Mainers protest Anthem rate hike

People wait to testify before the Maine Bureau of Insurance during a public comment session at Husson University in Bangor Wednesday afternoon.  Over 50 people attended the session and the ones who spoke asked the the state not to approve of the insurance policy premium increases proposed by Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield and MEGA Life and Health. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY GABOR DEGRE
People wait to testify before the Maine Bureau of Insurance during a public comment session at Husson University in Bangor Wednesday afternoon. Over 50 people attended the session and the ones who spoke asked the the state not to approve of the insurance policy premium increases proposed by Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield and MEGA Life and Health. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY GABOR DEGRE
Posted Feb. 24, 2010, at 10:30 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — From Presque Isle, Deer Isle, Camden and Mapleton, Mainers traveled to Bangor Wednesday afternoon to protest the latest health insurance cost increase requested by Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maine.

“The hogs have come to the trough to feed again at the expense of those who use the coverage the least,” said lobsterman Leroy Bridges of Deer Isle, who purchases individual coverage for himself and his wife, with a $15,000 annual deductible each. “If they’re allowed a rate increase even close to what they’re asking, we’ll have to let it go; we got no choice.”

Bridges did not say how much his high-deductible coverage costs, but others at the meeting said similar policies cost close to $500 a month.

Anthem says the 23 percent average increase in the cost of its HealthChoice and Lumenos plans — for people who purchase health coverage individually instead of through an employer or other group — is needed to offset the growing cost and use of health care services and the unique challenges of the insurance market in Maine.

About 11,000 Anthem policyholders would be affected by the increase, which would take effect July 1 if approved.

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About 60 people attended the public comment session at Husson University, although only about 20 offered testimony to Maine Insurance Superintendent Mila Kofman.

Only one speaker addressed an average 12.5 percent increase requested by the MEGA Life and Health insurance company, which covers about 6,890 policyholders in Maine.

Other comments addressed not only Anthem’s current request but also the company’s history of rate increases over the ten years it has all but controlled the individual insurance market in Maine.

Business owner Suzanne Kelly of Bangor told Kofman that she and her husband pay about $460 a month for a plan similar to lobsterman Bridges’. If the rate increase is approved, she said, their monthly payment would go up to about $550.

Kelly called Anthem’s rates “highway robbery.”

“There is no way we can continue down this path,” she said. “It is debilitating and draining the life out of our state and our country.”

Stephanie Harp of Bangor said her $5,000 deductible plan would cost her $428 a month with the proposed increase. The 46-year-old divorced mother of two said she would barely be able to afford that amount.

“But I can’t afford to drop my coverage because I had breast cancer in my 30s,” she said.

Several at the meeting pointed out the substantial profits enjoyed by private insurance companies in recent years. Ilse Petersons of Bangor pointed out that Angela Braly, CEO of Anthem’s corporate parent Wellpoint, made nearly $10 million in 2008.

“This is what really outrages me,” she said. “And she says they need more profit.”

Wednesday’s session was the second opportunity for Mainers to weigh in on the requested increases. A similar gathering in Portland on Monday drew hundreds to the Cumberland County Civic Center.

Anthem’s request comes on top of an 11 percent increase for individual policies in 2009, a reduction from the 18.5 percent increase it asked for. The company has appealed Kofman’s decision to grant the lower amount.

Anthem spokesman Chris Dugan said after the meeting that the company shares consumers’ concerns, but he blamed the spiraling cost of insurance on the ever-rising cost and use of health care services.

“We will never be able to lower the cost of health insurance until we lower the cost of health care,” he said. Dugan said Maine’s insurance regulations also contribute to the problem. For example, regulations require companies to provide coverage regardless of pre-existing conditions and limit how much people can be charged for that coverage.

That encourages healthy people to drop coverage until they get sick, he said, and re-enroll when they have a health problem.

Before making a decision on Anthem’s request, Kofman will host one more public comment session at 9 a.m. April 8 at the Bureau of Insurance in Gardiner.

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