Citizen Action: Let’s work together to tackle high costs of health insurance

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Robert Kraig & Kevin Kane
October 18, 2015

Because of the Affordable Care Act, most Wisconsinites now have somewhere to go to get health coverage that can’t be taken away. Despite this progress, most Wisconsinites say health insurance premiums, co-pays and deductibles are still hard to afford.

According to a study by the Commonwealth Fund, Wisconsin has the fourth-highest individual health insurance rates in the country, while Minnesota has the second-lowest.

Wisconsin health insurance inflation is also well above the national average. For 2016, six companies have proposed raising premiums on some Wisconsin policies by more than 10 percent, some by more than 30 percent.

Wisconsin’s high health insurance costs ought to be one of the top public policy issues at the state Capitol. To be priced out of health insurance is just as dangerous as being denied coverage. Health coverage is an absolute necessity in the modern economy, and not having it threatens the lives and livelihoods of hardworking Wisconsin families.

But partisan division continues to block the constructive action the public has every right to expect from lawmakers. Politicians who refuse to acknowledge that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay are standing in the way of Wisconsin moving forward to tackle high health insurance costs.

There is a new opportunity for bipartisan cooperation. State Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, and state Rep. Debra Kolste, D-Janesville, have introduced a rate review bill to hold health insurance companies accountable for premium hikes. The bill says that rate hikes must be approved in advance and justified by actual increases in the cost of medical care. It also requires full public transparency, including publication of all rate increases and public hearings on large rate hikes.

Given the life-and-death importance of health insurance, asking insurers to justify rate increases is common sense. We have done this in Wisconsin with public utility rates since 1907 on the grounds that access to heat and light is a necessity. The same is certainly true for health insurance.

Although health insurance rate review is common sense, Wisconsin’s insurance commissioner, appointed by Gov. Walker, has taken a starkly different approach. He has failed to find a single health insurance rate increase excessive, despite increases on some policies of more than 40 percent. His office says insurance companies should be allowed to set their own rates. This lax response to large rate hikes is one reason health insurance is so expensive in Wisconsin. In Minnesota, a much more aggressive approach to policing large rate hikes has reduced some premiums by 38 percent.

You would think, then, that the Larson/Kolste insurance rate review bill would be a slam dunk. But not a single Republican legislator has signed on as a co-sponsor.

It is long overdue for Wisconsin lawmakers to acknowledge that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay and that they have a public responsibility to build on the law and rein in skyrocketing costs. Bipartisan support for insurance rate review would be a great place to start.

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