Obama Presses Health Insurers to Give Details Online for Rate Hikes

Amid consumer furor over rising health insurance premiums, the Obama administration asked insurers on Thursday to post rate hikes – and the justification for them – on the Internet.

Also on Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced legislation that would give the federal government authority to reject rate increases that insurance companies cannot justify.

The developments come as President Barack Obama intensifies his push for legislation to overhaul the country’s health care system, with escalating premiums his central talking point.

Posting rate increases online would “shine a bright light” on how premiums are set, said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

She met Thursday with the top executives of the country’s largest health insurance firms, including the CEO of WellPoint, whose California subsidiary, Anthem Blue Cross, recently triggered a political firestorm when it raised rates by as much as 39 percent for thousands of customers.

“I’m hoping that the CEOs respond to the call for putting their information up in public,” Sebelius said. “At the very least, they owe it to consumers to justify why the rates are sky high,” Sebelius told reporters after her meeting with insurers and insurance commissioners from four states.

Insurers didn’t outright dismiss the idea, “but there were no commitments of any kind,” said UnitedHealth’s chief executive officer, Stephen Hemsley.

Angela Braly, president and CEO of WellPoint, also took part in the White House meeting, as did Aetna and Cigna executives.

The president made an appearance at the meeting, delivering a letter from an Ohio woman who says her premiums have skyrocketed.

Anthem Blue Cross recently sent letters in the mail notifying its subscribers that it planned to raise rates by as much as 39 percent.

On Thursday, The Bee contacted the office of state Insurance Commissioner and GOP gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner to ask whether he thinks rate increases should be posted online. Poizner spokesman Darrel Ng responded with an e-mail saying public access to that information already exists in California, albeit not online.

In California, the only venues for the public to view rate filings are in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where the state Department of Insurance allows inspection of the documents.

“The fact that you have to schlep to San Francisco to see these filings is not very transparent,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, among those who have joined the call for greater transparency in how health insurance rates are set.

“Putting them online is a good step in California, where we have very few regulations regarding health insurance rates,” Wright said.

“I think people want to know why” rates are increasing, he said. “It informs consumers as well as policymakers and others who watch the industry. How can they raise rates without justification or even without explanation?”

The rate hikes have spurred public outcry. Politicians in California and Washington have seized on them as an argument for overhaul legislation and wider regulation of the health insurance industry.

Sebelius acknowledged that the federal government and many states, including California, have little authority to bring relief to consumers.

Sebelius called consumers “absolute sitting ducks,” who “don’t have any bargaining power” against insurance companies.

Feinstein’s legislation would give the Health and Human Services Department authority to reject or modify rate increases, according to her office. It would also establish a national Health Insurance Rate Authority.

California’s insurance commissioner, unlike commissioners in at least 25 states, does not have authority to regulate premiums.