The ObamaCare premium wars are back.
The cost of health insurance plans on the ObamaCare exchanges could jump in the coming weeks, some by double digits, inflaming the issue ahead of the midterm elections.
Democrats argue the price increases are the result of what they refer to as “Republican sabotage.” They contend that, since the GOP controls Congress and the White House, the price hikes are their responsibility — and that’s the message they plan to take into the fall campaign.
“If these early states are any indication, health insurance companies are going to ask for huge hikes in the wake of President Trumpand congressional Republicans’ repeated efforts to sabotage our health-care system,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a press conference last week. “And we Democrats are going to be relentless in making sure the American people exactly understand who is to blame for the rates.”
Republicans counter that it was Democrats who passed the law, enacted in 2010, in the first place and without any GOP votes. And they blame Democrats for the failure to pass a bill that was aimed at shoring up ObamaCare’s exchanges.
Democrats wrote the Affordable Care Act, so “they should look in the mirror,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said last week on the Senate floor.
“And this is the very worst. When Republicans were prepared one month ago to stabilize these markets — and according to the Oliver Wyman health-care experts, to lower rates by up to 40 percent over three years — the Democrats said no,” he said.
For years, Republicans had the upper hand on health care, with the backlash to the Affordable Care Act helping them win the House in 2010, the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016.
During the Obama administration, Republicans railed against ObamaCare premium hikes while pledging to repeal and replace the law.
But that repeal push ended in failure last year, and Democrats say the political winds have shifted in their favor.
Democrats argue that any higher premiums this year will be a direct result of the Republican Congress and the Trump administration. They refer to certain actions by the GOP — such as the repeal of the individual mandate to have health insurance — as acts of “sabotage” that will siphon healthy people out of the ObamaCare insurance markets, leading to sicker people on the plans and higher costs.
“Thus far, Democrats have been on the defensive about premium increases,” said Cynthia Cox, a health insurance expert with the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Now they’re starting to play offense, and from our polling we’ve seen that a lot of the public now feels that the Trump administration and Congress are responsible for any problems with the [Affordable Care Act] going forward, so it may be that the politics of premium increases has changed.”
Protect Our Care, a pro-ObamaCare group, launched “Rate Watch” on Tuesday, a media campaign and website aimed at getting out the Democrat’s message that Republicans are to blame for rate hikes.
Only a handful of states have released proposed premiums for next year, as insurers are largely still hammering out what their preliminary rates are going to be.
In Maryland, the average proposed increase among insurers and plans was 30 percent. CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, for example, requested an 18.5 percent hike for its HMO plans and 91.4 percent for its PPO plans.
In Virginia, proposed rate hikes varied widely, from 15 percent to 64 percent. Vermont’s proposed premium increases were more modest.
It’s too early to know the full picture for what premiums will look like around the country for 2019. Insurers tend to file proposed rates in the late spring and early summer, and they’re generally not finalized until early fall — a little more than a month before the ObamaCare exchanges open for business on Nov. 1.
“It’s hard to come up with a general impression … but I think what we can expect is probably another year of double-digit rate increases driven in large part by the individual mandate repeal and the expansion of short-term health plans and association health plans,” Cox said.
The Trump administration proposed a rule to increase the length of time a consumer can keep a plan that doesn’t comply with ObamaCare’s insurance regulations from three months to nearly a year. Democrats deride those plans as “junk insurance.”
Association health plans would let small businesses and self-employed individuals band together to buy coverage that doesn’t comply with ObamaCare’s rules.
Republicans say the rules will expand choice and allow people to buy cheaper alternatives to ObamaCare plans.
Some insurers have cited the repeal of the individual mandate as a factor in their decision to propose rate hikes, and at least one also included the proposed regulations from the administration as a factor.
Some insurance commissioners across the country are approaching the open enrollment period with a level of “concern and a bit of trepidation,” said Julie Mix McPeak, Tennessee’s insurance commissioner who serves as the president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
In McPeak’s home state, she’s hopeful that signs are pointing to rates beginning to plateau and that Tennessee won’t see the large hikes of years past.
“My experience in Tennessee … is not typical for all of the states in the United States,” said McPeak, who was appointed to run the state’s insurance department by Gov. Bill Haslam (R.).
“I’m hearing from some of my colleagues from the national perspective that they are looking at significant rate increases,” she said.
Dave Jones, California’s Democratic insurance commissioner, said he’s worried that some insurers may leave parts of the state.
“We’re working closely with our exchange and other California agencies to do everything we can to encourage insurers to stay and to create as much stability as we can, not withstanding all of the rocks that the Trump administration is throwing at health-care reform,” he said.
If the short-term and association health plan rules are implemented, Jones said he’s prepared to file litigation aimed at stopping the regulations.
In North Dakota, the state’s Republican insurance commissioner is more optimistic.
Jon Godfread said he expects North Dakota’s marketplace will consist of three carriers selling plans across the state — an increase from last year, when areas had only one or two insurers to choose from.
As for rate hikes, he’s hoping in the low double-digits or, worst case, in the 18 percent to 22 percent range. He believes the repeal of the individual mandate won’t have much impact on consumer behavior in North Dakota because people who couldn’t afford insurance have likely already left the marketplace in the state.
“Health insurance and health care by its very nature is demographic,” Godfread said. “We may be leading into a somewhat calm year — in North Dakota, at least that’s what we’re hoping for. But that doesn’t mean my colleagues in Iowa and Nebraska and other places aren’t facing some pretty significant challenges, and we very well, that could be us next year, or it could be us this year still, too. There’s a lot of time between now and open enrollment.”