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Consumer advocacy groups protest CareFirst rate increase proposal

More than three dozen organizations are calling on Maryland's insurance regulator to reject big rate increases proposed by the state's dominant carrier, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, for plans sold to individuals on the exchange created by the Affordable Care Act.

CareFirst asked the Maryland Insurance Administration for average premium increases of 52 percent in 2018, far more than three other insurers on the exchange.

The organizations, led by the advocacy group Consumer Health First, called the proposed increases "stunning," and unaffordable for many. The organizations, which also include other patient advocacy groups and professional organizations, believe such rate hikes could potentially destabilize the marketplace. An analysis by Consumer Health First challenges the carrier's assumptions about the level of enrollee illness and costs.

In response, Chet Burell, president and CEO of CareFirst, acknowledged the proposed increases were large but said the carrier estimates it will have lost $600 million in the four years since it began selling plans under the law, known as Obamacare.

Burell said those insured by CareFirst have wide access to doctors and hospitals, which he said attracts more of the market's most sickly people. Past rate increases have been insufficient to cover them, he said. Going forward, Burell said insurers could be put in a "death spiral" if the Trump administration stops enforcing the so-called individual mandate that keeps healthy people paying into the pool and stops payments aimed at defraying the costs for low-income people. Congress already eliminated a program that helped insurers cover the most costly enrollees.

Congress is currently considering an overhaul of the Affordable Care Act.

A hearing on the rate increases is planned for Wednesday at the Maryland Insurance Administration.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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