NC's Blue Cross cutting rate request on individual policies

By EMERY P. DALESIO Markets Associated Press

North Carolina's largest health insurance company said Wednesday it doesn't need a 22.9 percent price increase after all for individual policies it will sell next year through the Affordable Care Act and is cutting its request to an average 14.1 percent instead.

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Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina -- the only insurer offering ACA policies in 95 out of North Carolina's 100 counties this year -- said it would seek less despite ongoing uncertainty about how Congress and President Donald Trump would alter or scrap President Barack Obama's health insurance overhaul law.

In May, the Durham-based insurer blamed the size of its 2018 rate increase on the Republican-led Congress refusal to fully fund so-called "cost sharing reductions," a subsidy that helps insurance companies hold down customer premiums. Trump has threatened to withhold the payments and hasten the failure of the marketplaces created by the law nicknamed "Obamacare."

Blue Cross said in May that if Washington would make the promised payments, its average rate increase for individual ACA plans next year would be 8.8 percent, the lowest in the past four years.

The insurer said Wednesday that its lower rate increase was based on updated information about the anticipated medical costs of people covered under ACA insurance plans.

"We got information in June and July that made us confident we could reduce our requested rate increase for 2018," Blue Cross pricing executive Brian Tajlili said in a statement.

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The requested premium increases must be approved by state regulators. Companies also have several weeks to finalize their 2018 coverage plans.

Blue Cross has sought double-digit rate increases since the first year ACA-compliant insurance plans began being sold on a federal marketplace in 2014. The company increased prices by an average of 24 percent this year, 32.5 percent in 2016 and 13.5 percent in 2015.

It's unclear whether Blue Cross' dominant position with more than 500,000 ACA customers would be challenged by competitors in 2018.

Cigna is the only other insurer selling ACA policies in North Carolina this year, but confines its business to five counties near Raleigh. The company in May requested an average 31.9 percent rate increase in 2018 affecting about 21,000 customers, according to its state regulatory filing.

A Cigna spokesman did not respond to messages asking whether the company had revised its rate request since May.

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