New health law may bring pricier premiums
San Francisco Chronicle, 8/9/10
By Victoria Colliver
San Francisco Chronicle
August 9, 2010
Employers and consumers sorting through their health insurance options may see a bump in their rates next year to account for the potential impact of some of the early elements of the federal health overhaul law, according to some health experts.
Jeff Sher, an independent health insurance agent and consultant in San Francisco, said he's anticipating employee coverage at mid-size companies to go up 13 percent to 15 percent. "Then we're supposed to tack on several percentage points for health reform," he said.
August is a key month for employers to start making decisions about their health benefits because most open-enrollment periods, during which employees select their health insurance plans, begin in the fall for coverage starting Jan. 1, 2011.
While most major pieces of the new health law don't go into effect until 2014, some reforms affecting health insurance carriers take effect this year.
These include provisions that require health plans to cover adult children until age 26, extend coverage to children with pre-existing conditions, end maximum lifetime spending limits and end the practice of retroactively canceling a member's coverage for any reason other than fraud.
Health policy watchers say it's tough to know whether these reforms will have much impact on costs, which routinely outpace increases in wages and inflation.
Any savings the new law could offer have not materialized yet, said Laurence Baker, professor of health research and policy at Stanford University. Meanwhile, there is uncertainty about whether changes such as covering children with pre-existing conditions or extending coverage to those under 26 will add costs to the overall health system.
"I can certainly see they (insurers) would look to the future and worry about how things would roll out and be more aggressive in the future about rates," Baker said.
A PricewaterhouseCoopers report released in June found that medical costs nationwide are expected to rise 9 percent next year. That projected increase for 2011 is actually slightly smaller than the 9.5 percent rise the consulting firm is seeing this year.
But Michael Thompson, a principal with PricewaterhouseCoopers, said the reforms going into effect this year will have little to no impact on employer health costs.
"If anything, we think the trend will down this year," he said, adding that the upsurge last year of people staying on their former employer's health insurance plans due to federal government subsidies had a larger impact on rates.
Several health insurers declined to comment directly on the impact of health reform on their rates. Aetna said people who purchase coverage with additional benefits required under the new health law will have to pay more for those benefits.
California legislators this month will be considering a number of bills designed to curb increases in health rates, such as the 39 percent hike for individual members of Anthem Blue Cross that helped jump-start the national reform discussion earlier this year.
"Regulators need to be vigilant in this period before the health reform kicks in with regards to health insurers gaming the system," said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, a statewide advocacy group.Back to News »