Backers of Health Insurance Rate Regulation Edge Closer to Ballot

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Supporters of a proposed ballot measure seeking tighter regulation of health insurance rates in California turned in 800,000 petition signatures, confident that they will qualify for the Nov. 6 election.

In the coming weeks, county election offices and the California secretary of state will determine whether the measure meets the requirement for 504,760 valid signatures of registered voters. The deadline to qualify is June 28.

The initiative is expected to spark an expensive campaign battle over rising health insurance rates, which have angered thousands of California consumers in recent years. This measure seeks to regulate rate increases for health policies sold to individuals and small businesses, which cover about 5 million people. It doesn't affect plans purchased by larger employers that cover about 15 million Californians.

On Friday, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones joined with activists from Consumer Watchdog, the Santa Monica group leading the ballot drive, at the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder's office in Norwalk to drop off boxes of signatures.

"Over 34 states have given the insurance commissioner the authority to reject excessive rates," Jones said. "This isn't a novel idea. California is behind the rest of the nation."

The proposed ballot initiative would give Jones and the California Department of Insurance the same rate-setting authority over health insurance that they already hold over auto and property coverage. Opponents say that the measure would create a costly new bureaucracy at a time of growing state budget deficits, and they contend that it doesn't address the underlying reasons for rising premiums.

California's largest health insurers — Anthem Blue Cross, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc., Health Net Inc., Blue Shield of California and United Healthcare Insurance Co. — are leading the opposition by funding a group called Californians Against Higher Healthcare Costs. The coalition also draws support from doctors, hospitals and various business groups.

"We all agree that controlling healthcare costs is critical, but this flawed measure will do nothing to address the underlying costs driving healthcare premiums and will ultimately limit patients' access to care," said Don Crane, chief executive of the California Assn. of Physician Groups.

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