By Carla Saporta and Rosa Martinez
The Greenlining Institute

Major California health insurers have big rate hikes coming – raising questions that the candidates for state insurance commissioner must answer.

The insurance commissioner race has gotten relatively little attention in this election season, but the start of implementation of national healthcare reform and a wave of rate increases raise urgent concerns. These questions are of great concern to all Californians, and especially to the low-income Californians and communities of color that we represent – the people who have generally had the least access to quality healthcare.

We’re waiting for answers.

On Sept. 17, the California Department of Insurance approved a 19 percent rate increase for 65,000 Aetna policyholders, to take effect Oct. 1 – meaning these customers got a whopping two weeks’ notice. This comes on the heels of rate hikes ranging as high as 29 percent recently approved for Anthem Blue Cross, Blue Shield and Health Net, affecting over a million policyholders altogether.

Sadly, it does not appear that the health insurance industry is willing to work with businesses and consumers to bring down the cost of insurance, and is instead looking to increase profits on the backs of consumers. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, workers now pay 47 percent more for family health coverage they receive through their jobs than they did in 2005 – while wages have only gone up 18 percent. Both consumers and employers are being hurt badly by escalating costs.

Two bills passed by the legislature this summer – still awaiting action from the governor as this is written – would help a bit. One would require 60 days’ notice for rate increases, and the other would limit insurers to one rate increase a year. But even if signed into law, these measures won’t really control rates.

Meanwhile, key provisions of national healthcare reform took effect Sept. 23. But the New York Times recently reported that roughly half of the nation’s insurance commissioners – including California’s – say they don’t have clear authority to enforce these critical consumer protection standards. These include such important protections as the ban on medical rescissions, elimination of copays for essential preventative services and assurance of coverage for children with pre-existing conditions.

How will the next insurance commissioner approach this complex and challenging situation? Voters need to know.

Last month, we invited the major party insurance commissioner candidates, Dave Jones and Mike Villines, to a debate hosted by three of California’s important faith leaders, with a particular focus on the concerns of the majority of Californians who are people of color. Thus far the candidates have not responded, but the questions remain.

We hope that Jones and Villines will agree to the proposed debate. But in any case, all Californians urgently need to hear their answers to these questions:

  • How will your administration restore confidence in California’s government by addressing partisan gridlock and transparency in decision making?
  • Critical consumer protection standards written into the federal health reform law took effect Sept. 23, covering such issues as medical rescission, copayments for preventative services, and health coverage for children with pre-existing conditions. What will you do about enforcing rules that you do not have current authority to regulate?
  • Will you establish procedures to review rate increases different from the current powers of the insurance commissioner?  If so, how?

We believe the insurance commissioner should be given specific authority to review and approve health insurance rate increases – much the way the Public Utilities Commission now approves rates for gas and electricity. Legislation that would have created such authority died in the legislature this year, and it needs to be revived.

For now, Californians need straight answers to the above questions. Lives literally depend on how the next insurance commissioner will handle these issues. We’re waiting, gentlemen.