Thursday, September 30, 2010

WA Insurance Commissioner describes health care changes

Wondering what health care reforms are coming down the pike? In this video by Comcast, Washington State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler lays out the changes taking effect this fall and at the start of January, as well as some of the longer-term changes we can expect.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Regence to stop selling child-only policies in WA; Kreidler "appalled"

Here's a press release our office is putting out this morning:
Regence BlueShield, one of Washington state’s largest health insurers, intends to stop selling new policies for children in Washington under age 19 as of Oct. 1.

The decision followed days of discussions with Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler and his staff, who strongly objected to Regence’s decision.

“I’m appalled,” said Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler. “We’ve made regulatory concessions to limit Regence’s exposure. Their overreaction will seriously harm Washington families.”

As of Sept. 23, 2010, the federal Affordable Care Act requires many health plans to cover children’s pre-existing conditions. Kreidler’s office issued an emergency rule last week, allowing individual health plans to limit their risk by creating a special open-enrollment period from Nov. 1 – Dec. 15. During this time, parents can add their children to their individual plans without taking a health screen.

According to Kreidler, “A special enrollment period drastically limits the carriers’ risk and should more than address their concerns. By pulling out of this market, Regence just cut off vital coverage for working families.”

People still can buy individual plans from Regence for themselves and their families, but children only can be added between Nov. 1-Dec. 15. Anyone wanting to buy a health plan for just their child must choose a different health insurer.

Child-only policies are unusual in Washington state. Here, if you buy coverage for your family in the individual market, you’re issued one policy for the entire family. Family policies are not available in some states. There, people looking for family coverage must buy a policy for each member.

Regence Blueshield currently has 2,500 child-only policies in the state and they will remain in effect.

“So far, no other health carrier in Washington state has signaled its intent to leave this market,” added Kreidler. “I hope we can expect better from them.”

Parents looking for health insurance for their children can try the other health carriers in the individual market. Or, if they meet income qualifications, they might be eligible for Washington state’s Apple Health for Kids program. Coverage costs $30 a month per child for a family of four earning $66,150.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Congress gives federal flood-insurance program a one-year extension

The National Flood Insurance Program, which has repeatedly lapsed and been reauthorized by Congress this year, has gotten a one-year extension from Congress. The bill, S-3814, passed the House on Friday, and had earlier gotten the thumbs-up from the Senate. It now awaits the president's signature.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

New federal health reforms start today

Beginning today, most health plans sold after March 23, 2010 must include several new benefits when they renew. These provisions, outlined in the federal Affordable Care Act, are designed to increase access to health care. Under the new reforms, plans cannot:

Charge out-of-pocket costs, including co-pays, deductibles and co-insurance, for preventive services.

Cap lifetime benefits.

Cancel or rescind a policy, except in the case of fraud or misrepresentation.

Refuse to cover a child’s pre-existing condition.

If the health plan includes a cap on essential benefits, it can’t be less than $750,000.

And young adults can be covered on their parents’ plan until the age of 26, unless they get a job that offers health insurance.

However, there are some exceptions. Health plans sold before March 23, 2010, when the law was signed, are considered “grandfathered” and are exempt from some of these new protections.

For example, grandfathered individual health plans still can charge out-of-pocket costs for preventive services, cap lifetime benefits, and refuse to cover an enrolled child’s pre-existing condition. Grandfathered group plans (plans purchased by employers for their employees) still can charge out-of-pocket costs for preventive services.

Plans lose their grandfathered status if they significantly reduce benefits or increase deductibles, copayments, and/or an employee’s share of the premium.

Learn more about the fall reform here or see a general timeline of health reform.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

U.S. Senate votes to re-authorize federal flood insurance program, insurers urging House to act quickly

The National Flood Insurance Program, which has repeatedly expired this year, only to be reauthorized by Congress for short stints, is slated to expire on Sept. 30. To prevent that, the U.S. Senate yesterday voted to extend the program through Sept. 30, 2011.

Insurers and insurance associations are now urging the House of Representatives to quickly do the same thing.

Congress created the program in 1968 as a way of getting a handle on the increasing public costs of providing aid to flood victims.

Many homeowners assume that flood damage is covered by standard homeowners coverage. It is not. The same is true for standard renters- and commercial property policies. If you want flood coverage, you have to specifically get flood coverage. (There's one exception to this general rule: comprehensive auto insurance coverage tends to cover flood damage to the vehicle.)

Flood insurance has been a major issue in south King County's Green River Valley, where the Army Corps of Engineers says there's a higher-than-normal risk of flooding due to weakness in an abutment to the Howard Hanson Dam. Work by the Corps and its contractors has dramatically reduced the risk of serious flooding (it was 1 in 3 last fall, now the Corps says its about 1 in 60), but we're still urging property owners and renters in the area to seriously consider getting at least the federal flood coverage.

