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House's 4 ask state for costs of health plans

Pre-election timing looks political, lawmakers worry by Claudia Lauer, Sarah D. Wire | September 24, 2014 at 3:48 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- Arkansas' U.S. House delegation questioned in a letter Tuesday why the state insurance commissioner has not released details about the cost of health insurance plans that will be offered on the state's insurance exchange.

Arkansans can begin enrolling Nov. 15 for the plans, which start Jan. 1. Details about the new rates are expected to be made public by Nov. 3. Election Day is Nov. 4.

In a letter signed by the four members of the delegation, all Republicans, the congressmen questioned why the department released the 2014 information in September last year, but doesn't plan to release the 2015 information for weeks.

Seth Blomeley, a spokesman for the Arkansas Insurance Department's Health Connector Division, said the rates are being released later because the enrollment period has changed.

"Open Enrollment begins for Plan Year 2015 later than it did for Plan Year 2014. Open Enrollment begins November 15, 2014. Last year it began October 1," he wrote in an email late Tuesday.

Blomeley also provided a copy of Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford's written response to the congressmen's letter.

It states that the rate information will be released once the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services certifies the plans.

"This certification will occur no later than November 3 and could come sooner," he wrote.

In an interview, U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin questioned the timing, saying it is inappropriate to release information that could sway voters right before Election Day.

"We want to make sure that there are no politics involved here. I don't know that there is, but we certainly don't want there to be," Griffin said. "Any time anything significant like this, particularly when it could be potentially bad news, is occurring the day before an election, when it could occur 43 days before the election, I think it's just good practice to [do] it 43 days before the election."

Glimpses of the 2015 rates have been available.

Bradford explained in the letter that preliminary information on the rates was released by Gov. Mike Beebe's office on Aug. 26. That information, according to both the governor's office and the Insurance Department websites, predicted that there would be an "aggregate average 2 percent net decrease in Marketplace premium costs."

The Arkansas Insurance Department said it inadvertently posted the tentative 2015 rate information on its website in late August. It showed that Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield and the company's national affiliate did not ask for rate increases for next year for plans the companies are offering on the state's exchange.

Insurance Department officials took the information off the website quickly, saying it wouldn't be ready for the public until the rates had been approved by the department and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The delegation letter also pointed to a May 22 article in The Hill, a Washington newspaper that reported Arkansas would release the rate information Sept. 10. Bradford questioned that claim.

"As far as the September 10, 2014 date listed in The Hill article you reference, we can't speak to that. We never had a plan for a release by that date," Bradford wrote the delegation.

The delegation's letter states that the state should give people as much time as possible to weigh the plans because "a large number of Arkansans are only now receiving cancellation notices for their plans and will thus be navigating Healthcare.gov for the first time this November. Therefore, it is vital they have the information necessary to evaluate which exchange plan best meets their needs and complete their purchase in time to receive health care coverage on January 1, 2015."

Healthcare.gov is the website used by many people as the starting point to find insurance plans on the open market.

But, in his response Bradford said he "does not anticipate" a large number of Arkansans getting cancellation notices. In March, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services allowed states to choose whether to continue offering plans until Oct. 1, 2016, that don't comply with requirements in the Affordable Care Act.

The rate release date will likely be discussed at the Arkansas Legislature in the Senate and House Public Heath, Welfare and Labor committees meetings on Thursday and Friday, committee Chairman John Burris, R-Harrison, said.

"I've had conversations loosely with a lot of folks. I would assume it would come up," he said. "I don't know why they haven't released them, but I think they probably could, so I would expect that they would do that soon."

Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, a member of the committee, said he believed there might be an ulterior motive behind the delay.

"Unfortunately, I think some politics are being played into it. And that shouldn't be the case," he said. Politically, "If there's bad news with the rates, you would want to wait until very close to the election so it wouldn't have as much of an impact or a reflection on a particular candidate. I agree with our delegation that it needs to come out sooner rather than later."

Metro on 09/24/2014

Print Headline: House's 4 ask state for costs of health plans

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