Health Insurers, Forced to Reveal Financial Data, Tamp Down Rate-Increase Requests

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Last year, a nasty fight erupted between state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler and Premera Blue Cross. Kreidler was pushing a bill that would force health insurers into publicly disclosing financial data when they asked for rate increases. Premera was trying to water down the bill, prompting Kreidler to ask, "What don't they want the public to see?" For the most part, Kreidler got what he wanted--and yesterday a handful of companies' filings went public for the first time.

On the surface, the filings seem anticlimactic. The rate requests, which must be approved by Kreidler's office, are mostly for the individual market, and that's an area that companies have long said is a money pit. While we don't have data yet on all the companies that do business locally--Premera, notably, has not yet filed with Kreidler's office--the preliminary numbers bear out that claim. Of the companies that have so far filed, only Regence BlueShield is making money on individual plans, with a modest profit last year of roughly $4 million.

But that's not the whole story, cautions Laurie Sobel, a senior attorney with the San Francisco office of the Consumers Union. Whereas profit figures are quickly found in the summaries supplied by Kreidler's office, the juiciest information is likely buried in the companies' lengthy filings, also online. (See all the materials on Kreidler's website.) It's there that sharp-eyed number-crunchers might find that a company is double-counting certain expenses, or piling up reserves that could go to soften rate increases. Financial whiz kids, get out your calculator.

Yet even more important figures to look at might be the requested rate increases themselves, suggests Steve Breaux of WashPIRG. He says his organization lobbied for Kreidler's bill because it believed that "simply by putting [insurers] in the spotlight and requiring them to disclose more information, they would be more careful about what they asked for." In other words, companies wouldn't demand astronomical rate increases if they couldn't justify them to the public.

He may have something there. The requested rate increases are noticeably lower for a couple companies. Regence is asking for a 12.7 percent jump, whereas for the last three years its requested (and accepted) increases ran from 16 to nearly 18 percent. Asuris Northwest is seeking an 11.1 percent rise. Its increase last year: 23.7 percent.

None of those figures, incidentally, are as low as Group Health Cooperative's rate increase this year for individual plans--just 1.1 percent--which the company sought before the public-disclosure rules took effect. Was Group Health gearing up for those rules? Was it trying to live up to its national reputation as a model of affordable care despite a spotty record on this in the past? (Group Health's previous rate increases have run as high as 24 percent, according to Kreidler's office.) Group Health spokesperson Mike Foley could not be reached this morning to explain. We'll let you know when we hear.

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