State OKs new rates for insurance exchange

Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens said Thursday he had “no viable option” but to approve rates for dozens of health insurance plans that will be sold on a new online insurance marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act.

Hudgens asked the Obama administration on Monday for a 30-day extension of the deadline to review the plans, saying the proposed rates could more than double insurance costs for some Georgia consumers. But Wednesday was the deadline for states to approve the plans. With no response from the federal government, Hudgens said Thursday he had to approve the rates.

When the so-called insurance “exchanges” open Oct. 1, some Georgia consumers will see prices go up for individual plans, but many people will qualify for assistance from the federal government to pay the premiums.

“Although not surprised, I am disappointed in the unresponsiveness of the Obama administration,” Hudgens said in a statement. “President Obama has repeatedly assured Americans that his health care law would not increase cost on the American people, however, those assurances are not holding true in Georgia.”

Some health care experts suggested that Hudgens seems more interested in making political points than in helping consumers.

“We don’t want consumers to get discouraged because they’re hearing a lot of hype about the most extreme cases,” Cindy Zeldin, executive director of consumer advocacy group Georgians for a Healthy Future. “This is the time we should be moving this out of the political realm.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which ignored Hudgens’ appeal for an extension, said Thursday afternoon the department is pleased Georgia is moving forward.

“We are consistently seeing rates across the country that are lower than expected, and we are confident that premiums in Georgia will be affordable,” she said.

Nearly 900,000 Georgians are expected to shop on the exchange website. The state exchanges are crucial to the health care law’s aim of providing coverage to millions of uninsured Americans. Plans purchased on the exchange website will take effect on Jan. 1.

Seven insurance companies originally filed plans to sell on the website. Aetna, which recently acquired Coventry, announced Wednesday it is withdrawing plans from both companies, leaving five insurers.

In his letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Hudgens said the proposed rates will increase insurance costs by up to 198 percent. He later acknowledged that this was an extreme example that applied to one type of consumer under proposed rates from one insurer.

Outside actuaries found that plans filed by six of the seven companies were reasonably priced, Hudgens said. Alliant lowered its rates by 10 percent after they were found to be too high, according to a spokesman with the state insurance department. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia, Humana, Kaiser and Peach State also plan to sell coverage on the exchange.

“The proposed premiums are actuarily appropriate and data-driven,” said Graham Thompson, executive director of the Georgia Association of Health Plans, an industry trade organization. “We’re glad that the review is over and now we’re moving toward Oct. 1.”

Thompson added that while there will be cases of extreme price increases and premiums will be generally higher in Georgia, insurance rates outside of the exchange will be higher, too. That’s because insurers will no longer be able to reject people with pre-existing conditions and will have to provide certain essential benefits, among other requirements of the Affordable Care Act, he said.

Republican leaders in other states have also raised worries of price hikes stemming from the health law. In Indiana, officials have said individual insurance rates will climb by an average of 72 percent as a result of the health care law.

Requiring insurance companies to cover people who have pre-existing conditions and need health care, not just the young and healthy, will raise costs overall, said Zeldin of Georgians for a Healthy Future. But, she said, federal subsidies will help make that coverage affordable for many people with qualifying incomes.

Zeldin noted that Hudgens’ example, which was based on a 25-year-old man, doesn’t give consumers the full picture of how the Affordable Care Act will affect them. If leaders are only worried about 25-year-old men who are healthy and want bare-bones insurance coverage, then that’s bad public policy, she said.

“That does not factor in all of the people who very much wanted to have health insurance and were denied or quoted a price so high that they couldn’t afford to buy it,” she said. “That’s what the (health law) is changing.”

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