Opinion: CT health insurance companies thwarted reforms. Now they want to raise prices.

Health insurance illustration.

Health insurance illustration.

McClatchy-Tribune Service

More than 165,000 Connecticut residents can’t afford health care. The existence of this crisis shouldn’t shock anyone, but the scale should. A recent report shows not only the challenges of finding affordable insurance, but also the devastating choices families across our state are forced to make as they consider whether to seek medical care or to keep food in the refrigerator.

This year, I worked with legislators and advocates — including doctors, nurses and experts — to create more affordable insurance options. The insurance industry erupted in protest. One insurer even encouraged employees to lobby lawmakers to kill the bill.

Insurers also threatened the jobs of those same workers, writing to Gov. Ned Lamont and suggesting they would leave the state if our insurance option passed.

That tactic — amplified by an expensive lobbying and advertising campaign — worked. The insurers killed the bill, and lawmakers decided that attempting long-term reforms to help people afford health care wasn’t worth upsetting such a powerful industry.

It took only 11 weeks for those same companies to attempt to make health care more expensive. In rate filings with the Insurance Department, insurers have requested approval for price increases that average nearly 9 percent for individuals and almost 13 percent for small groups, including small businesses.

There is an immediate action you can take to fight these rate hikes. The Insurance Department is holding a public hearing on Aug. 31 from 9 a.m. to noon and is requesting comments from affected individuals and employers. I urge you to testify and share with regulators why these price increases would be an undue burden on Connecticut families and businesses. You can submit comments by email to cid.ratefilings@ct.gov.

Many in government and the media were eager to support the insurers’ political agenda in opposing new legislation. Now come these egregious rate hikes. The industry is hoping it can maneuver through a complicated bureaucratic process without too much scrutiny.

In the rate hike filings, insurers cite three justifications: an increase in medical services as people seek out more care following the initial COVID-19 lockdown, an increase in behavioral health care and a new state law that makes medication for diabetes more affordable.

As administrator of the state’s largest health plan, I will be submitting official testimony of my own stating that none of those trends are materializing in our data — and certainly not at a level that would justify a substantial price increase.

The industry’s requests take elements of the truth and exaggerate them to their benefit. Let’s be clear about what’s really happening in the market. More people did delay non-emergency care during the height of the pandemic. However, there isn’t an explosion of new demand for services, and independent analysis doesn’t forecast one coming. Patients are returning to their pre-COVID levels of care, an outcome that my office planned for and that insurers should have as well.

Behavioral health is undoubtedly a growing need across Connecticut. However, it makes up a fraction of the total cost of coverage. An increase in services should have a minimal effect on overall premiums, and over the long term, treating a patient’s mental and emotional well-being often prevents far more costly — and catastrophic — outcomes down the line.

Similarly, with the new price limits on insulin for diabetic patients, insurers may lose on some short-term profit opportunities but will save over time by avoiding serious and expensive complications. It should be the goal of a health plan to help its customers stay healthy. To use that new policy as an excuse to raise costs across the board is nothing more than a money grab.

Given that many of these same companies just enjoyed a year of record profits and found enough money between the couch cushions to pay their CEOs tens of millions of dollars, demanding more money from consumers at all is just adding insult to injury.

But while these rate hikes present an acute emergency, they are part of a larger cycle that shows no sign of ending. Without lawmakers willing to lead on this issue, a few well-connected companies will continue to determine what becomes law in our state. As long as your government cedes its responsibility to act, prices will continue to rise, and more and more of our neighbors will be hurt in the process. Health care will remain unaffordable. Jobs of rank-and-file insurance industry workers will be threatened, and Connecticut’s economic potential will go unmet.

I find that unacceptable, and I know the overwhelming majority of Connecticut residents do as well. I urge you to take a few minutes today to oppose these rate hikes, and then I urge you to contact your legislators and demand that we don’t have to do this again next year.

Kevin Lembo is state comptroller for Connecticut.