Blue Shield hits health insurance policyholder with 54% rate hike

Ezra declined to comment on Blue Shield's age-related rates.

Miller and her husband shared a family plan for a number of years until they switched to individual health savings accounts in 2007. This required them to take out high-deductible plans that offered lower monthly premiums.

In Miller's case, she signed up for a Blue Shield plan with a $2,400 deductible, meaning that she's responsible for the first $2,400 in healthcare costs annually before her insurance starts sharing the load.

In 2007, Blue Shield charged Miller a monthly premium of $240, or $2,880 a year. In 2008, her monthly premium jumped about 31% to $315, or $3,780 annually.

This year, Miller's monthly premium will soar to $484 and the annual cost of coverage for the same exact insurance policy will be $5,808 -- a more than 100% increase in just two years.

This statistic is made all the more incredible by the fact that nationwide healthcare expenditures have risen by about 6% annually during that time, according to federal government figures.

"It's extraordinary," said Richard Kronick, a professor of family and preventive medicine at UC San Diego. "The individual insurance market is a terrible market for health coverage."

Helen Halpin, a professor of health policy at UC Berkeley, says one problem is that major purchasers of health insurance, such as large employers, are able to negotiate significantly lower premiums for people in their group.

"The insurers need to make up the lost revenue somewhere," Halpin said, "and the only place they can do it is the individual insurance market."

In other words, insurers like Blue Shield put the squeeze on people like Miller because they can, not because actual circumstances warrant a rate increase.

"These people are being abused," Halpin said.

Obama's idea for a public plan would solve this. People seeking coverage outside the employer-based insurance system would be able to pool together, spreading risk more broadly.

Another solution would be for private insurers to stop offering individual policies and to create their own group plans. With 47 million people as potential customers, we're talking about some mighty big groups, which would reduce risk and presumably keep prices down.

Just to be sure, though, such plans would need to be closely monitored to ensure fair treatment and costs.

"This can't keep happening," Miller said. "At some point, I won't be able to afford insurance."

More sooner than later, if Blue Shield has anything to say about it.

David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to /lazarus/insurance


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