WASHINGTON: Last Major Insurers Stop Individual Policies
Last week, "Group Health Cooperative and Regence BlueShield -- the last two providers of private health insurance policies" in Washington state -- both announced they would stop selling policies to individuals. The move means that currently uninsured self-employed and temporarily unemployed residents, as well as some newcomers to the state, must go through a state pool or private cooperative in order to obtain insurance, the Los Angeles Times reports (Murphy, 9/4). The state's other large individual insurer, Premera Blue Cross, stopped new individual enrollment late last year. The Tacoma News Tribune reports that with no major health insurer providing individual policies in the state, many are calling for a reexamination of the state's 1993 health insurance reforms, and others are seeking sources to provide their individual policies, as only eight counties in Washington have companies that sell individual policies. One of the 1993 reforms considered particularly burdensome by insurers mandated coverage of all pre-existing conditions for three months after a policy takes effect. That provision means "people can get coverage and pay premiums only when they need costly medical treatment -- then stop coverage and stop paying premiums when they are well" (Suttle, 9/2).
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that some solutions being discussed in the state Legislature include combining insurance pools to spread out risk, or creating a reinsurance system that would cover losses incurred by insurance companies (Gavin/Galloway, 9/2). But the Post-Intelligencer editorial board takes a slightly more extreme route suggesting "the ultimate solution to the health care needs of this and other states remains a national single-payer program, similar to Social Security, into which virtually everyone pays and by which everyone is covered" (9/2).
While legislators mull their options concerning reform, uninsured individuals are not without hope. The News Tribune reports that individuals can qualify for coverage in the group market because they are groups of one -- although group plans are more expensive than individual policies. Individuals also can gain access to associations like the chamber of commerce or a credit union that provide insurance to members. Another option is partial insurance coverage like that provided by out-of-state Fortis Health, which provides temporary coverage at low rates, but will not cover pregnancies, pre-existing conditions or medications (Suttle, 9/2). Finally, Washington Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn has made available the state's high- risk pool to uninsured individuals. The Washington State Health Insurance Pool provides coverage at about 50% higher than the usual premiums. But this pool, which already covers nine percent of the state's uninsured, is seen by some as just a short-term fix (Post-Intelligencer, 9/2).