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Some state health insurers ask for substantial individual market rate increases next year

UPDATED: Thu., June 7, 2018, 8:28 a.m.

A doctor examines a patient on Monday, April 28, 2008. Washington insurers are asking for rate increases – in some cases steep rate increases – for indvidual insurance marketplaces in response to the Trump administration’s elimination of the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act. (Thomas Kienzle / AP)
A doctor examines a patient on Monday, April 28, 2008. Washington insurers are asking for rate increases – in some cases steep rate increases – for indvidual insurance marketplaces in response to the Trump administration’s elimination of the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act. (Thomas Kienzle / AP)

Washington health insurers have filed requests to raise individual market premiums an average of 19 percent for 2019, with substantial variation among insurers.

The rates impact the roughly 4 percent of Washingtonians who buy individual health insurance coverage through the Washington Health Plan Benefit Exchange, and have to be approved by the Office of the Insurance Commissioner.

The 2019 filings are the first sign of how federal changes to the individual mandate – a requirement that people either buy insurance or pay a penalty – will impact local rates. A provision in the tax bill that President Donald Trump signed into law in late 2017 removed the financial penalty for people who do not have insurance.

The largest request was an average 29.8 percent premium increase from Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Washington, which currently insures 101,226 people on the individual market in 19 counties, including Spokane and Whitman.

Most insurers requested smaller premium increases, from 0.89 percent for BridgeSpan Health Co. to 14.23 percent for Coordinated Care Corp.

Kaiser’s large request skews the average because it is the largest insurer on the individual exchange, said Stephanie Marquis, spokeswoman for the insurance commissioner’s office.

Kaiser reported losing $50.5 million in 2017 on the individual market, according to the company’s filing, and expects medical costs to increase 7 percent next year.

If the increase is approved, Kaiser’s Flex Silver insurance plan would cost $523.16 per month for a nonsmoking 40-year-old in Spokane County, before any subsidies.

Molina requested an average increase of 10.7 percent. The insurer has 25,131 individual plan customers in Washington, including Spokane and Stevens counties, and reported losses of $18.7 million in 2017.

Fourteen Washington counties will have only one insurer selling individual market plans.

Marquis said the requests for individual market increases are not necessarily reflective of larger trends in the health insurance market. Company filings report losses on individual market plans only, so they’re not a good predictor of any premium increases for employer-provided plans, which cover far more people in Washington.

“Some companies, they’ll lose money on the individual market and make money everywhere else,” Marquis said.

Most Washingtonians who buy insurance on the health exchange receive subsidies that offset some of the premium cost. Those subsidies are tied to the cost of silver plans, and will increase when rates increase.

Washington Health Benefit Exchange CEO Pam MacEwan said in a statement that instability in the individual market was responsible for another year of premium increases.

“The plan filings do reflect an ongoing trend of market volatility that places unnecessary financial stress on Washington residents. The instability is due in large part to the unknown effects of actions, including the removal of the individual mandate and other changes, made at the federal level,” she said.

Insurance commissioner Mike Kreidler released a similar statement.

“I’m relieved to see lower rate requests than we expected by most insurers and coverage in every county, but any increase will be hard for consumers to bear,” Kreidler said. “We’re committed to working on solutions that improve affordability and consumer choice and will review these filings very carefully.”

Washington’s Democratic Senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, released statements blaming the cost increases on the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back provisions of the Affordable Care Act, and called on Congressional Republicans to work on bipartisan legislation to reduce premiums.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ office said the congresswoman is working to promote solutions that increase competition and flexibility in the insurance market, including allowing insurers to sell plans across state lines.

“Those attempting to dishonestly blame these increases on recent policy changes need only look at the history of rate increases since Obamacare was enacted. These rate increases aren’t new, we’ve been seeing them for years now,” said Jared Powell, a spokesman for McMorris Rodgers, in a statement.

Individual health premiums on Washington’s exchange have risen every year since the Affordable Care Act was enacted, but early increases were comparatively modest: an average of 1.5 percent in 2014 and 3.9 percent in 2015, compared to 13.1 percent in 2016 and 36 percent last year.

Congressional candidate Lisa Brown, a Democrat running against McMorris Rodgers, said in a statement that health costs were the number one issue brought up at her town halls.

“For two years Republican congressional leadership has decided to defer to the president making his own changes to health care. This inaction has resulted in two straight years of increased plan and prescription drug prices for eastern Washington families and seniors,” she said.

Individual insurance plans for 2019 will be certified by the state health exchange in September, with approved premiums released publicly shortly after.


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