Posts Tagged ‘Health insurance premiums’

HHS Website Monitors Health Insurance Premium Increases

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Consumers can now select their state on a federal web page to see if any health insurers have raised rates, as well as the company’s reasoning behind the action. This information was previously unavailable, according to Steve Larsen, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) deputy director for oversight (only a few states include rate increases on their own websites).  Now, all insurance companies must file this information with HHS as one directive of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).  “We are taking a good, hard look at why insurance companies are seeking to raise your rates, why your premiums might be going up, and making sure these decisions are public and justified,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.  “This is just a start, and over time we will be reporting more of these requests.”

The announcement follows a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation that showed premiums for an employer-sponsored plan for a family of four climbing nine percent in 2011.  A report by Barclays Capital Equity Research showed that in the first three months of 2011, 13 of the leading 14 health insurers exceeded their earnings per share estimates; average earnings were 46 percent over estimates.  Insurers who wanted to raise rates 10 percent or more for individual or small group plans are required to provide justification.

At the same time, an advisory group urged officials to create a list of essential health benefits under President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul that aligns with the cost of typical small-employer plans.  The Institute of Medicine (IOM) report recommended that HHS be specific in deciding what health benefits should be required in individual and small group plans as the ACA goes into full effect in 2014.  The IOM, one of the National Academies of Science that advises U.S. policymakers, did not address any specific benefits types, in keeping with its assigned task.  “We’re in a marathon.  What we’ve just gotten today is the first leg,” said Paul Keckley, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions.

The IOM recommendation favors business groups and insurers who have sought a narrow package of required benefits because of concerns that the plans will cost too much, said Neil Trautwein, vice president for the National Retail Federation.  Government should limit premiums to levels no higher than what small businesses pay on average and choose benefits “within the context of financial constraints,” according to the report.  The recommendation “is the appropriate tack to take since the objective is to cover everyone with at least basic benefits,” Trautwein said.

The issue has seen businesses and patient advocacy groups — such as the American Cancer Society, which argues for robust coverage — at odds with each other.  The ACA requires insurance plans to cover 10 broad categories of care, including hospitalization, mental health and pediatrics starting in 2014 and left details to Obama’s HHS secretary, who has  asked the IOM to recommend the optimal way to select the benefits that should be included in the plans.  Employer lobby groups argue that a generous package of benefits would cause workers to desert company plans, which could have the effect of compelling employers to pay fines and raise premiums as the number of people covered by their health plans decreases.

According to the IOM, Sebelius should start with a package of benefits that mirrors what small businesses offer their employees.  She should set a “premium target” for the benefits that is approximately the same as what small businesses will pay, on average, in 2014.  Next, she should select benefits that meet the target, a process the IOM compared to shopping for groceries under a budget.  “If the package of essential health benefits gets too comprehensive, it quickly becomes unaffordable,” said John Ball, chairman of the institute committee that wrote the report.

Beginning in 2014, every health plan in the new marketplaces known as “exchanges” will have to provide a minimum package of “essential health benefits.”  The IOM report provides federal officials with a framework for devising that package, but doesn’t provide specifics.  “I’m sure a lot of people were expecting to get a list,” said Elizabeth McGlynn, a member of the IOM committee and head of the Kaiser Permanente Center for Effectiveness and Safety Research.  “That was outside of our charge.”

“With this thoughtful report, the IOM is urging policymakers to strike a balance between the affordability of coverage and the comprehensiveness of coverage,” said Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of the health insurance trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans.  “We agree that this balance is critical to ensuring that individuals, working families and small employers can afford health insurance.”  Amanda Austin of the National Federation of Independent Business termed the report “encouraging,” and “pretty thoughtful,” although she believes that HHS still has to do the heavy lifting to write the plans.

Sebelius issued her own statement on the report, saying she will hold “listening sessions” to help people choose what benefits they want included in the mandatory package.  “These conversations will help us ensure that every American can access quality, affordable health coverage they can rely on,” she said.  This seems to suggests to some that a proposal from the department won’t be coming anytime soon.

Healthcare Reform May Not End Medical Bankruptcies

Monday, March 21st, 2011

Is healthcare reform a cure-all for the issue of medical bankruptcy?  Depends.  Bankruptcies occur when a person has a serious illness and cannot keep up with paying the bills.  Since RomneyCare became law n Massachusetts, the number of medical-related bankruptcies fell from 59.3 percent to 52.9 percent between 2007 and 2009, according to a recent study.

“Health costs in the state have risen sharply since reform was enacted.  Even before the changes in health care laws, most medical bankruptcies in Massachusetts — as in other states — afflicted middle-class families with health insurance.  High premium costs and gaps in coverage — co-payments, deductibles and uncovered services — often left insured families liable for substantial out-of-pocket costs.  None of that changed.  For example, under Massachusetts’ reform, the least expensive individual coverage available to a 56-year-old Bostonian carries a premium of $5,616, a deductible of $2,000, and covers only 80 percent of the next $15,000 in costs for covered services,” according to the researchers.  According to the authors, an insured couple earning more than $44,000 a year – a level that is higher than the eligibility requirement for subsidies – might pay as much as $20,512 a year for medical services.  “Massachusetts’ health reform, like the national law modeled after it, takes many of the uninsured and makes them underinsured, typically giving them a skimpy, defective private policy that’s like an umbrella that melts in the rain: the protection’s not there when you need it,” lead author Dr. David Himmelstein said in a Physicians for National Health Reform news release.  The organization’s goal is a national single-payer healthcare system.

The study’s results, which were published in the American Journal of Medicine, suggest “that reducing medical bankruptcy rates in the United States will require substantially improved – not just expanded – insurance.” http://www.latimes.com/health/boostershots/la-heb-obamacare-insurance-costs-03082011,0,7832154.story To determine if RomneyCare had cut the number of bankruptcies, the research team examined a random sample of Massachusetts bankruptcy filings from July of 2009.  After sending surveys to 500 households, they compared the results to national and Massachusetts data assembled during 2007.  The Massachusetts healthcare law went into effect in 2008. According to Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, one of the study’s authors, health insurance in Massachusetts has risen since RomneyCare was implemented.  “It’s really too much money for the average family – especially if the breadwinner is the one who gets sick,” she said.  “We need to reduce limits on deductibles and out-of-pocket costs.”

“People think they have reasonable insurance until they try and use it,” said Dr. David Himmelstein, another study author.  “You are carrying an umbrella and it starts to rain and you put it up and it’s full of holes.  For most people, it just hasn’t rained yet.”  High premiums, large co-payments and deductibles mean that even families with insurance have to pay substantial out-of-pocket costs, said Himmelstein, a professor of public health at City University of New York.  Himmelstein said his survey’s findings suggest that the national health overhaul — which was modeled on the Massachusetts law and takes full effect in 2014 – is unlikely to ease the number of medical bankruptcies, either.

Sally Pipes, a conservative healthcare expert, is a long-time critic of the Massachusetts healthcare law.  “In fact, a substantial portion of Massachusetts’ newly insured still can’t afford to purchase even basic medical services, and are effectively no better off than before the law’s passage. Meanwhile, government health spending is spiraling out of control, adding to the state’s already massive public debt.  Nearly 30 percent of Massachusetts residents report that their medical costs have increased since MassCare’s implementation.”