June 16--The rising cost of health-care insurance is a serious strain on the budgets of individuals and businesses. It's also a threat to the state and national economy.
The annual double-digit increases in premiums over the past several years have forced employers to pass on more of the costs to employees or stop offering insurance as a benefit. The cost of individual health policies in Washington more than doubled between 2005 and 2011.
Yet despite the high costs, people have little choice but to buy coverage -- for now. Having no health insurance puts families at risk of financial ruin.
This might explain why two of the largest nonprofit health insurers in Washington state are sitting on record surpluses.
Premera Blue Cross and Regence BlueShield each now have surpluses of more than $1 billion, according to their most recent filings for the three months that ended in March, The Associated Press reported.
Really, $1 billion -- each? That's a boatload of cash those two, um, nonprofits are floating. It's outrageous.
"They're building up a financial cushion for themselves, and it comes at an expense for people," Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said, adding that insurers should use some of that surplus to reduce rate increases for policyholders.
Kreidler has got that right.
But that isn't likely to happen because those companies are within Washington law. They can do it.
Unlike 11 other states, Washington's insurance commissioner cannot consider the size of insurers' surpluses when considering whether to approve or deny premium rate hikes for individual and small group plans.
A huge surplus for nonprofit insurance companies is not new. It occurred before the most recent legislative session, which is why Kreidler has been lobbying the Legislature to give his office the power to consider the cash accumulated by these companies.
Kriedler said he is going to make another run at it. Perhaps the bulging insurance company coffers will be enough to sway lawmakers to impose this necessary protection for consumers.
That alone won't force rates down.
The federal government has got to take a look at its health-care mandates with an eye toward actual costs for those paying the rates. The mandated coverage, much of it wellness care, is excellent but it comes with a price. In making the decision on mandated coverage cost must be a factor.
Premera officials point to those mandates as a reason the $1 billion surplus is necessary. A spokesman said the cash is needed to ensure the company can pay claims and invest in new technology and service capabilities resulting from the federal rules.
It's clear a multi-pronged approach is needed to reduce rates.
In this state, it should start with giving the insurance commissioner the power to consider surpluses in rate-hike decisions.
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