The Friday news dump. Wait, Obamacare was supposed to be the best thing since sliced bread or Jesus Christ himself, right????

Individual health insurance premiums soar
By Don Davis / Forum News Service Today at 3:09 p.m.
(Forum News Service / Don Davis)

ST. PAUL – That punch to the gut 250,000 Minnesotans felt Friday, Sept. 30, came from news that their health insurance premiums will rise up to 67 percent next year.

Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman announces on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, that health insurance premiums for individual policies will rise 50 percent to 67 percent next year. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman announces on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, that health insurance premiums for individual policies will rise 50 percent to 67 percent next year. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Friday’s punch comes after nearly half of the same people felt similar pain this summer when Blue Cross Blue Shield told them it was eliminating all but one of its individual health policies, forcing them to go insurance shopping.

State regulators said the premium increases of 50 percent to 67 percent are unacceptable, but there is nothing they can do.

Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said that he failed in his efforts to get Blue Cross to reconsider and to continue offering individual insurance policies, but he revealed that he and others in his department succeeded in convincing other companies to stay in the market.

The Blue Cross decision prompted other insurers to consider dropping out, Rothman said.

“We were faced with the prospect there would be nothing available,” he said.

Higher premiums and allowing insurers to limit how many new customers take on convinced them to continue selling individual policies, the commissioner said.

The rate increases do not affect those who get insurance through their employers, who account for more than half of Minnesotans, or are insured by state programs such as MinnesotaCare. About 4.5 percent of Minnesotans remain without health insurance.

The quarter million Minnesotans who buy individual policies will have choices for next year’s coverage, but in many cases not as much as in the past.

Blue Cross Blue Shield’s HMO plan Blue Plus and Medica Health Plans of Wisconsin will offer insurance throughout the state. People living in some northeastern Minnesota counties will have Ucare available and those in the Twin Cities northwest to St. Cloud also can pick from Ucare, Health Partners and Group Health.

However, because of insurers’ fear they could be overwhelmed with new customers, especially 103,000 from the eliminated from Blue Cross policies, they are limiting how many new policies they will sell.

Blue Cross’ Blue Plus, a different plan from what the 103,000 had, does not have a limit to how many customers it will accept.

Rothman suggested that Minnesotans looking for individual insurance begin shopping Nov. 1, when policies are to be available on the state-run MNsure health insurance sales site and from private sellers.

Some plans may sell out quickly, he said, and customers may not be able to get into health provider networks they want to obtain certain types of plans if they wait to buy insurance.

Minnesotans may buy individual plans through private insurance brokers or the state-run MNsure health insurance sales site at mnsure.org. MNsure CEO Allison O’Toole said more than 1,000 brokers throughout the state can help people sign up on MNsure, and “an army of assisters” also is available to help Minnesotans navigate the site to buy insurance.

MNsure is the only place that insurance buyers can get government aid for their policies.

An estimated 100,000 Minnesotans are eligible for tax credits that reduce or, in some cases, eliminate the rate increases, O’Toole said, but they have not applied. “We don’t want Minnesotans to leave money on the table.”

“These tax credits act like instance discounts off premiums,” she said.

One reason Minnesota’s premiums rose so much, Rothman said, is that the state’s individual insurance policy pool has many high-cost patients. That is because, in part, the state’s employers insure most Minnesotans, leaving many of the sickest to rely on individual polices with expenses spread among the relatively small group.

Unless the state makes changes, the future does not look good for individual insurance plans, Rothman said.

“We succeeded in saving the market for this year, but the result is not pretty,” Rothman said, adding that without major reforms fielding insurance policies in 2018 will be tough.

Like a year ago, he urged Gov. Mark Dayton and legislators to reform the insurance system.

“These rising rates are unstainable and unfair,” Rothman said, with middle class Minnesotans facing the biggest problems because they may not qualify for credits that reduce prices for people making less money. “They are farmers, barbers, self employed, retirees, child care employees and others who are getting unfairly punched in the gut.”

Health insurance sources

Here is how Minnesotans get health insurance:

51 percent, large employer

17 percent, Medicare for the elderly

16 percent, state programs for poor

5 percent, individual policies

5 percent, small employer

5 percent, uninsured

(Percentages rounded)

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