Cantwell assails new Regence policies

By:  By Carol M. Ostrom, Seattle Times health reporter
Source: The Seattle Times

Sen. Maria Cantwell is taking aim at Regence Blue Shield, one of Washington state's largest health insurers, for steeply raising rates for individual plans and dropping child-only policies.

Calling on state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler to protect consumers, Cantwell, D-Wash., said Regence is wrongly blaming hikes of as much as 37 percent on the new federal health-care overhaul.

In an interview last month about rate increases, Regence's state president, Jonathan Hensley, blamed them on higher medical costs, cutbacks in services formerly shouldered by state agencies, and policyholders seeking more and more expensive care.

"The benefits added by the new federal law make up a very small part of the overall cost picture," Regence spokeswoman Rachelle Cunnningham reiterated Wednesday. "Even without the new law's expanded benefits, we would be asking for a significant rate increase, because medical costs continue to rise."

In June, Regence filed paperwork with the state to raise individual policy rates an average of 16.4 percent, with a subsidiary, Asuris, raising rates nearly 24 percent. Recently, Asuris policyholders were shifted to new plans that raised rates even more steeply for many customers.

Cantwell said that in correspondence with consumers, Regence is blaming the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) for rate hikes. She noted that this is the fourth year in a row that Regence has raised premiums by double digits.

Kreidler has expressed outrage at Regence's decision late last month to drop child-only policies in the state — within days of a new federal rule banning insurers from denying coverage to sick children. On Wednesday, he said he shared Cantwell's disappointment.

"I'm as frustrated as she is," Kreidler said. "We're doing everything we can do within our authority. But I'm really tired of health insurers gaming the system and blaming it on health reform. These recent actions by the insurance industry are exactly why we needed reform."

Cantwell called the company's actions "anti-consumer policies," and encouraged Kreidler to ban Regence from participation in the new state health-insurance exchange set up under the federal law.

"Blaming these premium increases on the Affordable Care Act is clearly contrary to analysis and estimates about the law's impact on premiums and only perpetuates misunderstanding and misinformation about the law," Cantwell wrote in a letter to Kreidler. "If Regence chooses to continue anti-consumer policies, I ask that you explore all consequences, including exclusion from the state exchange."