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Originally published Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 1:04 PM

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State rejects Regence BlueShield's latest health-insurance rate increase

Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler has rejected the latest health-insurance rate-increase request for individual plans by Regence BlueShield and its related companies, which was scheduled to take effect Jan. 1.

Seattle Times health reporter

Information

The latest approved rates for all individual insurance plans:

insurance.wa.gov/consumers/health/rates.shtml

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Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler rejected the latest health-insurance rate-increase request by Regence BlueShield and its related companies. The increase was to take effect Jan. 1.

The rejection, which applies to individual insurance plans held by about 149,000 policyholders insured by Regence BlueShield, Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon and Asuris Northwest Health, is the latest in a series of troubles for the company, one of three large insurers in the state.

Regence applied for and received hefty rate increases in October. It then submitted another set of rate increases to go into effect Jan. 1, intended to cover the new benefits mandated under the new federal health law, such as covering children under age 26, no-deductible coverage of some preventive services and removing lifetime dollar limits on essential benefits.

In the fall, people in some Regence plans received letters from the company telling them that even though they had just gotten a hefty rate hike, the company was closing their plan and advising them to move to one of a new group of plans called "Evolve." Regence also asked for a rate increase for those plans, to go into effect Jan. 1.

Stephanie Marquis, spokeswoman for the commissioner, said that while Kreidler and Regence are in discussions over the rate-increase rejection, customers should continue paying rates that were approved in October — not the rates it hoped to impose Jan. 1.

The rejected increases were 3.7 percent for Regence and Asuris and 4.9 percent for the Oregon company's plans.

Rachelle Cunningham, Regence spokeswoman, said: "We believe our rates are actuarially sound and will follow the appropriate process to understand the OIC's concerns and work toward approval."

Many people have complained about the rate increases, Marquis said, including those affected by Regence's new practice of charging separate rates for each child. Previously, the company had one rate for one child, and another for two or more children.

Cunningham said the new method is a "more equitable way to distribute costs across the individual pool."

But the insurance commissioner disputed the amount Regence is charging for covering kids. "We believe it's too high," Marquis said.

Regence must prove that the change is "revenue neutral," she said. "They failed to do that."

In late September, Regence said it would no longer offer child-only individual plans, which earned it criticism from Kreidler and from U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell. Kreidler told the company it was illegal to deny coverage based on age.

Cantwell also criticized the company for appearing to blame steep hikes on the new federal health-care law.

In fact, Regence said, the benefits added by the law make up a very small part of the overall cost picture. What drove increased premiums, it said, were rising health costs, consolidation of health providers and poorer health of policyholders.

Individual plan increases by Regence and its subsidiary Asuris were among the highest last year. In October, Asuris received a 23.7 percent increase and Regence BlueShield, 16.4 percent.

Consumers with questions about their options can call Kreidler's office at 800-562-6900.

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com

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