Illinois’ Obamacare plans seek big 2017 premium hikes

The Chicago Tribune reports:

“Insurers want to crank up the cost of health insurance premiums by as much as 45 percent for Illinois residents who buy coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s marketplace.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, the most popular insurer on the state’s Obamacare exchange, is proposing increases ranging from 23 percent to 45 percent in premiums for its individual health-care plans, according to proposed 2017 premiums that were made public Monday. The insurer blamed the sought-after hikes mainly on changes in the costs of medical services.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois said in a statement that the proposed rates are in line with those in many markets across the country, and the proposed increases don’t tell the whole story.

“No final decisions have been made regarding our 2017 offerings,” according to the statement. “While some carriers have chosen to exit the market, we are working toward continuing to provide health insurance options for consumers in Illinois. However, that must be done in a sustainable way.”

Coventry Health Care of Illinois proposed rate increases as high as 21 percent.

The Illinois Department of Insurance has until Aug. 23 to review the proposed rates and potentially try to negotiate them down. Final rates can be lower than the ones first proposed by insurers, and the proposed increases don’t reflect what consumers will actually pay, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was quick to caution Monday.

Last year, average monthly premiums for consumers with coverage increased by $4, to $106 a month “despite headlines suggesting double-digit increases,” HHS spokesman Jonathan Gold said Monday in a statement. About 75 percent of Illinois residents who buy plans on the exchange qualify for federal tax credits that partially offset the costs of their premiums.

“Consumers in Illinois will continue to have affordable coverage options in 2017,” Gold said in the statement. “Today’s announcement is just the beginning of the rates process, and consumers will have the final word when they vote with their feet during Open Enrollment.”

Kathy Waligora, director of EverThrive Illinois’ health reform initiative, said she also expects many of the rates to be lower than the proposed ones released Monday.

“We don’t put too much stock in the numbers as they stand right now because we know the [Department of Insurance] is really negotiating the rates up until the last deadline,” she said.

Ultimately it will be insurers setting the rates that will take effect Jan. 1. Illinois, unlike a number of other states, doesn’t have the power to reject the proposed rates outright, said Dena Mendelsohn, a staff attorney at Consumers Union, the advocacy and policy division of Consumer Reports.

Regulators in some states, such as California, have been very successful negotiating with insurers to push down proposed rates in the past, she said. That hasn’t been the case everywhere.

“It doesn’t appear to me like the Illinois rate regulator is rigorously reviewing these rate proposals and advocating for consumers,” Mendelsohn said.

Consumer advocates have also complained that Illinois takes too long to publicly release its rates, giving advocates less time to review plans and fight proposed increases. Insurers had to submit their rate plans for Illinois in April, though they were just released publicly Monday as required by the federal government.

Other states make the rate plan proposals public when they are filed, and before Monday, more than half of the states had disclosed just how much higher Obamacare premiums could be. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, for example, proposed an average increase of 53.7 percent.

The increases aren’t a surprise as many insurers have been losing money in the marketplace, said Katherine Hempstead, a senior adviser at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Hempstead said Illinois regulators tend to be realistic about just how low proposed rates can go.

“I don’t think the Insurance Department wants to push the carriers off a cliff and tell them they can’t raise their rates and then they’re upside down actuarially,” Hempstead said. “You can’t sustain a situation where most carriers lose money.”

She noted, however, that recent news of insurer Cigna’s plans to start selling marketplace plans in the Chicago area is likely good news for consumers. The additional competition could help hold down prices.

It’s at least one bright spot for Illinois residents on the exchange, who have been battered by other developments.

Insurer Land of Lincoln Health stunned 49,000 enrollees with its announcement this summer that it would shut down Oct. 1, after sustaining heavy financial losses. And last year, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois decided to discontinue its broadest PPO plan on the exchange after losing money.