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HHS—Not GOP—Points to Better 2015 Exchange Rates as Reason for Deadline Shift

By John Reichard, CQ HealthBeat

November 22, 2013 -- The Obama administration is signaling that it plans to move back the deadline for insurers to file 2015 rates on insurance exchanges by one month in hopes of keeping premiums down in the second year of the new marketplaces.

But Republicans protested late last week that the shift, which also delays the start of next fall's open enrollment period from Oct. 15 until Nov. 15, is a blatantly political move by the White House. They said the intent is to keep consumers from finding out about zooming exchange premiums in 2015 until after they have voted in the November 2014 elections.

A leading insurance industry consultant backed the Republican charge. The change "has an insignificant actuarial value but a huge political value," said Robert Laszewski of Health Policy and Strategy Associates in Alexandria, Va.

A Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) official who declined to be identified said that instead of filing rates by the end of April 2014, insurers will have until the end of May 2014. The change "will give issuers the benefit of more time to evaluate their experiences during the 2014 plan year and allow them to take into account those who may enroll late, including young adults, before setting 2015 rates," the official added.

Insurers praised the move.

"Giving health plans more time to submit premium rates for next year will enable them to better assess who is covered in their plans and help ensure those rates more accurately reflect the population covered," America's Health Insurance Plans, the nation's largest health insurance lobby, said in a statement.

No one knows what the 2015 rates will be. But current signs point to the possibility—if not the likelihood—of sharp increases. Enrollment snafus may keep the young and healthy from signing up any time soon on the federal insurance exchange, And the deadline for filing 2015 rates comes hard on the heels of the March 31 close of the open enrollment deadline.

The April 30 deadline for filing 2015 rates would have given insurers little time to accumulate claims experience and other data on which to base their premiums. Now they will have another month.

But Laszewski said "another month of early claims data will hardly matter. However, with the Obamacare enrollment off to such a poor start, it is looking more and more likely that 2015 health insurance rates will suffer. Pushing things to the end of May also pushes the 2015 open enrollment until November 15—11 days after the 2014 elections."

That means "if premiums go through the roof in the first year of Obamacare, no one will know about it until after the election," Sen. Charles E. Grassley said in a statement.

"This is clearly a cynical political move by the Obama administration to use extra-regulatory, by-any-means-necessary tools to keep this program afloat and hide key information from voters," the Iowa Republican charged. "The administration is welcome to prove me wrong by committing to put out 2015 plan year premium rates by Nov. 1, 2014."

News of the delayed start of the open enrollment was first reported by Bloomberg News. It was not widely publicized by HHS. A previous controversial move by the administration—delaying the employer mandate—was handled in similar fashion.

The open enrollment dates already were scheduled to change after this fall's open enrollment period, which is unusually long and runs from Oct. 1 to March 31. HHS had said it would start open enrollment next fall on Oct. 15 and run it until Dec. 7. The new dates are Nov. 15 through Jan. 15.

In addition to coming later, that means it's a slightly longer open enrollment period than had been set for next fall.

It's not altogether clear how successfully the date change will shield the public from 2015 rates. States with their own exchanges have the power to release rates early.

This year, HHS said it would release federal exchange rates in September, before the Oct. 1 start of that marketplace. But its rates didn't come out until shortly before the open enrollment period began. A similar pattern next year would keep people from knowing for sure what 2015 rates are until after the elections. But insurance commissioners in some states served by the federal exchange, such as Georgia and Ohio, said earlier this year—well before open enrollment began—that rates would be high.

It's not altogether clear how set in stone the new plan is. The HHS official described the new policy in conditional terms, saying for example that HHS "will soon be signaling its intent" to change next fall's open enrollment period. The official also said in describing the policy that "we would begin open enrollment on Nov. 15"—not saying HHS will actually do so.

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