Putting the brakes on health insurers

L.A. Times

Obama should forbid premium hikes until the companies comply with pricing provisions of the new federal law.

October 19, 2010|By Jamie Court and Carmen Balber
Health insurance companies have declared war on President Obama’s healthcare plan.

They are sending letters to policyholders announcing big premium increases and pointing the finger at the federal healthcare overhaul. Some insurers are refusing to sell individual policies for children because of rules requiring them to take all comers, not just those in perfect health. They are lobbying on Capitol Hill and in statehouses to undermine or eliminate the law’s provisions.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius answered insurers’ scare tactics by saying she would have “zero tolerance” for such behavior, but the administration’s response so far has been limited to words.

It’s time the president uses his clout and fights back.

Obama should — and can — issue an executive order freezing all health insurance premium hikes until the companies comply with pricing provisions of the new federal law.

Under the federal healthcare reform law, Congress expressly provided that health insurance companies cannot raise insurance premiums until insurers “submit to the [Health and Human Services] secretary and the relevant state a justification for an unreasonable premium increase prior to the implementation of the increase.”

Facing a recalcitrant industry, the Department of Health and Human Services is working to finish regulations by the end of this year defining an “unreasonable premium increase.” Until then, it’s not possible for regulators to determine which premium increases require a public justification from insurers. So an executive order freezing premium increases until this standard is set is needed to implement the express requirements of the law.

The struggling middle class cannot afford more double-digit premium hikes, and federal law says we are owed an explanation before having to pay them. Yet on Oct. 1, many of America’s largest health insurers hiked premiums without a word of justification. The insurers owe the American people more than “it’s the White House’s fault.”

Our years of experience as policy advocates focused on keeping insurance companies honest and protecting patients have shown that bold action, not halfway measures, gets corporate attention.

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