States will be the ultimate determinant as to whether they will allow insurers to renew existing health insurances plans in 2014 even though these policies may not comply with the new Affordable Care Act, President Obama and state insurance regulators agreed at a White House meeting last night.
The meeting with several insurance commissioners and Ben Nelson, chief executive officer of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, was held as the White House continued its efforts to smooth the troubled political waters caused by the rocky rollout of the federal exchange that will be used by residents of 36 states to buy individual and small group policies mandated by the law.
The state regulators used the occasion to raise other issues with the president, including their relationship with federal insurance regulators given a voice in insurance regulation left to the states for 150 years. A major issue brought up with the president was the role they want to play in establishing international insurance standards.
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As for the healthcare, law, under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, everyone must have health insurance by March 31, 2014, or pay a penalty. However, the exchange website unveiled Oct. 1 has proved unequal to its task, and there are questions whether it will be fully up to speed by the end of the month, as promised by the administration.
The inability of people to access the website, plus the realization that the president’s commitment to allow everyone to “keep their existing policies if they like them” contradicts the law’s mandate that each insurance policy must contain certain essential benefits, has generated a major political problem for the president.
These essential benefits include providing insurance to people with pre-existing conditions, free preventative care, maternity coverage and other benefits. Also included is a requirement to provide contraceptives for women.
However, the realization that most existing policies didn’t include such benefits created a major practical problem as insurers notified thousands of affected consumers that their existing policies would be cancelled.
As the meeting was being held, CareFirst BlueCross Blue Shield, which serves Maryland, announced that it would allow more than 55,000 policyholders to retain their policies for one year even though the policies don’t contain some of the essential benefits mandated by the new law. CareFirst acted one day after the Maryland insurance commissioner said he would approve such action. Other health insurers in the state said they would also do so; others said they would not.
Other states, like Florida, said they would also allow consumers to keep their existing policies for one year. But, others, like New York, Washington and Indiana, said they would not comply. California Insurance Department officials said they would announce their decision today.
At the meeting, the state insurance regulators emphasized their concern that different rules for different policies would be detrimental to the overall insurance marketplace and could result in higher premiums for consumers, without addressing the underlying concern of gaps in coverage. They also emphasized the importance of deferring to the states to protect consumers, and highlighted the track record of effective regulation by insurance departments across the country.
However, they acknowledged that they are just standard-setters, not policymakers and reiterated, as stated by Jim Donelon, NAIC President and Louisiana insurance commissioner, that PPACA is “the law of the land.”
“Since the passage of ACA, state regulators have been working to ensure that plans are compliant with the new rules,” Donelon said at the meeting.
He said the proposed changes announced by the president in an executive order last Thursday in response to the uproar over the cancellations and the difficulty consumers are having buying policies on the federal website has creating “a level of uncertainty that we must work together to alleviate.”
Donelon made clear, however that state regulators “share the President’s goal of affordable coverage for consumers, and we will work with the insurance companies in our states to implement changes that make sense while following our mandate of consumer protection.”
Donelon attended the meeting with NAIC Chief Executive Officer Senator Ben Nelson, Connecticut Insurance Commissioner Thomas B. Leonardi, and North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin.
The group discussed practical implications of implementing the delay in enforcement as well as outstanding questions regarding what specific provisions would be impacted, and talked to reporters at length at what was accomplished at the meeting in a conference call afterwards.
Amongst the presidential aides attending the meeting was Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Sebelius and officials of the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversaw development of the website, have been under intense fire because the website has failed because of the huge numbers of people who sought access to it, and because testing designed to prove it worked was not even started until a week or so before the Oct. 1 rollout.
The White House released a statement saying the state regulators had been given full authority as to whether to accept the grandfathering. According to the statement, Obama said that his executive order requires that health plans that offer such renewals provide consumers with clear information about consumer protections lacking in those plans and their options and possible tax credits through the exchanges. The statements said that Obama acknowledged that, “States have different populations with unique needs, and it is up to the insurance commissioner and health insurance companies to decide which insurance products can be offered to existing customers next year.”
Additionally, according to the White House statement, the president emphasized that he wants to hear any ideas that insurance commissioners “may have as implementation continues to ensure that Americans across the country have the information they need to get affordable, quality coverage for themselves and their families.”