California health insurers to raise average rates 8% to 14%

California’s largest health insurers are raising average rates by about 8% to 14% for hundreds of thousands of consumers with individual coverage, outpacing the costs of overall medical care.

The cost of goods and services associated with medical care grew just 3.6% over the last 12 months nationally, government figures show. But insurance premiums have kept climbing at a faster pace in California.

Insurers defended their rate hikes, saying they are based on their claims experience with the customers they insure and not just the broader rate of medical inflation. They also say that healthier members dropped out of the individual market as premiums rose and the economy worsened in recent years, leaving behind a group of policyholders who have higher average costs.

“We will continue to examine the fundamental issues at the heart of rising healthcare costs, including the prevention of chronic disease, increasing the quality of care and reducing unnecessary health expenses,” said Darrel Ng, spokesman for Anthem Blue Cross, the state’s largest for-profit health insurer.

Consumer advocates and others are skeptical, however, questioning whether insurers are doing enough to hold down costs. These latest increases follow years of 20% to 30% rate hikes for families that are at the center of a looming fight between the insurance industry and its critics over a proposed ballot measure seeking tougher rate regulation.

“Consumers should be outraged that premiums continue to grow faster than underlying costs,” said Gerald Kominski, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. “There’s help on the horizon for millions of Californians from health reform, but things may get worse before they get better.”

Anthem has proposed raising premiums 9.6% to 13.8% on average, effective May 1 or July 1, for about 700,000 individual policyholders and their family members. The rate increases are under review by state officials.

Nonprofit Kaiser Permanente increased premiums 9% on average for nearly 300,000 customers last month.

Blue Shield of California, also a nonprofit, is boosting average rates by 7.9% for 265,000 members and by 8.9% for 56,000 members, both effective March 1.

Insurers in California must submit proposed rate hikes for review to determine whether they meet certain state requirements, but state officials don’t have the authority to reject rate hikes for being unreasonable. But regulators have been challenging insurers’ arithmetic in calculating rates.

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