Up, up and away

In­sur­ance rates soar as health-care re­form stalls

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Paul Green­berg

They were separate sto­ries on the front page of Arkansas’ News­pa­per the other day but they were part of the same go-for-broke pat­tern. And in­deed the whole sys­tem is go­ing broke. While still an­other at­tempt to re­form health care in Wash­ing­ton flick­ered out be­cause the Repub­li­cans in the con­gres­sional ma­jor­ity can’t seem to get their act to­gether, Blue Cross and Blue Shield was ask­ing for a 7.8 per­cent in­crease in its rates for buy­ers of health in­sur­ance in this state.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield is the state’s largest health-in­sur­ance com­pany, cov­er­ing more than 4 out every 5 ben­e­fi­cia­ries of Med­i­caid in the state, and it’s out to raise its rates sharply. So folks who are en­rolled in the mis­la­beled Arkansas Works sys­tem — be­cause it doesn’t work, at least not very well — will be ex­pected to pay much more for their cov­er­age. Along with all the folks who aren’t el­i­gi­ble for help from Med­i­caid but buy in­sur­ance on their own rather than through their em­ployer.

A cou­ple of other com­pa­nies that sell health-in­sur­ance poli­cies have promptly gone along with Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s lead. Or an­tic­i­pated it. Qual-Choice Health In­sur­ance, based in Arkansas, says it wants to raise its rates an av­er­age of 22 per­cent, while Cen­tene Corp out of St. Louis seeks to raise its rates by 9.9 per­cent on av­er­age. So re­ports the state’s In­sur­ance Depart­ment, whose ac­tu­ar­ies are sup­posed to keep up with all th­ese facts and fig­ures, Lord help them.

But what, the big-name politi­cians and ty­coons worry? For them, happy days are here again. “It’s the econ­omy, stupid,” as Bill Clin­ton’s cam­paign man­ager James Carville used to say, and the econ­omy is boom­ing. For now. And the boom will doubt­less con­tinue till it turns into an­other bust. Some things just can­not be re­pealed, like the eco­nomic cy­cle. Some­where, Gen­tle Reader can be sure, an­other set of big­time op­er­a­tors are plan­ning a big short. They’ll doubt­less make a killing while the ratepay­ers are killed.

In a news re­lease that sounded stale as soon as it was out of the can, this state’s gov­er­nor and reg­u­la­tor-in-chief hyped his own Med­i­caid pro­gram along with “the in­sur­ance com­pa­nies” “ef­forts to im­prove man­age­ment” for hold­ing in­sur­ance rates in this state down even as they con­tin­ued to go up in ac­tu­al­ity. Un­be­liev­able— un­less you’ve heard politi­cians who be­lieve their own press re­leases sound off be­fore.

“In the midst of the con­fu­sion and heated rhetoric about the fu­ture of health care in­sur­ance in our coun­try, Arkansas has led the way in health-care re­form,” pro­nounced the Hon. Asa Hutchinson, adding that “the re­sult is that re­quested in­creases [in pre­mi­ums] are much less than we are see­ing na­tion­ally.” Who knew that Gov­er­nor Hutchinson, amidst his myr­iad other du­ties, was keep­ing close tabs on health­care in­sur­ance rates in every other state of the union?

The gov­er­nor’s de­bat­able ap­praisal of the whole coun­try’s health-in­sur­ance mar­ket was du­ti­fully sec­onded by Allen Kerr, the state’s in­sur­ance com­mis­sioner, who has as­sured all that “this round of ini­tial re­quests [for higher in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums] places Arkansas among the low­est in the coun­try as many states are see­ing com­pa­nies ask for in­creases between 50 per­cent to 80 per­cent.” Just how much Mr. Kerr knows about in­sur­ance rates else­where may be a mat­ter of spec­u­la­tion, but there’s no doubt he knows who his boss is—and is ready to do his part when it comes to keep­ing up a united front on this issue. Their joint mes­sage to the pub­lic: Smile, your health-in­sur­ance rates are go­ing up!

Paul Green­berg is the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning editorial writer and colum­nist for the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette.

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