Senate committee begins hearings on strategies to stabilize health insurance markets

A series of hearings on stabilizing individual health insurance markets began on Wednesday with U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) committing to find ways to make insurance more affordable for 18 million Americans in 2018.

Alexander, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, convened the first of four hearings on stabilizing insurance markets and curbing soaring premiums. Individual market health insurance premiums are expected to rise in 2018, and the bipartisan committee sought input from several state insurance commissioners to help develop strategies to improve the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

“This step is not so small to 18 million Americans — songwriters, the self-employed, farmers — those who do not get their health insurance from the government or on the job,” Alexander said during the hearing where state insurance commissioners from Alaska, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Washington testified.

“These 18 million buy their health insurance in the individual market, and about half of them have zero government support to help buy that insurance,” he said. “About half of these are lower income Americans that have government subsidies to help pay for their insurance and the other half are those who get no government support to help pay for insurance. These Americans are the ones hurt the most by the skyrocketing premiums, co-pays and deductibles.”

Swift congressional actions could help curb increasing premiums next year, ensure insurance availability in every market and continue support for co-pays and deductibles that help low-income families, Alexander said.

A bipartisan effort will be necessary to stabilize health insurance markets, Alexander said, adding that Democrats need to agree to give more flexibility for states and Republicans must agree to additional funding through the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

During an exchange with Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak, Collins noted that Maine used a reinsurance program to help control premium prices. The program, however, ended with the implementation of ACA.

“We heard today of the success of the reinsurance pool that Alaska set up,” Collins said. “Similarly, Maine between 2012 and 2013 had a reinsurance pool that was successful in lowering rates in the individual market by 20 percent on average.”

McPeak said she believed a reinsurance program or a high-risk pool could remove the highest cost claims and help insurers bring prices down.

Collins also asked Alaska Division of Insurance Director Lori Wing-Heier if allowing more people to purchase low-cost “copper” plans would help make insurance coverage more available.

“We believe that being able to have a catastrophic or copper plan available for a younger population is beneficial to growing the market and getting the healthier individuals in,” Wing-Heier said. “We also think that it should probably be combined with a Health Savings Account.”

Wing-Heier also outlined Alaska’s steps to stabilize insurance markets through a reinsurance program and a federal ACA Section 1332 state innovation waiver, which gives states more flexibility to address specific citizen needs.

“The work we’re doing is crucial in assuring Americans in the individual market are able to afford purchasing insurance,” Murkowski said.

“We have a lot of work to do and these endeavors will take time, but my hope is that these efforts to stabilize and strengthen the individual market will not only help the most urgent and immediate needs, but also lead us towards a path of enduring policy,” she said.