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Obamacare premiums to surge next year, early rate requests show

resident Donald Trump and Republicans celebrate the House's passage of the American Health Care Act, at the White House in Washington, May 4, 2017. Democrats expect that voters will punish Republicans for voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, even though the law survived. (Stephen Crowley/Copyright 2018 The New York Times)

The first glimpse of what health-insurance companies plan to charge for Obamacare plans next year suggests there's no relief ahead for consumers saddled with high premiums.

Several insurers in Maryland and Virginia are seeking double-digit percentage increases in monthly costs for individual medical plans in 2019. The largest increases are being sought by CareFirst, which wants to nearly double the amount it charges on average for one coverage option in Maryland, and raise the cost of another in Virginia by 64 percent.

Virginia and Maryland are the first states where 2019 rate requests have been made public. Increases are anticipated across the U.S. as insurers continue to grapple with the aftermath of last year's battle to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

Many health plans have stopped selling health coverage through the exchanges created four years ago under Obamacare. The Republican-led attempt to overturn the health law last year caused premiums to surge, as insurers expected that undoing the law's requirement that all Americans have health insurance would leave them with a smaller and sicker pool of clients.

The repeal effort ultimately failed, but the Trump administration overturned the penalty for going without insurance, and opened the door for insurers to sell cheaper, skimpier plans.

The rate requests must be approved by regulators and may change. Health plans will file requests in other states between now and late July. Final premiums will have to be approved ahead of the open-enrollment period beginning Nov. 1.

In Maryland, CareFirst wants to raise rates by 91 percent on a plan covering 15,000 people, Insurance Commissioner Al Redmer Jr. said. If approved, premiums for a 40-year-old could reach $1,334 a month.

"We have folks in Maryland that are struggling, that are trying to do the right thing, and they're paying more for their health insurance than they are for their mortgage," Redmer said on a call with reporters.

Maryland is seeking permission from the federal government to create a reinsurance program that would use $975 million in state and federal funds over five years to lower rates. That would help only temporarily, Redmer said.

"I believe we've been in a death spiral for a year or two," he said. A permanent solution requires Congress to fix the Affordable Care Act, he said.

Virginia's insurance market is struggling. In Charlottesville and some neighboring counties, ACA policies are the most expensive in the nation for people who don't get government subsidies. The cost of a mid-level plan for a single 40-year-old is $1,048 a month.

Most buyers on the ACA exchanges receive subsidies that insulate them from premium increases. For those who don't, the price of health insurance is increasingly out of reach. Bloomberg News has been chronicling the stories of the uninsured in a year-long project.

Carol Wise, a former nurse and social worker in Charlottesville who consults for nonprofits, paid about $640 a month last year for an individual plan from Anthem. When Anthem pulled out of her area, the only plan available, insurer Optima Health Plan, had a premium of $1,800 a month.

"I was blown away," said Wise, 62.

Wise opted instead to join a health-care sharing ministry for $280 a month, though the arrangement doesn't offer the same protections as regular coverage. She pays an extra charge because of her high blood pressure, and has to consult monthly with a health coach.

The initial rates on offer aren't likely to lure customers like Wise back.

Group Hospitalization and Medical Services, which operates a CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, wants to raise premiums by 64 percent, on average, compared with 2018 premium levels, according to documents filed with Virginia regulators on May 4. The change would affect more than 4,000 customers.

The Kaiser Foundation Health Plan is seeking an average rate increase of 32 percent on about 79,000 members in Virginia, while Cigna asked regulators to approve a 15 percent increase, projected to affect 103,000 members.

Optima, which some Virginians have criticized for highest-in-the-nation premiums in some areas, said that on average its rates would decrease by 2 percent, and they would decline as much as 27 percent for some customers.

In Maryland, CareFirst's larger HMO plan covering 123,000 people requested a 19 percent increase. Kaiser is seeking a 37 percent hike. Both would put the new rates for a 45-year-old above $500 a month, Maryland officials said.

Anthem, which pulled out of many markets this year, is requesting a 6 percent increase for its HealthKeepers-branded plans in areas of Virginia where it remains.

Anthem declined to comment. CareFirst, Kaiser, and Optima did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

"We're still sky-high, and we still have a lot of concerns about the rates," said Ian Dixon, a Charlottesville resident who has helped organize Virginians to press the state and Optima for lower premiums. Even with a drop around 30 percent, he said, Optima's rates for 2019 would be about double what premiums in the area were in 2017, when Anthem and other insurers were still offering plans.

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