Premium hike drumbeat before November Election Day
By Elise Viebeck
and Pierre de Dreuzy - 05/22/14 06:00 AM EDT
States are nailing down dates to release 2015 premium costs under ObamaCare, and their decisions will guarantee a drumbeat of news about rate hikes all the way to the November midterm elections.
Democrats are bracing for grim headlines that could put the unpopular law back at the forefront of voters’ minds.
Premiums are expected to go up in a majority of states, as they do every year, but the size of the increases could go a long way toward determining how much political damage ObamaCare inflicts on vulnerable Democratic lawmakers.
A survey by The Hill of state insurance commissioners found that news about ObamaCare premiums will hit nearly every week this summer (see list below), providing ample opportunity for Republicans to attack any significant premium hikes.
A slew of states will publish proposed prices in June, including Colorado and Louisiana — where the GOP is targeting Democratic Senate incumbents.
Others will wait until later in the season, including West Virginia and Arkansas. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) voted for the Affordable Care Act in 2010, a fact that his opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), has repeatedly raised.
Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), a top GOP target, will see her state publish rates on Aug. 15 or later.
Health rates on the individual and small-group markets usually attract little to no attention from the political press. This year will be different.
Control of the Senate is within the GOP’s reach in 2014, and a resurgence of bad news about ObamaCare could boost Republican chances.
“That has the potential to be a very powerful weapon for the GOP in the midterms,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.
Democrats, meanwhile, point to signs that the GOP is backing away from healthcare as the party’s main campaign issue.
ObamaCare’s supporters argue that the law will help Democrats, particularly now that it’s beaten its enrollment target and the uninsured rate has decreased.
“It’s no surprise that [Republicans] are beginning to abandon their failed strategy of wasting millions attacking Democrats on ObamaCare,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky in a statement.
“Each of these Senate races will come down to a clear choice between a Democrat who is fighting for the middle class ... and a Republican who is pushing an anti-middle-class agenda,” he added.
Republicans challenge this assumption, vowing that their candidates will talk about ObamaCare often in the closing months of the midterm season.
Rate hikes are expected to vary widely around the country based on many factors. Healthcare experts predict small to medium hikes, though industry officials told The Hill earlier this year that some areas could see major jumps.
In most states, health insurance companies are in the middle of the complicated process of determining next year’s prices.
They look at their 2014 enrollments, comparing that mix to their expectations. The industry also takes into account rising healthcare prices, and assesses their competition on the marketplaces.
Generally speaking, states with fewer carriers on the exchanges — those with older and sicker populations, and others that did not meet their enrollment targets — are more likely to see higher premium increases.
These states could include Hawaii, West Virginia, Ohio and Iowa. West Virginia will release its rates via public records request in September, while Ohio is expected to publish prices by the end of this month. Hawaii and Iowa did not disclose their dates to The Hill.
Other states have already announced modest increases, including Kentucky, Indiana, Washington state, Virginia and Arizona.
There are protections that guard against steep price hikes. The Affordable Care Act includes policies to spread risk among insurers, including the “risk corridor” provision that could bring federal money to the industry in 2014.
Insurers have an incentive to keep prices as low as possible to keep their customers, and large rate hikes are likely to be vetoed by state insurance commissioners. Most prices published this summer will not be final until they are approved by state regulators.
Tim Jost, a professor at Washington & Lee University and a backer of the Affordable Care Act, said the average increase will not be so dramatic. Regardless, he said the rates will attract attention from politicians.
“Politically, whenever there are double-digit increases, you’re going to hear about it. ... It is an election year,” he said. “But whenever there is somebody who files a decrease below single digits, you will probably hear about that, too.”
The Obama administration has acknowledged that rates will go up. Outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has told Congress that rates will increase in 2015, but more slowly than in the past.
Republicans note that President Obama promised on the campaign trail to enact a healthcare law that would “cut the cost of a typical family’s premium by up to $2,500 a year.”