November 16, 2013

In Maine, Obamacare shift could affect many

About 15,000 facing canceled or altered policies might be able to keep their plans, but it’s uncertain.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s abrupt policy shift Thursday on a key component of the Affordable Care Act could affect 15,000-plus Mainers whose policies were set to be canceled or modified next year.

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President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks about his signature health care law, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. Bowing to pressure, President Barack Obama intends to permit continued sale of individual insurance plans that have been canceled because they failed to meet coverage standards under the health care law, officials said Thursday.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

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But it remained unclear Thursday whether the majority of those policy holders will be able to keep their current insurance plans, and how their premiums will be affected if they do. Those decisions rest with Maine regulators and the insurance companies.

“The (Maine) Bureau of Insurance is reviewing today’s announcement,” said Doug Dunbar, spokesman for the state agency. He declined further comment on how the bureau might respond to the policy shift.

Facing intense pressure from the public and Democrats in Congress, President Obama agreed Thursday to allow insurance companies to continue offering plans that do not meet minimum standards set by the Affordable Care Act.

The standards had prompted insurance carriers across the country to issue notices that non-compliant plans would be canceled. The result was a powerful backlash against Obama, who had promised Americans that they could keep their existing plans, and against Democrats in Congress who supported the law.

Now “the president is offering insurance companies and the American people a way to ease the transition,” said Mitchell Stein, policy director for Consumers for Affordable Health Care, a Maine-based group that supports the law.

The extension announced Thursday would last for one year and would require insurers to inform policy holders if their plans fall short of the law’s coverage standards. But states and insurance companies could opt out of the extension, requiring policy holders to switch to more comprehensive coverage plans.

Nearly 16,000 Maine residents have already received cancellation or change notices, although none would automatically lose all coverage because canceled plans could be replaced with new ones. That figure is about one-half of the Mainers who buy coverage directly from insurers rather than get it through work or as part of a group.

Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield notified 8,500 policy holders – whose plans cover 9,600 people – that their policies would be canceled and replaced with “compliant” policies closest to their current plans, according to statistics from the Maine Bureau of Insurance.

Anthem’s cancellation and replacement policy would increase premiums for some policy holders but could lower premiums for others, according to the bureau. And some policy holders would be eligible for federal subsidies to help pay premiums under the Affordable Care Act.

Dunbar noted that affected Anthem policy holders will not lose coverage because their new policies – should they accept them – will take effect Jan. 1.

“If the policyholder doesn’t like the plan selected by Anthem, he/she could choose a different Anthem plan, or obtain coverage from another company either in the federal marketplace or outside the marketplace, or discontinue coverage,” Dunbar wrote.

Anthem spokesman Christopher Dugan deferred comment to the insurance industry’s trade group, America’s Health Insurance Plans. Dugan did not reply to subsequent requests for comment on whether Anthem would continue to offer the plans or proceed with the cancellations.

The trade group warned that the late changes announced Thursday by Obama could “destabilize the market” and trigger higher premiums.

“Premiums have already been set for next year based on an assumption of when consumers will be transitioning to the new marketplace,” Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans, said in a prepared statement. “If now fewer younger and healthier people choose to purchase coverage in the exchange, premiums will increase and there will be fewer choices for consumers. Additional steps must be taken to stabilize the marketplace and mitigate the adverse impact on consumers.”

(Continued on page 2)

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