Election-year politics are shining a spotlight on health insurance rates, with Gov. Mark Dayton now asking the state’s insurance plans to voluntarily agree to release them on Oct. 1.
Republicans have pressed for release of the 2015 health insurance rates before the November election, even though there’s no requirement that insurers do so until open enrollment starts on Nov. 15. Minnesota had the lowest insurance rates in the nation in the first year under the federal health law, but some Republicans suspect that rates will go up.
Earlier this week Dayton said he was unsure of the value of an early release. But on Tuesday he said he has asked Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman to work with insurance companies to release the data ahead of open enrollment, as they did last year.
“Making the rate information public before open enrollment begins would provide families and businesses additional time and information to help them make informed decisions regarding their health coverage options in 2015,” Dayton wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to a legislative committee that oversees the MNsure health insurance exchange.
Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, said he was “surprised and happy” at Dayton’s change of heart.
“I’m not a fan of Obamacare or MNsure, but we’re stuck with it,” he said. “Giving people rates as early as we can so they can make a decision is a step in the right direction.”
Officials with most of the state’s largest health plans indicated that they would be willing to agree to an early release, if they are guaranteed a level playing field.
“The industry wants consumers to have as much information as possible to make informed decisions and to comparison-shop,” said Eileen Smith, a spokesman for the Minnesota Council of Health Plans, which represents the state’s largest insurance companies. “But at the same time it is a competitive marketplace, and it has to be fair.”
Insurers agreed to release their rates early last year, but the Commerce Department, which regulates the industry, offered assurance that rates couldn’t later be adjusted to undercut a competitor.
Commerce Department spokeswoman Anne O’Conner said the rates are in the “early stages of review,” and the process is proceeding as planned. The insurance companies had until June 27 to file rates for individual policies for review, and until July 11 to submit information for plans sold to small businesses.
Scott Keefer, a top official at the state’s largest insurer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, said moving up the release date would benefit Minnesotans, but only if done in a way that “makes the data understandable and meaningful for shoppers.”
But Keefer added that rates are always highly competitive: “So from a business standpoint, we would need reassurance — similar to last year’s early release — that any new date applies to all health plans equally and that all approved rates would be considered final.”
Medica spokesman Greg Bury also spoke of benefits, saying “ it’s a good idea because it would benefit consumers and give them more time to make informed choices about their coverage.”
While UCare said it was “neutral” on whether the rates should be released, spokeswoman Deanne Probst said it would be vital that any early release would lock in rates and not give any insurer a competitive advantage. UCare last year entered into the individual market for the first time through MNsure.
PreferredOne, the smallest player selling on the exchange, had the lowest rates in the nation and its policies were purchased by nearly 60 percent of those buying coverage on the MNsure website. The company said it, too, would make its plans and rates public on Oct. 1, assuming all regulatory agencies had weighed in.
Minnesota’s insurance rates were set under a cloud of underwriting uncertainty in the first year under the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. Under the law, insurers could no longer discriminate against people who were already sick. At the time, many insurers feared that only older and sicker people would sign up for coverage.
The health law made provisions for insurers, providing a financial safety net in the first few years of the law’s full implementation to prevent such a scenario.
It is not publicly known whether insurers set their rates last year to adequately cover medical expenses, the chief determinant for setting premium prices.
More than 52,000 people bought individual plans through the MNsure exchange, despite its well-known technical problems. About 40 percent of the purchasers were in the 18-to-44 age range.