Warnings ‘have been ignored at the federal level’
State officials sounded the alarm Wednesday on Capitol Hill about skyrocketing ObamaCare premiums as insurers across the country propose double-digit rate hikes – renewing pressure on Congress to act.
Insurance commissioners and officials from Alaska, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Washington state all testified before a Senate committee on the 2018 premium hikes, which are being finalized over the next few weeks.
In Alaska, premiums have increased 203 percent since 2013, according to Lori Wing-Heier, the state’s director of the Division of Insurance.
“On average, the increase means that an Alaskan in the individual market who was paying a monthly premium of $344 per month in 2013 is paying $1,041 per month in 2017,” Wing-Heier told the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions committee.
Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak told the panel he has been warning about “spiking rates” for too long and those warnings “have been ignored at the federal level.”
“Oklahoma is facing the collapse of our individual health insurance market,” Doak said, adding that the state has seen a rise in premiums of 130 percent over the last four years.
“It is time for serious leaders to make serious decisions to help out the people of every state as we move into 2018.”
Doak said that Oklahomans have seen a “drastic decrease in competition,” leaving them with fewer choices each year—in 2014, Oklahoma could choose plans from five carriers, but in 2017, Oklahomans have only one.
And in Tennessee, proposed 2018 premium increases are between 21 and 42 percent, according to Julie Mix McPeak, the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance.
“Tennessee consumers will have at least one option for coverage, but only one,” McPeak said, noting that “a single choice” did not represent the state’s “ideal marketplace competition.”
“Our consumers have seen premium prices skyrocket while their choices dropped substantially.”
McPeak added: “The current Affordable Care Act trajectory is not sustainable.”
The testimony from insurance commissioners prods lawmakers once again to try and overhaul the Affordable Care Act, after repeated efforts over the summer failed.
Insurance companies faced an initial deadline of Tuesday to submit policy rates for 2018, with a final deadline of Sept. 20. Those rates are expected to be posted on HealthCare.gov by Sept. 27.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the committee holding Wednesday’s hearing, wants to see Congress do something to curb premium hikes and preserve marketplace competition — even if it falls short of completely re-writing ObamaCare.
Insurance officials from Pennsylvania and Washington stressed Wednesday that the Affordable Care Act was successful in their respective states. Both noted a decrease in uninsured consumers, with Pennsylvania’s uninsured rate the lowest “it’s ever been.” But both states expect a spike in premiums for 2018.
“The Affordable Care Act is working for most people,” Pennsylvania Acting Secretary of the Department of Human Services Teresa Miller said.
Officials like Miller want Washington to ease premium hikes by making so-called cost-sharing payments to insurers. Absent that, she said, Pennsylvania consumers would see a statewide average increase of 20.3 percent. If the individual mandate is not enforced, Miller said, the state would see a 23.3 percent increase.
“The average increase for 2018 is 23 percent,” Washington state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said Wednesday, noting health care failures for the state in past decades. “I’m nervous about what is going to happen next year because of the growing uncertainty…You must take bold action.”
Alexander acknowledged that “timing is a challenge” for lawmakers. He called for colleagues to reach a “consensus” by the end of next week “so that Congress can act on it before the end of September.”
Otherwise, he warned, “we will not be able to affect insurance rates, and the availability of insurance, for next year.”
Republicans in the Senate failed to pass their so-called ‘skinny repeal’ health care plan ahead of the August recess, nudging some lawmakers to try for a bipartisan package.
Alexander said the committee would hold three more hearings—one more this week, and two next—to come up with a plan.
“I believe we can do it because we are plowing familiar ground here, our goal is a small step, and so many Americans will be hurt if we fail,” Alexander said. “If we do not do this—it will not be possible for Republicans to make political hay blaming Democrats, or Democrats to make hay blaming Republicans. The blame will be on every one of us, and deservedly so.”