Kaiser Health News
July 19, 2016
Covered California Health Plan Rates To Jump 13.2 Percent In 2017
By Chad Terhune and Pauline Bartolone
California's Obamacare premiums will jump 13.2 percent on average next year, a sharp increase that is likely to reverberate nationwide in an election year.
The Covered California exchange had won plaudits by negotiating 4 percent average rate increases in its first two years. But that feat couldn't be repeated for 2017, as overall medical costs continue to climb and two federal programs that help insurers with expensive claims are set to expire this year.
Some health-policy experts were surprised by the magnitude of the increase in California. Others said it was inevitable the rates would catch up to the rest of the country after insurers determined their coverage had been priced too low.
Blue Shield of California said its premiums were going up 19.9 percent, the highest statewide increase. Anthem Inc., the nation's second largest health insurer, said it had an average increase of 17.2 percent in its Covered California plans. HMO giant Kaiser Permanente, in contrast, posted an average increase of 6 percent.
"While these rates hikes aren't as bad as the annual double-digit increases before the Affordable Care Act, that's not much comfort to consumers who don't see their paychecks increase by the same percentage," said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, a consumer advocacy group.
These rate increases apply to people who purchase their own coverage in the individual market, not the majority of Americans who get their health insurance through work or government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
Comment by Don McCanne
California has been a leader in establishing and implementing the health insurance exchanges authorized by the Affordable Care Act. Although they did hold down premium rate increases in the first two years to 4 percent (still above the rate of inflation), the higher costs of health care have caught up with them. That requires an average of a 13.2 percent premium increase for the next year (though other regulatory and market factors cause greater year to year fluctuation in the premiums). What does this mean for those enrolled in those plans and for the rest of us who obtain our health care coverage elsewhere?
Some of those enrolled in the Covered California plans will find the premium increases to be beyond their means. Many of them will be able to shop for plans with lower premiums, but they will likely have to pay higher deductibles, though those who are eligible for government subsidies may find that the burden is not too great. In changing plans, many will have to disrupt their current care since their new plans will have different provider networks. The effort to make the insurance premiums more affordable clearly has detrimental effects in physician choice and affordability of actual access to health care.
In California those people purchasing plans in the individual market will have very similar experiences except that they are not eligible for government subsidies that could reduce the impact of the premium increases.
The employee contribution to employer-sponsored plans has been more stable, although that is beginning to change. Starbucks is the latest of employers who are using private insurance exchanges in which the employees use a voucher or equivalent to purchase their plans. The impact will be very similar to the ACA exchanges - less choice in health care providers and greater out-of-pocket costs merely because eventually the voucher will not be enough to cover plans with wider networks and less cost sharing.
Even Medicare may eventually be impacted. The push to private Medicare Advantage plans is succeeding because of government overpayment to these plans. The conservative and neoliberal coalition is advocating for the establishment of a voucher program for private Medicare plans (premium support), crowding out the traditional Medicare program.
Politicians will likely respond to inevitable protests of intolerable increases in the beneficiaries' portion of the Medicare premium by allowing insurer innovations in coverage that will reduce the premiums. We already know what some of these will be: larger deductibles and other cost sharing, narrower provider networks, or intrusive prior authorization designed to limit access to expensive drug products and procedures. But this will be nothing compared to what the insurance industry will likely do once it is granted a free rein to innovate. It's in the DNA of this industry.
ACA supporters are assuring us that we don't have to worry about these high premium increases in the exchange plans because patients are free to shop for cheaper plans. But they have left out the rest of the story.