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29 states get grants to boost health insurer oversight

The Obama administration hopes the money will help keep premium increases in check.

September 20, 2011|By Noam N. Levey, Washington Bureau
  • The Obama administration Tuesday announced $109 million in grants to states to help them beef up oversight of health insurers, a key goal of the healthcare law the president signed last year.
The Obama administration Tuesday announced $109 million in grants to states… (J. Scott Applewhite / AP…)

Reporting from Washington — The Obama administration Tuesday announced $109 million in grants to states to help them beef up oversight of health insurers, a key goal of the healthcare law the president signed last year.

The grants come on the heels of new rules that require insurers to post on their websites explanations of premium increases exceeding 10% and to justify the hikes to state and federal regulators, who also will post them starting this year.

The grants continue the administration's efforts to step up regulation of health insurance markets by bolstering state regulators, who retain responsibility for overseeing the industry.

"We absolutely expect for this … to help have a moderating influence on premiums," said Steve Larsen, who oversees the insurance efforts at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Some states, such as Oregon and Rhode Island, have the power to block rate hikes they deem excessive. But 30 states still don't have this authority in both the individual and small-group markets, according to a 2010 survey by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. The federal government doesn't have the power to reject premium increases.

The Obama administration has urged states to pass legislation giving them veto authority over rates.

Twenty of the 29 states receiving new grants have such authority in either the individual or small-group markets, according to White House officials.

Among those states receiving grants are Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania and California — which received two grants because insurance oversight is split between the state insurance commissioner and the state's Department of Managed Care.

The grants come on top of $48 million the administration handed out last year to 42 states, the District of Columbia and five territories. That money has helped states hire additional regulators and strengthen information technology systems to review premium increases submitted by insurance companies.

Insurance industry officials have maintained that the additional regulation is unnecessary, saying healthcare costs are being driven up by underlying medical costs.

But Larsen noted Tuesday that insurers have continued to seek doubt-digit increases even as the economic downturn has depressed consumer demand for medical services.

He also said the administration was seeing anecdotal evidence that the increased scrutiny was restraining insurers' price increases in some states.

Though many of the grants announced Thursday went to states led by Democratic governors who have supported the new healthcare law, 12 went to states with Republican governors, some of whom are suing to overturn the law.

GOP-led states getting money include Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin.

noam.levey@latimes.com

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