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State hikes individual, business health premiums

Rates on the individual market will increase as much as 14.8 percent, while businesses will see hikes as much as 10.1 percent.

SALEM — Oregonians and small businesses buying their health insurance on the individual and small group markets can generally expect to see rate increases next year.

The Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services released its annual rate decisions Thursday, as uncertainty around health care policy looms on the state and federal levels.

On the individual market, the changes announced Thursday range from an average 1.6 percent dip for BridgeSpan Health Company to an average 14.8 percent increase for the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Northwest.

For small businesses, the average changes range from increases of 3.3 to 10.1 percent.

The state uses a variety of criteria to make rate decisions, and multiple factors, including "legal uncertainty" surrounding the fate of the federal Affordable Care Act and the escalating cost of providing insurance, have led to increases in costs.

But the Department of Consumer and Business Services says that the rates would be, on average, 6 percent higher if not for the reinsurance program created by the Legislature this year, which it says "will add additional stability and predictability in the market."

Reinsurance is kind of like insurance for insurers — it's intended to protect them from high claims. State Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, said last week that the reinsurance program provides rate relief while the state also tries to reduce the costs of medical care.

"We put it in place for two years so that we could move forward," Rayfield said.

The legislation that created that program, though, which includes a 1.5 percent tax on insurance premiums, may be subject to voters' opinion come January.

Three Republican lawmakers filed a referral petition to get certain parts of the bill on the ballot. If they are successful, voters will weigh in during a special election Jan. 23.

State Rep. Julie Parrish, R-Tualatin/West Linn, one of the legislators behind the referral effort, is critical of the state's reinsurance program.

She says moving public employees onto the exchange could have prevented instability in the market.

"We need to put more lives on the exchange to make it work," Parrish said, "We don't have to raise people's taxes to do it."

Parrish has also suggested moving public employees into coordinated care organizations, the regional networks of providers serving Oregonians on Medicaid.

Parrish, along with State Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Roseburg, and Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, are angling to get portions of the legislation on the ballot, including a .7 percent "true tax" on hospitals.

The state is in the process of applying for a "state innovation" waiver from the federal government, which would result in more federal funding, although that waiver is not required to run the program.

Jesse O'Brien, policy director for the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group, called the announcement a "huge win for consumers" because, on average, the rate increases were less than insurers had asked for.

However, O'Brien also made note of the uncertainty surrounding the Affordable Care Act and argued that passage of repeal or replacement legislation could lead to higher rate increases.

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