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Friday, July 16, 2004 - Page updated at 07:46 A.M.
State rejects Premera Blue Cross' for-profit plan
By Kyung M. Song
In his 58-page ruling, Kreidler resoundingly rejected Premera's application on grounds that it could expose policyholders to excessive premium increases, particularly in Premera's stronghold in Eastern Washington.
Kreidler also concluded that Premera would transfer less than its full fair value to new charitable foundations after dissolving as a nonprofit, as required by law. And he dismissed Premera executives' assurances that they intended to remain in Mountlake Terrace, saying a for-profit Premera stood a high likelihood of becoming an acquisition target.
The ruling means that Premera, the state's largest health insurer, will remain nonprofit at least for now. And it preserves Washington as a bastion of nonprofit insurers, with Premera, Regence BlueShield and Group Health Cooperative controlling 75 percent of commercial health-insurance enrollees.
Premera is awaiting a ruling from the state insurance director in Alaska on a request to change its status. The deadline for that decision is July 25. The Alaska insurance director's staff members have recommended rejection of Premera's request.
Immediately after Kreidler's news conference at a Seattle hotel, Yori Milo, Premera's chief legal officer, said the decision appears inconsistent with state law and "fails to take into account the wealth of evidence that shows this conversion should be approved."
Foes of the conversion doctors, hospitals, consumers and advocacy groups who have campaigned vigorously against Premera's plan hailed Kreidler's decision as fair and in the public good.
"It's subscribers' money. They ought to quit spending it," said Cassie Sauer, spokeswoman for the Washington State Hospital Association, which filed a lawsuit in 2003 in an attempt to derail the conversion.
Kreidler's decision continues a recent national trend against allowing Blue Cross, BlueShield plans to switch to for-profit status.
After a spate of conversion to investor-owned companies during the 1990s, state insurance regulators tightened their scrutiny. Since 2002, Kansas and Maryland have rejected proposed sales of plans by Blue Cross, BlueShield health plans to seek for-profit insurers. That prompted plans in North Carolina and New Jersey to abandon their own conversion attempts.
The number of independent Blue Cross, BlueShield plans has shrunk from more than 125 in the early 1980s to 41 today. Of those, 37 are nonprofit, three are for-profit, stock-traded companies and one is a for-profit privately owned company.
Two of the for-profit Blue Cross, BlueShield health plans, WellPoint Health Networks of California and Anthem of Indiana, operate in 13 states between them. WellPoint and Anthem are proposing to merge.
Kreidler, who is running for a second term, said his goal was to make a careful decision that would withstand an appeal. But his ruling appeared all but inevitable.
Expert consultants hired by the state twice advised Kreidler to deny the conversion, and his staff members in May recommended rejecting the plan.
Kreidler noted that his office heard "overwhelming" opposition from the public as well. The state received nearly 5,400 signed postcards distributed by consumer groups opposed to the conversion.
But conversion foes argued that the price of allowing Premera to become an investor-owned company outweighed the potential charitable windfall.
Premera said it needed to convert to make it easier to raise money to grow membership, beef up its reserves and remain competitive. Experts for Premera testified at hearings that the conversion would have no effect on the rate of premium increases or reimbursement to health-care providers.
Kreidler rejected Premera's basic argument that it needs to raise money by issuing stock. He said Premera has been spending robustly, including $125 million to roll out its Dimensions insurance plan. At the same time, Premera had not spelled out how it intended to spend the money it would have raised on Wall Street, he said.
Kreidler also dismissed Premera's contention that a conversion was needed to shore up its reserves, noting that Premera's financial cushion would have been greater had it not been for the millions spent on seeking for-profit status.
Kyung Song: 26-464-2423 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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