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Chief Health Care Advocate Urges Vermonters To Comment On Proposed Blue Cross Rate Hike

Chief Health Care Advocate Mike Fisher, center, says a new "calculator," developed by his office, will spotlight  the financial hardships faced by Vermont families trying to buy health insurance.
Peter Hirschfeld
Judy Henkin, general counsel for the Green Mountain Care Board, left, and Chief Health Care Advocate Mike Fisher, center, talk at a forum in Burlington Tuesday. Fisher says proposed health premium increases could make insurance unaffordable for many.

Consumer pushback against proposed rate hikes for health insurance premiums might persuade state regulators to lower the increases, according to Vermont's chief health care advocate.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont, the state’s largest private health insurer, recently asked state regulators for permission to increase premiums by more than $52 million next year.

The rate hike would affect more than 47,000 policyholders – and Mike Fisher, chief of the Office of the Health Care Advocate, says those customers might have some influence over whether the proposed increase gets approved.

The average rate increase for Blue Cross policyholders would come in at 12.7 percent, according to filings submitted by the insurance company back in May. It’s a number Fisher has been thinking a lot about since.

“It’s hard to put it in real human terms,” Fisher says.

Fisher’s office, by statute, is to protect consumer interests in the Byzantine world of health care regulation. As such, Fisher is trying to find compelling ways to hammer home the severity of the proposed increase, especially in households that don’t qualify for state and federal subsidies.

“If we saw premiums go up by 12.7 percent, we would see a Vermont family with an increase in their premium expenses of about two months’ worth of food per year,” Fisher says.

"The fear is that if the price goes up too high, healthier people may drop off of buying insurance, and that’s very bad for the marketplace. It's a real risk." — Chief Health Care Advocate Mike Fisher

For a Vermont family on a Blue Cross "silver" plan, for example, the proposed increase could top $1,500 annually, according to Fisher. On Vermont Edition earlier this week, Attorney General TJ Donovan used other household expenses to draw a comparison.

“We’re talking real money to Vermonters,” Donovan said. “We’re talking a thousand bucks, two thousand bucks. That’s people’s property taxes. That’s a hard-earned vacation.”

It’s this kind of framing that Fisher hopes will move consumers to action that he says might convince regulators to press Blue Cross to dial back on the proposed rate increase.

“The concept is that we don’t want the Green Mountain Care Board to be isolated from Vermonters’ views,” Fisher says. “We want them to hear from as many people as possible with as many viewpoints as possible.”

The Green Mountain Care Board is the five-person panel that will approve or deny Blue Cross’ proposed new rates. One of the criteria it’s supposed to consider, under a Vermont law passed in 2011, is public comment.

Judy Henkin, general counsel for the Green Mountain Care Board, says that public comment isn’t necessarily given the same weight as actuarial evidence presented by parties arguing for or against the proposed rate increases.  

But, she says, those comments matter.

“The board hears it,” Henkin says. “The board is reading every single one. We post them weekly and we forward them to all the board members.”

"We're talking a thousand bucks, two thousand bucks. That's people's property taxes. That's a hard-earned vacation." — Attorney General TJ Donovan

Fisher is calling on Vermonters who are worried about the proposed rate increase to contact members of the Green Mountain Care Board, by writing them directly or contacting them through the board’s website. They can also attend a public hearing at Room 11 in the Statehouse on July 20.

"The fear is that if the price goes up too high, healthier people may drop off of buying insurance, and that’s very bad for the marketplace. It’s a real risk," Fisher says.

Consumer angst isn’t the only factor that the board will have to consider. While Fisher exists to advocate for consumers, the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation is supposed to make sure insurance companies remain solvent.

In a filing submitted to the Green Mountain Care Board this week, the department’s commissioner, Michael Pieciak, said Blue Cross had taken a hit to some of its key indicators of financial health, due to underwriting losses last year.

Those losses wouldn’t have been so substantial, according to Pieciak, if the Green Mountain Care Board had granted Blue Cross the rate increase it had asked for last year.

Disclosure: Blue Cross Blue Shield is an underwriter of VPR.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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