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Insurance premium rate hikes delayed, revoked

As state and federal officials scrutinize health insurance premium increases, regulators took action against Blues plans in Washington, D.C., and Iowa.

By Emily Berry — Posted April 2, 2010

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Officials in Iowa and Washington, D.C., have halted health insurance premium increases for individuals and small businesses, following a wave of intense criticism from the Obama administration and members of Congress concerned with how much Americans are being asked to pay for coverage.

The District's Insurance, Securities and Banking Commissioner, Gennet Purcell, announced March 9 that she had canceled a previously approved 35% rate hike by CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. The increase had been approved in October 2009 and went into effect Jan. 1.

After one member complained about his policy's premium increase, the department looked again at the insurer's application for raising rates and identified an "administrative error" that changed calculations enough to mean that the plan did not require such a large increase, a news release from Purcell's office said.

She ordered CareFirst to reinstate the rates it charged before Jan. 1 and refund any overpayments, plus 5% interest. The company has not commented on the decision.

Meanwhile in Iowa, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield agreed to delay a planned 18% rate increase for its 80,000 individual customers in that state for one month, from April 1 to May 1.

As news of the planned increase spread and attention to individual insurance rates across the country sharpened, elected officials, including Republican U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, sent a Feb. 23 letter asking Wellmark officials to justify the rate increase.

On March 8, Iowa Gov. Chet Culver asked the state's insurance commissioner, Susan Voss, to hire an independent actuary to review Wellmark's rate increase request. The next day, Wellmark agreed to delay the new rate to allow time for the actuarial review.

Grassley welcomed the insurer's decision and its response to his questions. The company's letter to Grassley said, in part, that it took an 11.5% loss on its individual business in 2009. The nonprofit aims for a margin of 0% to 3%, the letter said. The figures it supplied showed that the company held about $880 million in reserve in 2009. (link).

"The response provides some answers, but I still have strong concerns about the level of increase, especially given Wellmark's significant reserves," Grassley said in a March 9 statement. "This deserves more investigation, along with other things."

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