Over the past decade health insurance rates in Montana jumped 88 percent, now consuming roughly 17 percent of the average family's income. That's a troubling trend for the state's insurance commissioner, who, despite being charged to regulate the industry, has no authority to vet or deny premium hikes.
"I think it should be troubling for all Montanans," says Commissioner Monica Lindeen. "You have to wonder, if nobody's checking to make sure, then there were probably rate increases that didn't need to be as high as they were."
Montana, Georgia and Missouri stand out as the only states that don't regulate insurance rates. Lindeen hopes to change that. She's asked Rep. Robyn Driscoll, D-Billings, to sponsor House Bill 105, which would grant Lindeen's office authority to scrutinize health care premiums.
As originally drafted, the bill would give Montana's insurance commissioner power to deny rate increases deemed excessive. But the insurance industry has pushed back.
"Obviously, the health insurance industry, which has had no regulation in this area in Montana, is going to fight that," Lindeen says.
The bill has been amended to get the state's largest insurer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana (BCBSM), among others, on board. While the amendments haven't been made public, they likely limit the insurance commissioner's power to deny rate hikes.
BCBSM Spokesman Tim Warner says the original version of the bill would have been too costly for the industry to bear.
"Without the amendments it could actually cause us to increase the administrative burden and the administrative cost," Warner says, "[which could] have the potential to increase premiums."
At a time when health-care costs have skyrocketed across the board, Warner says BCBSM has shaved $10 million off of its administrative expenses over the last three years.
Montanans should realize, Warner says, that insurance rates are the product of a complicated equation, and it's simply not fair to demonize the insurance industry.
"We end up on the pointy end of the stick," he says.
The Legislature's House Business and Labor Committee will again take up HB 105 in the coming weeks.