State insurance department officials got an earful Wednesday from companies and consumers alike, during their first public hearing on proposed health insurance rate hikes since the passage of President Barack Obama’s landmark health care law.
Health insurance companies said they are losing hundreds of millions of dollars on those plans.
Consumers complained that the constantly rising cost of insurance is putting health care out of their reach.
The public hearing comes in a year when Pennsylvania insurers are asking for premium increases averaging 23.6 percent for 2017.
Locally, key players include Highmark, which wants an average increase of 48 percent for the region, and Capital BlueCross, which asked for 20 percent and 27 percent for plans sold here.
“I heard a lot of language that made it seem like what’s happening in health care is an act of god,” said Nijmie Dzurinko, a spokeswoman for Put People First! PA, a citizen-advocacy group. “They’re all acts of humans.”
Most of the consumers who testified were associated with Put People First!, which collected more than 600 signatures and on June 1 called the state insurance department every 12 minutes asking for the hearing.
One man said that the only way he could afford his premiums last summer was to cut back to eating one meal a day.
Another said he and his partner, who go to the doctor only once a year for a physical, are paying $14,000 a year for their coverage.
Several said medical care is their biggest monthly expense, and many testified that they’re not using their coverage because they can’t afford to.
“Don’t think we haven’t heard what insurance companies have said this morning,” Dzurinko said. “What we’re saying is you cannot balance these costs on the back of ordinary people who don’t have the ability to pay. Health care is a human right.”
The department has power to veto rate hikes it deems unjustified.
However, insurers sometimes respond by deciding to withdraw plans if they can’t get rates they deem workable — a trend that has raised concerns both locally and nationally in the past year.
The final approved rates will not be revealed until mid-October, shortly before open enrollment for 2017 starts.
Interested consumers who were unable to attend the hearing are invited to submit written comments to email@example.com.
This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. July 28 to reflect amended information from the department that it was the first public hearing on the subject since the health law passed, not its first ever.