In the first weeks of the newly restructured Department of Financial Services, Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky has made it extremely clear that when the concerns of corporate health plans to keep their secrets in order to have a competitive advantage, are pitted against consumers who need to know about why their rates are so high, the consumer interest should prevail.
The fight over the rights of consumers to get health insurer information started with a business owner visiting a Community Health Advocate in Queens with a letter from his insurance company stating that the premiums will be increasing 75 percent come January, due to "Obamacare." Community Health Advocates, a statewide network of non-profits that provides assistance to consumers under the Affordable Care Act, sought the full financial filing made by the company.
Under a new 2010 state law, individuals and small businesses can challenge rate increases from health plans by making comments to the Department of Financial Services; but, consumer representatives can only be effective in challenging rate increases when they have full access to the financial filing of what was the basis for the insurer's rate request. New York health insurers were hiding under an alleged "trade secret" exception to public access.
Thankfully, Superintendent Lawsky didn't buy this attempt to exclude the public from commenting on health plan rate increases that vitally impacted on their financial health. Toward the end of October, United Health/Oxford has agreed to drop the fight to keep its filings for rate increases secret; therefore, putting pressure on other insurance companies. Indeed, five days later, seven more insurers also ended their objections.
This agreement was hailed as a victory by a major statewide consumer advocacy coalition, Health Care for All New York.
As for the reasons for the 75 percent rate increase, this particular insurer wanted to increase CEO bonuses from $3 billion to $10 billion, among other things.
To help consumers, a new health care consumer assistance program called Community Health Advocates has been formed in New York with funding provided under the new federal health care law to provide health care advice to consumers. I will be happy to answer any and all questions, to assist in selecting a health plan, and even to assist with resolving disputes with health insurers, providers and other health care institutions. Our services are provided at no charge to consumers.
Natalie Luczkowiak is a resident of Dunkirk and a community health advocate at the Public Policy and Education Fund, which administers the Community Health Advocates program in several counties in Western New York. If you need health care assistance, you can reach Natalie at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 852-4050.