The Chattanooga Times Free Press: Alexander hopeful of passing health care reform to limit premium rate hikes

Posted on November 1, 2017

The chairman of the Senate committee that oversees healthcare said today "there is good chance" Congress will restore cost sharing payments to health insurers to help limit soaring premiums for those signing up for ObamaCare health plans today for coverage in 2018.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said a bipartisan plan he developed with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat committee member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, would give Tennessee consumers more choices and help provide a rebate on individual insurance premiums that have nearly tripled in the past four years.

"Our proposal helps the hardworking Tennesseans who are really getting hammered – those without subsidies," Alexander said. "Because of these skyrocketing premiums, too many Tennesseans find themselves without a way to purchase health insurance."

The Alexander-Murray bill, which is co-sponsored by 24 senators, would restore the federal government's cost sharing payments to health insurance companies cut off by the Trump administration because of court challenges to the legality of such payments.

The Chattanooga-based BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, the state's biggest health insurer and the only insurer to provide individual health plans under the Obamacare health exchanges in Chattanooga, plans to boost its individuals rates next year by an average of more than 21 percent, following previous double-digit rate increases each year which have already doubled individual health insurance rates since Obamacare plans began four years ago.

BlueCross blamed about two thirds of the increase on the uncertainty surrounding the cost sharing payments, which were challenged in court because the payments were not specifically authorized in the Affordable Care Act.

More than 230,000 Tennesseans get their health insurance through the health exchange markets and will have to sign up for 2018 coverage, starting today through Dec. 15. More than 80 percent of those signing up for individual health insurance coverage through the health exchanges qualify for some type of federal subsidy. But Alexander said those enrolling for plans without such government help face "a great big sticker shock" as rates by BlueCross, Cigna and Oscar Health — the only remaining health insurers still offering plans in Tennessee under the health care exchanges — are raising rates from 21 to 36.5 percent above the current rates next year.

Although the state insurance department has approved and authorized such rates for 2018, Alexander said his bill to restore cost sharing payments would provide a rebate next year to enrollees to offset most of the increases in rates. The Alexander-Murray bill also would authorize a new higher deductible plan to offer another cheaper alternative coverage option.

Alexander said he drafted his cost sharing payment plan to offer states more flexibility as a transition method until Congress develops a better alternative to Obamacare. Alexander said President Trump recently praised the measure during a Senate Republican Caucus meeting, telling Alexander it was "great work Lamar."

Critics of the cost sharing payments complain that the payments are subsidies to health insurance companies. But Alexander said state insurance regulators will ensure that federal payments to insurers help offset the rise in premiums for individuals and allow the health exchange markets to stabilize for the next couple of years while new health care legislation is written.

With the president's support, Alexander said he is optimistic his measure could be approved by the Congress as an interim step toward the GOP pledge to repeal and replace what Alexander called an "unworkable" Obamacare health program.

Premiums for one of the most popular individual health plans in Tennesseee have increased from $161 a monthn 2014 to more than $610 a month in 2018, and the number of health insurers offering plans in the Volunteer State has dropped every year, Alexander said.

"Tennesseans are seeing their plans disappear," Alexander said. "Tennesseans had an average of 59 health plans to choose from when the exchanges opened in 2014, but will have just six in 2018. Our bill gives states more flexibility through state innovation waivers to approve different kinds of health plans, so people would have more choices and lower prices."