California’s health benefit exchange marketplace, Covered California, is undertaking an analysis of the potential impact of a November 2014 ballot measure that would institute prior regulatory approval of individual and small group health insurance rates. The initiative statute, titled the Insurance Rate Public Justification and Accountability Act, would subject these rates to an initiative statute ratified by voters in 1988 that placed most types of property/casualty insurance under prior rate approval regulation.
An outline of the analysis raises various questions as to how prior approval will jibe with Covered California’s annual schedule to select and finalize qualified health plans (QHPs) to be sold through the exchange and on what terms and conditions within Covered California’s standardized benefit framework. Under the schedule, health plan regulators review QHPs and their coverage terms and conditions in a two month window in the late summer and early fall for QHPs effective January 1 of the following year. But the scope of that review does not give regulators the final word on what plans can charge for premiums and out of pocket costs.
The ballot measure would afford California’s elected insurance commissioner that oversight authority as well as the authority to hold hearings to obtain public testimony. The Act would overlay federal regulations issued under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at 45 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 154 authorizing federal and state regulators to jointly review (or the federal Department of Health and Human Services alone if a state opts out) small group and individual rates and require health plan issuers justify rate increases of 10 percent or more per year.
Both Covered California as an active purchaser exchange and regulators negotiate final QHP rates, which also affect plans sold outside the exchange since plans must offer the same plans both inside and outside the exchange marketplace. If approved by voters, the November ballot measure would increase the negotiating leverage of the insurance commissioner, who could opt to hold up rate approval pending a public hearing. That could potentially complicate Covered California’s annual QHP negotiation and approval process (and by extension its marketing and enrollment functions) and result in some plans being withdrawn before they take effect the following January if their premium rates and cost sharing are deemed excessive by the commissioner and disapproved.
In addition, since the underlying cost trend of annual health insurance rate increases has generally exceeded 7 percent in recent years, most if not all proposed plan rates would trigger a provision of the proposed law that allows the public and consumer groups to request the commissioner to hold a public hearing to determine if rate increases at or above 7 percent would result in rates that are unfair, discriminatory or excessive, introducing the prospect of further delay before the rates could be used. Further complications could come under a provision in the ballot initiative creating a transition period where plan issuers could hit the reset button and issue new plans that the commissioner could opt to exempt from prior rate approval provided they use rates in effect on or before January 1, 2014.
Proponents of the measure — including the current insurance commissioner — are likely to downplay the issues raised in the Covered California operational analysis. They will likely argue that premium rates are a matter between the plans and consumers (and not the exchange) and plans are responsible for ensuring they are using only approved rates and refunding any excess rates. However, if premium rates and cost sharing for the next to lowest cost silver actuarial value plan are involved in a lengthy challenge and hearing process, it could seriously affect the exchange marketplace since advance premium tax credits are keyed to that plan.
While a majority of states require prior approval of rates in the individual health insurance market (California is in a minority that employ a “file and use” scheme) according to this Kaiser Family Foundation chart, a half dozen states including California have state-based health benefit exchange marketplaces that actively select QHPs and negotiate with health plan issuers according to this Kaiser Family foundation compilation. Of those six states, all are prior approval states except California. Covered California’s analysis should undoubtedly examine how those state-based exchanges navigated their states’ prior approval regulatory schemes for plan year 2014.
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