Anthem’s Rate Hikes To Add To Burdens Of Jobless

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The prospect of paying Anthem Blue Cross $911 a month for health
insurance has Ursula Britton counting birthdays and feeling as if she’s
boxed into a corner.

The 63-year-old unemployed paralegal from Ventura lives on about
$500 a week, from unemployment insurance, early Social Security and a
one-day-a-week job framing pictures. She’s among the thousands of
Californians with individual Anthem Blue Cross policies who were told
their premiums would rise March 1 by as much as 39 percent.

They were given a two-month reprieve when the insurer postponed its
plans pending an investigation by the state, but the rate hikes are
still scheduled for May. That leaves Britton and others throughout
Ventura County calculating how their healthcare and finances may change.

“I’ve cut out every single non-essential in my life,” said Britton.
“I don’t go out to dinner. I don’t go out to concerts and plays. If I
go to the $3 movies at the Regency Buenaventura, that’s my big splurge
of the week.”

Initial reports of the hikes by the Los Angeles Times more than a
month ago loosened a mudslide of controversy that continues to pick up

There have been demands for explanations from state and federal
lawmakers as well as the White House. Documents of financial records
have been subpoenaed. Last week, Consumer Watchdog filed a lawsuit in
Ventura County Superior Court alleging the insurer doesn’t offer
adequate alternatives when it closes a policy.

Anthem Blue Cross, the largest for-profit insurer in California,
hadn’t responded to the lawsuit as of Friday but defends the rate hikes
by citing factors like the growing number of healthy people going
without coverage.

Like others affected by the rate hikes, Britton has followed every news story.

“I already sent a letter to the consumer group,” she said of the
pending lawsuit, “telling them I would work on the case pro bono.”

Her premiums are scheduled to jump $189 a month in May — 26 percent
higher than she pays now. Because of asthma and other health issues,
she knows she can’t get coverage from another insurance company.

Anthem Blue Cross has offered her a different plan with a higher
deductible and lower premiums. But in that policy, she’d pay about
$1,688 a month for a medication called Gleevec.

After complaining to the insurer and announcing her plans to file a
complaint with the California Department of Insurance, she was told of
another plan with a flat rate for prescriptions.

She still thinks it’s likely her best bet will be to pay the higher
premiums and wait to turn 65, when she will be eligible for Medicare.
She’ll dip deeper into her 401k account and live as frugally as she can.

“I’m cutting back on everything I can cut back on,” she said.

The California Department of Insurance is investigating to see
whether Woodland Hills-based Anthem Blue Cross violated state law by
using less than 70 percent of money from premiums for medical care.
California Attorney General Jerry Brown has demanded financial records
from not only Blue Cross but six other insurers in the state.

On Wednesday, executives from five insurance companies met with U.S.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and briefly with
President Obama to talk about the double-digit premium increases.

Officials at WellPoint, Anthem Blue Cross’ parent company in
Indianapolis, said the rates are in line with what competitors are
offering. In a letter explaining the rate increases to Sebelius,
WellPoint executive Brian Sassi said a barrier facing all insurance
companies is that people are so worried about money that many of them
will buy insurance only if they know they’re going to use it.

The more people use insurance, the more insurers have to pay, which
is why Anthem Blue Cross lost money with its individual health policies
in 2009, Sassi said.

Sebelius rejected the explanation, citing WellPoint’s $4.75 billion profit in the last quarter of 2009.

Betty Fernandez of Camarillo was asked to pay $195 a month, or $49
more than she does now. And if that doesn’t sound burdensome, consider
her monthly housing costs are $1,400, compared with unemployment income
she once thought would total $1,600 a month but now might be much less.

She has worked three jobs simultaneously over the past two years.
She was laid off from her steadiest work, as a legal assistant in a law
office, at the end of December.

For her, $49 a month means a tank of gas to help find a new job.
When it came time to pay her premiums late last month, she opted to go
without coverage, not even realizing the rate hike had been postponed.

If she had known, she would have made the same decision, “because
it’s going to cut into my survival,” Fernandez said, rattling off her
car insurance and a litany of other costs. “The only thing I could
really sidestep is my health insurance.”

There are more stories. A Newbury Park florist plans on changing his
policy to a $7,500 deductible to shave his $1,606 premiums to less than
half that.

Brad Lunetta is a self-employed real estate appraiser who lives in
Ventura with his wife and two sons. Their premiums have jumped about 25
percent each of the last two years, from $457 a month for a family of
four to $709 as of March.

He’s still doing the math on a higher deductible but thinks he’ll probably pay the increases and stay with his current plan.

Lunetta cheers every time he hears news that puts more pressure on
insurers, hoping that eventually changes will come. But he’s not enough
of an optimist to think his rate hike will be reduced.

“I go from being an optimist to being a realist,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Consumer Watchdog
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