Political uncertainty could send health premiums soaring

With insurance signups for the Affordable Care Act less than two weeks away, political uncertainty is set to leave some patients with skyrocketing costs as others are pushed toward new coverage.

The state insurance commissioner approved revised rates last week, days after President Donald Trump announced he would cut off subsidies that help insurance companies cover patients under the act, commonly called Obamacare. Trump’s move, coupled with ongoing uncertainty as lawmakers fight over a solution, helped push rates higher for many who buy insurance on the individual market.

“It is with great regret that I must announce approved rates that are substantially higher than what companies initially requested,” acting Insurance Commissioner Jessica Altman said Monday in a written statement. “This is not the situation I hoped we would be in, but due to President Trump’s refusal to make cost-sharing reduction payments for 2018 and Congress’s inaction to appropriate funds, it is the reality that state regulators must face and the reason rate increases will be higher than they should be across the country.”

Some 3,000 people in Blair County used insurance through the market as of last year, and thousands more did in neighboring counties.

The four providers available in Blair County are all set to raise their average rates for next year, although the price hikes vary according to several factors. In every case, the final increases for so-called silver plans are higher than the providers initially expected.

Geisinger Health Plan is set to raise rates by 31.3 percent on average, far more than the 8.2 percent the company first requested. UPMC Health Options Inc., which covers more than 142,000 Pennsylvanians, is set to raise rates 41.2 percent, several times the 8 percent increase originally sought.

Two other local brands — Highmark Health Insurance Co. and Highmark Inc. — are set to raise rates as well, although less steeply.

The average hike statewide is 30.6 percent, Altman said.

Trump has celebrated what he describes as the impending death of Obamacare and has deflected blame for rate hikes toward the Democrats.

“Any increase in Obamacare premiums is the fault of the Democrats for giving us a ‘product’ that never had a chance of working,” he said Tuesday on Twitter.

The increases follow Trump’s long-threatened move to cut off so-called cost-sharing reduction payments.

For years, the federal government paid subsidies to insurance providers to help carry the burden of covering lower-income Americans on the Obamacare insurance markets. A lawsuit left the fate of the payments uncertain, however, and allowed Trump to effectively cut them off at any time.

When congressional Republicans failed to repeal Obamacare this summer, a frustrated Trump turned to executive actions to weaken the law.

Some Republican lawmakers cheered the move. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, wrote on Twitter the day Trump ended the payments: “Thanks (President Trump) for your leadership working to increase choices in the health insurance market.”

The practical impact isn’t so simple, however. The loss of the cost-sharing payments is set to hit silver plans — a middle ranking among Obamacare options. Under the law, plans are rated bronze, silver, gold and platinum, with lower-level plans offering cheaper premiums but higher out-of-pocket costs for care.

Prices for the silver plans will often skyrocket, Altman said, but other varieties could actually be cheaper in some cases. The real hit will be for those who buy insurance through the Obamacare markets but whose income is too high to qualify for personal subsidies, Altman explained.

In addition to the now-defunct cost-sharing payments, the Affordable Care Act set up subsidies for patients whose household income is below certain limits. Those subsidies remain, and they could help preserve the system even as some plans become prohibitively expensive — but those who don’t receive them would be doubly affected.

The state Insurance Department has advised those who don’t qualify for subsidies to look for new insurance options off the Obamacare markets. Altman said the department has worked with insurers to keep affordable, private-purchase options outside the market for those forced out.

Meanwhile in Washington, lawmakers have rushed to find a solution that could keep Obamacare afloat. Senators in both parties announced a bill last week to restore the payments Trump cut off, but Trump has suggested he won’t sign it unless it also rolls back much of the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. has gone a different route. He has not signed on as a co-sponsor for the bipartisan bill, and instead announced a bill Tuesday that would eliminate the Affordable Care Act requirement that every American purchase health insurance.

Toomey didn’t issue a statement on Trump’s decision to end the insurance cost payments.

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.