Bangor school system stymied on health insurance

Posted Jan. 14, 2010, at 8:48 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Seeking to trim its budget by any means possible, the Bangor School Department recently tried shopping around to other health insurance carriers that might be offering a lower price.

Superintendent Betsy Webb said she didn’t get far.

The Maine Education Association Benefits Trust, which facilitates insurance for MEA members through the state’s largest carrier, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, would not release claim data to Bangor.

Without it, Webb said, other carriers were not interested in negotiating with Bangor.

“When we went out to other companies to get quotes, two companies said they couldn’t quote without claim data. Another company used general trend data, and their quote came in much higher,” she said.

Mark Gray, spokesman for the MEA, said the benefits trust is set up as a statewide pool and simply cannot break down the data for municipalities.

“We only look at claims data on a statewide basis,” he said. “From time to time, districts will ask for claims data, but we don’t have it to give to them.”

Bangor School Department employees have a contractual obligation with Anthem through 2011 anyway, but Webb said she and her staff have a responsibility to keep costs contained.

In the past, Anthem has increased its premiums by more than 10 percent in one year, and she worried that next year could see further increases. Already, Anthem has proposed a rate increase of more than 20 percent on two of its insurance plans.

“We’re not looking to reduce service, by any means, but we don’t want to see as much growth either,” she said.

Anthem has not yet released its rates for the 2010 year for the MEA Benefits Trust plan and likely won’t until early March, according to Gray. However, he said Anthem quotes insurance rates all the time without specific claims data and said it has never been a problem.

“We understand that districts want to shop around,” Gray said. “But, we believe that Anthem provides the most competitive insurance rates around, in large part because we have a big, statewide pool.”

Additionally, because health care costs are often higher in northern Maine than in southern Maine, Anthem’s statewide rates are equalized, he said.

Webb maintained that it’s unfortunate that her school department cannot get access to health insurance information. She doesn’t yet know how the school department will proceed. The Bangor School Department already faces a potential loss in state subsidy of $2 million for the next year. If insurance costs continue to go up, more hard decisions will have to be made

“To be honest, we kind of hit a wall,” she said. “But we’re going to have to continue. What choice do we have?”

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