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Obama plan would curb health insurers on rate hikes

The proposal would give the Health and Human Services secretary power to block premium increases deemed excessive.

February 22, 2010|By Christi Parsons

Reporting from Washington — President Obama's new healthcare overhaul plan would give the federal government greater authority to stop rate increases imposed by health insurers, an administration official said late Sunday.

The proposal, to be posted on the White House website Monday, would give the Health and Human Services secretary power to block premium increases that were deemed excessive.

It also would set up a panel of experts charged with evaluating the healthcare market each year and determining what would constitute a reasonable rate increase. The board's members would include consumers, doctors, economists and insurers.

Under the president's plan, rate increases outside the reasonable boundaries established by the board could be overruled by the secretary, who would also have the power to require the insurer to revise its proposed rate changes or to order rebates for customers who overpaid.

The current Senate bill already includes a provision to give state and federal officials more authority to review rate increases and to punish insurers that raised rates too aggressively.

But the president's inclusion of the measure in his plan raises its profile, while positioning him to tap into a new supply of political support arising from the recent decision by Anthem Blue Cross of California to raise premiums by as much as 39%. Anger over that news has animated Democratic debate about healthcare lately.

The administration official also said the White House plan would include the essence of legislation proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in response to Anthem's premium hikes. Those increases, which had been set to take effect March 1, have been suspended until May 1 while independent actuaries hired by California's insurance commissioner review them.

And next week, state and federal officials are to conduct public hearings into Anthem's impending increases.

Earlier Sunday, Senate Republicans relented and agreed to attend Obama's bipartisan healthcare summit after all. But the chamber's GOP leader is far from resigned to the Democrats' idea of cooperation.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that he and his members wouldn't boycott the meeting set for Thursday and that he would come ready to participate "in good faith."

But he said Democrats were still being "arrogant" in their refusal to throw out current legislation and start from scratch.

"Apparently we're going to be there most of the day and have an opportunity to have a lot of discussion," McConnell said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday." "But if they're going lay out the plan they want to pass four days in advance, then what are we discussing on Thursday?"

The decision expands the summit's attendance list beyond Democratic lawmakers. House Republicans haven't said whether they'll attend. The meeting will be broadcast live on C-SPAN.

The healthcare overhaul has been stalled in Congress since Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts won a special election to fill the late Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat. That gave the GOP 41 seats, enough to sustain a filibuster. Brown campaigned on a promise to waylay the healthcare bill.

Meantime, nine leading consumer, medical and patients' rights groups urged lawmakers to act quickly.

"Congress and the president should move expeditiously to complete the almost century-old goal of meaningful reform without delay," the leaders of the groups said in a letter Monday, expressing support for the Democrats' legislation.

The groups include: the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network; the American Diabetes Assn.; the American Heart Assn.; the American Nurses Assn.; Consumers Union; Families USA; the National Assn. of Community Health Centers; PICO National Network; and the Service Employees International Union.

The groups identified a series of goals, including affordable health insurance, an extension of coverage to "the tens of millions of working Americans who are uninsured," and the elimination of "insurance company abuses."

The groups also said the healthcare overhaul "must place the nation on a path of fiscal responsibility."

"These are the key yardsticks measuring whether health reform proposals constitute meaningful reform," the leaders wrote to Democratic and Republican congressional leaders. "Doing less than that is not acceptable."

In his weekly address, Obama suggested he was willing to move toward Republicans in a couple of areas, including a measure that allows people to buy insurance from a company in another state.

He said he might also be willing to support a plan giving small businesses the power to join together and offer health insurance at lower prices.

"I don't want to see this meeting turn into political theater, with each side simply reciting talking points and trying to score political points," Obama said. "Instead, I ask members of both parties to seek common ground in an effort to solve a problem that's been with us for generations."

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