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Originally published Wednesday, August 27, 2014 at 8:45 PM

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State to offer more health-insurance choices next year

Ninety plans from 10 insurers are heading toward Washington’s exchange marketplace, if the exchange board approves, with rate increases a fraction of what companies requested.


Seattle Times health reporter

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Ninety individual health plans sold by 10 insurers will likely make their way into Washington’s exchange marketplace for 2015, if the Washington Health Benefit Exchange board approves them Thursday, as expected.

The Office of the Insurance Commissioner (OIC) also approved two insurers’ exchange plans for small businesses, including the first to sell small-business plans statewide in Washington: Moda Health Plan.

Two insurers didn’t make it through the review process, but the insurance office says it’s still working with them. The two are Health Alliance Northwest Health Plan, a for-profit company in Urbana, Ill., which applied to sell only exchange plans, and UnitedHealthcare, a large national for-profit based in Minnetonka, Minn., which applied for plans sold inside and outside the exchange.

The reviewers appeared to have taken a tight approach to premium rates, lowering requested rates from all but one insurer. On a weighted average, the actuarial review squeezed an overall rate increase of 8.6 percent in the insurers’ original proposals down to 1.9 percent.

The number of 2015 plans, which will be offered on the Washington Healthplanfinder exchange beginning Nov. 15, has nearly doubled from the exchange’s inaugural year, when eight insurers were approved to sell 46 plans.

“I take the increased interest from health insurers this year as a clear sign that health reform is working,” Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said in a statement. “Consumers will have two more insurers to choose from [for] next year, nearly double the number of health plans, and a record low rate change.”

Attempts to reach Health Alliance officials through their registered agent, a law firm in Wenatchee, and their company headquarters in Illinois were unsuccessful.

Kristen Hellmer, spokeswoman for UnitedHealthcare, which offers other health-insurance plans in Washington, said in a statement: “We are continuing to work with the OIC to bring an exchange offering that meets the needs of consumers in Washington who are looking for quality, affordable health-care coverage. As a leading participant in the commercial, Medicare, Medicaid and Tricare insurance markets, we look forward to contributing to a competitive marketplace that benefits the residents of the state.”

Exchange-board member Don Conant said this year’s process appears to have gone more smoothly than last, when five of the nine insurers that applied didn’t pass OIC review by the initial deadline.

“I’m pleasantly surprised, and I’m glad I’m pleasantly surprised with the insurance commissioner,” Conant said. “I think he’s done his best to deal in good faith ... and put forth a good selection — a lot of carriers, a lot of plans. That’s all I ask for, that consumers have a lot of choice.”

Five health insurers applied to sell individual insurance only outside the exchange: Asuris Northwest Health, Group Health Options, Regence BlueShield, Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon, and Time Insurance.

Washington’s insurance exchange for small businesses got off to a slow start its first year when no one offered coverage statewide. For 2015, Moda will sell plans through the Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP, across the state, while Kaiser Foundation will continue covering two counties in Southwest Washington.

Some board members were anxiously awaiting news about Moda’s review.

“No matter what you feel about SHOP,” said Conant, who is also a business manager, “to have a statewide carrier, to give it a try, to see if it can find a place in the market — that’s our responsibility.”

Patrick Conner, the Washington state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, also was upbeat.

“We are pleased to see more insurers offering health plans both inside and outside the exchange,” he said in an email. “Increased competition is our best hope of ever lowering costs, while improving choice and quality of health-insurance options available in our state.”

In the exchange’s first year, only eight businesses had purchased SHOP insurance, though some 4,000 small businesses created accounts through the marketplace to see what options were available. The small-employer marketplace is open all year, unlike the individual market, which has limited enrollment periods.

Changes brought about largely by the Affordable Care Act are making health-care costs less expensive for Washingtonians, Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement. “States like Washington that are implementing the act as written are seeing the lowest [increase in] rates in decades,” he said.

Despite the increased competition and low premium increases, some board members and advocates say they’re worried about the new plans’ large deductibles and out-of-pocket caps, and they caution consumers to always read the fine print before buying.

The OIC plans to make more detailed premium information available on its website after the board certifies plans at its meeting Thursday.

Freelance writer Lisa Stiffler contributed to this report. Carol M. Ostrom: costrom@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2249. On Twitter @costrom. This story was produced through a partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.



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