Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Arkansas GOP congressional delegation sends letter to state Insurance Commissioner, gets facts wrong

Posted By on Tue, Sep 23, 2014 at 6:24 PM

click to enlarge COTTON: Is the congressman being misleading about what's happening in the Arkansas insurance market like  AFP? Or was he misled by a group like AFP?
  • COTTON: Is the congressman being misleading about what's happening in the Arkansas insurance market like AFP? Or was he misled by a group like AFP?
Congressmen Rick Crawford,Tim Griffin, Steve Womack and Tom Cotton sent a letter today to Arkansas Insurance Department (AID) Commissioner Jay Bradford asking for details on 2015 rates on the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace, the Obamacare-created health insurance exchange. Apparently, the Arkansas congressional delegation is getting their (misleading) information from Americans for Prosperity. They claim that a wave of cancellations is coming this fall in Arkansas because of Obamacare and that consumers therefore need to begin to shop for alternatives for 2015 on the Marketplace. In fact, no plans have been cancelled due to Obamacare non-compliance in Arkansas. And no one will be kicked off their plan due to Obamacare non-compliance this fall. Apparently unbeknownst to the Arkansas Congressional delegation, AID decided back in March to take advantage of a change in federal rules and allow insurance carriers to continue to offer non-compliant individual health insurance plans in the state through October of 2016 (which means consumers can keep their plans through the fall of 2017). All of the state's major carriers have told AID they plan to continue to offer these non-compliant plans to consumers who currently have them. 

In other words, consumers with non-compliant Obamcare plans won't be getting cancellation letters this fall. They'll be getting letters with the option to re-up for another year. And they'll get the same letter, offering to re-up, in the fall of 2015 and again in the fall of 2016. [UPDATE: Just got re-confirmation from Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state's dominant carrier, that they are indeed continuing to offer those plans so consumers can keep them through the fall of 2017 and that they are sending no cancellation letters this year for non-compliant plans.] Perhaps the Arkansas congressional delegation simply doesn't know how the insurance rules are operating in their own state and got information from national activists who didn't know the facts on the ground in Arkansas. One can only speculate. Here's what the delegation wrote in their letter:

Thanks to your actions last year regarding private market plan renewals, 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.

A little background will help to clarify the confusion. Last year, AID issued a bulletin and encouraged carriers to purse an "early renewal" strategy, allowing insurance companies to offer consumers the chance to re-up on their non-compliant plans at the end of calendar year 2013, which would allow them to keep their plan an extra year, through the end of 2014 (all the major carriers in the state did just that). That's what the delegation is referring to above. But the assumption that this means that plans will end this year and that cancellations are coming this fall ignores what happened next (maybe they just didn't know...they should have been reading this blog!). In March of 2014, AID issued a new bulletin allowing consumers to keep their plans through the fall of 2017. 

If all of this sounds familiar, it's because AFP has already very publicly gotten this wrong, most famously in the ubiquitous ads featuring Marion couple Wanda and Jerry Buckley. Even when the situation was explained, the group kept running the original misleading ad and followed up with a new spot stating that, whatever the actual facts, the situation was confusing. Cue Jerry: "We got a letter telling us our current policy was going to be cancelled. Even though I've seen reports where our insurance commissioner's granted another 2-year extension, we've yet to see anything telling us we're going to be extended. It's like living in a haze." AFP didn't mention that part of the reason some consumers might be confused is that AFP had been putting out misleading information confusing consumers on Obamacare. AFP could have simply answered Jerry's questions, since the advocacy group is "committed to educating citizens about...policy," but instead preferred to reap political profit out of his haze (the Arkansas Times, on the other hand, was happy to help; I called the Buckley's insurance company, Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield, and confirmed that indeed the company would allow consumers with non-compliant plans to keep them through the fall of 2017 — good news for Jerry and Wanda!).  

It's true that Arkansans got letters in the fall of 2013 stating that their non-compliant plans would end at the end of calendar year 2014 (I should know, I got one!). It's also true that, once the new bulletin was issued from AID in March of 2014, insurance companies didn't always do a good job of following up with consumers to clearly explain that, in fact, they could keep their plans for several more years. It was, indeed, confusing. But that is precisely what makes misinformation from groups like AFP — or apparently the Arkansas congressional delegation — so pernicious. The difference between a plan being cancelled January 1, 2015 and a plan being cancelled October 1, 2017 is not immaterial! I'm not talking about scoring political talking points, I'm talking as a consumer of private non-group health insurance. Consumers should know their options. Misleading them about those options to make a political point is wrong. 

I don't know what's a scarier notion. That Cotton & co. chose to mislead as a political stunt...or that they're getting so much of their info from groups like AFP that they themselves were misinformed. 

Just to get a sense of how this spirals in conservative circles, the National Review Online picked this up today and quotes a Cotton aide predicting more than 100,000 cancellation letters in Arkansas this year, rather than zero. The National Review post links to an article I wrote about early renewal...five months before the relevant AID bulletin which extended the timeframe out to 2017.  

The exact number of cancellation notices that will be sent remains unknown, but a Cotton aide estimated that about 120,000 people would be receiving the letters. The notices are coming this year because Bradford allowed insurance companies in the state to “offer a one-year extension of a plan to consumers on Dec. 31, 2013, so that consumers can keep the plan through the end of calendar-year 2014, even if the plan is not compliant with Obamacare,” according to the Arkansas Times.

AID Commissioner Jay Bradford responded to the letter from the Congressional delegation this afternoon, pointing out what I have above: in fact non-compliant plans can be kept for three more years. Bradford also noted that preliminary information, including a weighted average showing a 2 percent rate decrease in 2015 rates, has already been released, and stated that AID plans to release further information on rates once the plans are finalized and certified by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, a certification that will be no later than November 3 and could come sooner. 

After the jump, you can see AID's full response. The letter from the Arkansas Congressional delegation can be read here
Mr. Hiler,

Thank you for your interest in the Marketplace. We appreciate the concern by your office for constituents seeking health insurance. We share your desire that Arkansans have the information necessary to evaluate which Marketplace plans best meets their needs.

With regard to your concern about the possibility of a large number of Arkansans now getting cancellation notices, I don’t anticipate that will be the case. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in March 2014 allowed states to extend the deadline for non-grandfathered plans to comply with the requirements of the Affordable Care Act from December 30, 2014, to October 1, 2016. In Arkansas Insurance Department Bulletin No. 6-2014, I adopted that extension. The bulletin in its entirety is linked here: http://www.insurance.arkansas.gov/Legal/Bulletins/6-2014.pdf

Regarding your request for rate information for Marketplace plans, preliminary information was released on August 26, 2014 by Governor Mike Beebe’s office. http://governor.arkansas.gov/newsroom/index.php?do:newsDetail=1&news_id=4592

This projection anticipates an aggregate average 2 percent net decrease in Marketplace premium costs for Plan Year 2015. We plan to release more detailed information for Plan Year 2015 such as what was contained in our September 23, 2013 news release regarding Plan Year 2014. We plan to do this once plans are certified by HHS. This certification will occur no later than November 3 and could come sooner.

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.

Please let us know if you need anything else.

Jay
 

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