsidy for her and her husband, the monthly premium came to $80 for a plan with a $250 deductible.

Premera Blue Cross told TPM that it has never had to tell customers about competitors before and figured the state’s Health Plan Finder marketing campaign was sufficient notice. Plus, customers can get more information at its website.

Nevertheless, Donna felt like she was unnecessarily spooked. The Insurance Commissioner’s Office doesn’t have the authority to stop such letters, but it did issue a consumer alert, informing people about their options and the need to shop around.

Of course in the states where the exchanges are technological duds, that’s not so easy, which is why it’s critical that the Obama administration get that fixed.

Lesson learned? Shawn Vestal had a smart column Wednesday about how politics makes us dumber, and I would only add that the opportunities to gain wisdom do exist.

To understand this, imagine a scenario in which a Democratic mayor agreed to a temporary agreement with a union, such as the Spokane Police Guild, in which members were given annual raises of 2 percent over four years without having to acquiesce to independent investigations from the police ombudsman, which is something citizens clearly want.

It wouldn’t be difficult to guess the response from Republican politicians and their supporters in the next election. They’d probably contribute to a political action committee that would turn this labor agreement into relentless TV ads. The script practically writes itself: “Millions for unions while citizens ignored.”

Of course, we know it’s a Republican mayor who recently cut that deal, the same guy who defended ads using that “millions for unions” line against Democratic candidates, unsuccessfully. This labor agreement is opposed by every council member and it flies in the face of a voter-approved proposition that expands the ombudsman’s powers.

When Democrats do this, they’re “bought and paid for.” What to call a Republican? “Frustrated” is how Mayor David Condon described himself upon announcing the deal. No doubt. But is he also empathetic, maybe even smarter, about what previous mayors were up against? Are his supporters? Or will they suddenly turn to playing dumb during the next election?

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.