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Premium, Benefit Comparisons Live on

By John Reichard, CQ HealthBeat Editor

September 30, 2010 -- The top HHS official in charge of overseeing the health insurance industry said Thursday that consumers will be able to compare premiums and benefits for 6,200 plans offered by 300 insurers by the end of the week.

Jay Angoff, director of the HHS Office of Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, announced the changes to the site in a speech to a forum sponsored by the America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP).

" will now allow consumers to compare important details about private plans including monthly premium estimates, annual deductibles, maximum out of pocket limits, major categories of services covered, and the consumers share of costs of these services," Angoff said.

He added that "for the first time ever" on any site are two new pieces of information. "One is the percentage of people who pay more than the premium estimate due to their health status. And the other is the percentage of people who are denied coverage."

The site has won widespread praise for the ease it offers shoppers in finding insurance options. But until now it lacked data on the comparative costs and benefits of plans.

The number of plans described on the site falls short of those actually on the market. But Angoff said information from other plans would be added periodically. The next upload will be in November. AHIP boasts a membership of some 1,300 companies that cover some 200 million Americans.

Angoff mixed praise and some criticism of the industry in his remarks to industry executives.

"The reforms that we are putting in place now are not meant to punish insurance companies," he said. "We need your help to make this happen. You have enormous influence." Angoff called "AHIP a steady partner in expanding access and costs."

Angoff's remarks fell more into the "good cop" side of administration's dealings with the industry, which comes under regular attacks from the administration for profiteering and excessive executive salaries.

He praised companies for implementing some provisions of the law ahead of schedule. But he did strike a note of concern when he said "unfortunately there hasn't been the same degree of cooperation for coverage of kids with preexisting conditions."

Behind the rhetoric, there appears to be a productive working relationship between the government and insurers as they begin to implement provisions of the overhaul law.

The two sides of the relationship were on display last week when HHS blasted some insurers for saying they would drop kids-only coverage. "Please be assured that we are as concerned with preventing adverse selection as you are," Angoff said in his remarks. "But we don't think that discontinuing writing new child-only business is the answer."

Angoff was referring to the decision by several major insurers to keep only existing enrollees in child-only plans and not add new ones. The insurers said they faced unmanageable costs under the law because of its requirement that children with pre-existing medical conditions not be denied coverage.

Companies complained that parents could wait until children get sick to enroll them in the plans. But HHS has offered various approaches to keep that from happening, including limiting enrollment periods. It appears that the department is working hard behind the scenes to get the companies to reverse their decisions.

"I'm hopeful that we will be able to arrive at [a solution] and sooner rather than later because I don't think the current situation benefits anyone," Angoff said.

The administration can ill afford the perception that the law is lessening current access to coverage and is showing flexibility as it implements regulations.

A new challenge in that regard materialized Thursday with a report that McDonald's may stop offering its employees "mini-med" plans that offer some coverage at a modest weekly charge. Mini-meds say they face higher administrative costs because of worker turnover, which they say makes it difficult or impossible to meet coming requirements that 85 percent of the premium dollar in the large group market go for health care.

Angoff didn't address the issue in his remarks and an aide shielded him from taking questions after his remarks.

Angoff also faulted insurers in some instances for blaming double digit rate hikes on the overhaul law. "I want to emphasize that these are isolated instances. I'm certainly not here to criticize the whole industry," he said. "But we both know that those isolated instances are not true."

He said that a recent Hewitt Associates study confirms the administration's estimate that consumer protections already implemented under the law only raise premiums 1 to 2 percent. Recent rate filings by insurers also show a one to two percent premium impact, Angoff added.

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