For businesses, the federal coverage (capped at $500k/building and $500k contents) will not be enough. Many insurers stopped writing coverage in the area last fall. To help, our office has organized the Washington Flood Market Assistance Plan, which acts like a matchmaker between Green River Valley businesses needing coverage and insurers selling it.

The Insurance Information Institute has prepared a lot of flood-related information, including a list of major floods, how to prepare for a flood, what to do during a flood, and how to recover from a flood.

(Post modified 9/23 to add the info and a link for the state's flood Market Assistance Plan.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How -- and why -- to become a "group of one"

In a couple of weeks, changes to Washington state law will make it easier for sole proprietors and some self-employed individuals to get affordable health insurance coverage.

The change involves small group coverage, which under state law in recent years has meant entities (such as small businesses) of 2 to 50 employees. They could qualify for health coverage in the small group market, which doesn't require a health screening.

One-person businesses, however, have had to seek coverage in the individual insurance market, where health screening is the norm and coverage can be hard to find (and expensive) for folks with pre-existing medical conditions.

By Oct. 1, 2010, however, state law will consider 1 person a "group" for insurance purposes. This means that sole proprietors, for example, will be able to qualify for the group coverage.

There are some provisions to ensure that the business is bona fide, however. In general, the law requires people to show that:

-they've been employed by (or run) the same business for at least the last 12 months,
-they've made at least 75 percent of their income (or 51 percent for agricultural businesses) from the business or trade.

The bill changing the law was Senate Bill 6538, prime-sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser and co-sponsored by Sen. Cheryl Pflug. Similar changes to federal law have been approved by Congress and signed by the president -- they're included in the federal health reform legislation passed this spring -- but don't take effect until 2014.

To find out more, talk to your insurance agent or broker, or call us -- the Washington state insurance commissioner's office -- at 1-800-562-6900.

Note: This post was corrected to indicate that the federal changes don't take effect until 2014.

WA court ruling says that insurance value of property includes sales tax

Jason Anderson, a Seattle lawyer and longtime author of the Washington State Insurance Law Blog, has put up a post re: a recent Washington State Supreme Court ruling that "actual cash value" of insured property includes sales tax, even if the policyholder hasn't yet purchased replacement property.

The case involves a woman named Laura Holden, who had rental insurance when a fire struck the home she was renting. She had coverage with Farmers, including an extra endorsement for replacement cost coverage. The insurer didn't want to pay sales tax until after Holden had purchased replacement items; she said she couldn't afford to pay first and then wait for reimbursement. Click here for Anderson's blog post summarizing the case and the court's ruling, which reversed a lower court's decision.

While we're at it, we might as well mention that there's at least one other longtime regional insurance law blog, the Northwest Insurance Law Blog, written by lawyers in Seattle and Portland. Both summarize recent rulings in insurance law. (And our usual disclaimer applies: mentioning an entity on this blog ≠ endorsement. But you knew that.)

Small business fair coming up in Renton

More than 30 federal, state and local government agencies -- including us -- and business and trade associations are hosting a Washington Small Business Fair in Renton on Sept. 25.

Here's the slogan, which sums it up nicely: "One day, one place - learn what you need to run a small business."

Our folks will be there with specifics on business insurance, and can answer questions about a wide variety of other insurance topics as well.

The event is free, parking is free, and no advance registration is required. It's from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Renton Technical College, 3000 NE 4th Street, in Renton. The fair offers dozens of seminars, covering things like how to start a startup, legal and tax issues, marketing and PR, government contracts, etc.

Here's the event's website, and here's its Facebook page.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Survey finds that few Americans are familiar with upcoming health care reform changes

Many Americans are confused about the details and timing of health care reforms, according to a new survey released today by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Only 14 percent of 1,000 representative American adults surveyed by phone could identify Sept. 23 as the start date for major reform provisions. They were given a choice of four dates.

Interestingly, 72 percent knew that many plans will no longer be able to exclude children with pre-existing conditions. Nearly as many -- 70 percent -- knew that parents will generally be able to keep their adult children on the parent's health plan until age 26. (There are exceptions, such as grandfathered plans.)

There are, however, some significant misperceptions out there, judging by the survey results. Half of the respondents thought tht employers with less than 50 workers will have to offer coverage to employees under the new law. In reality, those small companies will NOT be required to do so.

For a timeline of what happens when in health care reform, click here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Companies and individuals in West Indies, Miami, Georgia and Anguilla ordered to stop selling unauthorized doctors' insurance in WA

A long list of companies and individuals in the West Indies, Miami, Georgia and Anguilla have been ordered to stop selling unauthorized insurance in Washington state.

