Inquirer Editorial: Insurers aren't playing fair

Posted: October 02, 2011

Health insurance companies appear to be ratcheting up premiums to pad their profits before more elements of the federal health-care reform kick in.

That's the unavoidable takeaway from the latest report showing skyrocketing increases in health insurance costs this year.

Even with high joblessness and fewer people rushing to the doctor amid a still-ailing economy, average family premiums rose by a staggering 9 percent.

Insurers say they simply overshot the mark in estimating how quickly the economy would recover. They say they set higher rates on the assumption that businesses would start hiring and more people would seek medical care.

That's not much consolation, though, for employers and workers, who in ever-greater numbers are being pushed into high-deductible health plans. The premium increases give every American who needs affordable care an even greater stake in seeing the full enactment in 2014 of President Obama's signature domestic policy.

The premium hikes also make it an even smarter move for the Obama administration to push ahead with its request last week that the U.S. Supreme Court take up challenges to the reform law sooner rather than later.

The increases in insurance premiums this year are the polar-opposite outcome of the intended cost controls under the health-reform law. More important, most of the increases cannot be blamed on the Affordable Care Act, signed into law last year.

Indeed, a report on premium increases released Tuesday by the respected Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust said only about 20 cents of every additional $1 in premiums could be attributed to provisions of the law. Among those are covering twenty-somethings on a parent's policy, and barring co-pays for preventive care.

The contrast of the larger rate hikes this year to the average 3 percent increases last year raises the suspicion that profitable insurers kept a lid on rates during 2010 to tamp down congressional fever for reform.

Unwarranted increases in premiums in anticipation of further patient-care mandates and stricter limits on rate increases simply should not be permitted. That's why Obama officials recently made $109 million available to a number of states, including Pennsylvania, to contest "unreasonable" rate hikes.

While the new law will put limits on premium increases greater than 10 percent, it will bring health insurers millions of new customers. That should make insurers partners in the successful implementation of health-care reforms.

Unreasonable rate hikes that are certain to raise consumers' ire only put health insurers at odds with the nation's best hope for the overhaul and reform of the health-care system.

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