Doctors and Surgeons Benefit Association, based in Charlestown, the West Indies, and several related entities and individuals were named in a cease and desist order issued by Washington State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler. (Click on the order link above for the full list.)

State investigators found that the company sold medical professional liability insurance to at least one Washington resident from 2004 to 2007, despite not having an insurance agent license nor insurance company certificate in the state.

Cease and desist order issued re: auto glass shop rebates

The owners of two auto glass shops have been ordered to stop offering rebates -- $20 gas cards, $25 restaurant gift certificates, and apparently up to $100 in cash -- to customers.

M.S. Glass Outlet LLC, of Lynnwood, Wash. and M.S. Glass Outlet LLC, of Portland, Ore., and owners Mehdi and Mehran Saghafi, both of Beaverton, Ore. have been issued a cease and desist order from Washington State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler.

Employees for the companies twice offered Washington state insurance investigators rebates or dinner certificates on windshield replacement work. The amount depended on the customer's insurance deductible; cash customers got no rebate or certificate.

In Washington, however, state law prohibits service providers from waiving, rebating or paying a claimant's property or casualty insurance deductible. Why? Well, it's partly a level-playing-field issue, intended to help ensure fair competition. There's also the problem of those costs likely getting passed onto other customers who don't benefit.

Here's a copy of the order.

Friday, September 3, 2010

New tool helps you compare health care facilities

Have you seen everything on the new federal site? There's quite a bit, true. But we thought one tool was particularly useful. It allows you to enter your zip code and compare up to three hospitals, nursing homes and dialysis facilities in your area. For hospitals, you can compare ratings based on general performance, how it treats medical conditions and its surgical procedures.

For nursing homes, you get an overall rating as well as ratings on health inspections, nursing home staffing, quality measures, which programs participate, # of certified beds and the type of ownership.

Pretty cool. Check it out here.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Life insurance "checkbooks" -- otherwise known as Retained Asset Accounts

Picture this: You're the beneficiary on a life insurance policy of, say, your spouse. The person dies. But instead of a check for the life insurance, you get what looks like a checkbook.

The money is there anytime you want it, the company tells you. Simply write a check. In the meantime, the money will stay in an interest-bearing account.

Life insurers say that the practice allows people faced with a devastating emotional loss to take their time and make the right decisions about what to do with the money. They often offer different types of payouts, from a single lump sum to payments over the course of your lifetime, etc.

But they also tend to make money on this arrangement, by keeping some of the interest. This system, known as "retained asset accounts," has been much in the news lately.

Here at the Washington State Insurance Commissioner's Office, we've received virtually no complaints about RAAs -- and we checked back over several years -- but do feel that it's important that consumers know what these accounts are and how they work. In particular, they should know that they can cash out the entire balance immediately if they're ready to. Here's a page we built that describes how the accounts work, the types of payout options that insurers generally offer. Take a look.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

WA state to save nearly $60 million on reinsurance costs

Washington state is one of the employers taking advantage of an early program included in the Affordable Care Act - Thanks to the Early Retiree Program, the state's Health Care Authority (the agency that provides health benefits to state employees) expects to save $24.2 million on its retiree health benefits this year, and $34.5 next year.

How does it work? The Early Retiree Program was created to help businesses continue to offer health insurance to those workers 55 and older who retire early, but don't yet qualify for Medicare. Applicants who are approved to participate in the program receive reinsurance for the claims of high-cost retirees and their families.

Approved applicants can use these funds to provide premium relief and other health care cost relief to their retirees and workers and their families, to offset increases in their own health care premiums or costs, or for a combination of these purposes.

See a full list of the Washington businesses that have been accepted into the program so far.

Where to find car- and truck safety ratings online

Looking for crash ratings and other tests of cars and trucks?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety does vehicle tests, and has recently launched a new series of rollover-safety tests based on roof strength. It's easy to search for test results by make and model.

The ratings are closely watched by manufacturers, who often make changes based on test results. Ford, for example, recently made design changes to strengthen the outside door handles on the Ford Fiesta -- now designated a "Top Safety Pick" by IIHS -- to reduce the chance of doors springing open in side-impact crashes.

Last year, in honor of its 50th anniversay, IIHS made this striking video, comparing the crashworthiness -- nearly head to head -- of a 1959 Chevy Bel Air and a 2009 Chevy Malibu. The video's pretty amazing.

The other must-go place to look at crash tests is SaferCar.gov, where the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration posts the results of its crash test and rollover ratings. It also posts information about safety recalls, defect investigations, and how consumers can file complaints about suspected safety problems with vehicles.