What Can You Do About Health-Insurance Rate Hikes?

Nothing is certain in life but death, taxes – and as it looks now, hefty insurance premium hikes come 2016. Is there anything consumers can do?

You can complain, especially if you live in New York.

That's not because New Yorkers’ premiums are going up any more than anyone else's, or that New Yorkers are better complainers. The Empire State, it turns out, is the only state that requires insurance companies to write letters to their customers regarding proposed rate changes, if they're requesting a hike of more than 10%, said Tom Harte, president and owner of Landmark Benefits in Hampstead, New Hampshire. In addition to notifying customers, companies invite them to comment on the proposed changes.

As a New Yorker, I received a letter last week from UnitedHealthcare Oxford saying the company has filed a request with the New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS) for approval of an increase to my premium of 15.8%.

"Rising medical expenses are the main reason for the requested increase," it said. "A number of factors contribute to these rising costs, including increases in the cost of medical services and increases in the amount of services used." It then provided a couple of options for me to submit comments on its proposal.

And the upcoming price hikes aren’t just coming to New York. A handful of major carriers from around the country selling plans under ObamaCare are proposing big increases in the premium rates for 2016 -- many of which are in the double-digit percentages (even as high as 30 percent), according to data released last week by the White House.

To be clear, the "proposed" rate increases aren’t necessarily the actual increase we’ll have to pay in January 2016. Insurance companies are in the process of asking state authorities for a certain amount, but according to Katie Hill of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), "proposed rates provide an early look at insurance companies' initial estimates, but rates often decrease from what is proposed before becoming final."

So from now until rates are finalized in October, customers have the opportunity to "weigh in," about their proposed rate hike. If you don't live in New York, you may not have received a notice about what increase your carrier is requesting, but you can still find out.

And you can complain.

"Because of the Affordable Care Act and rate review process set up in states, consumers have an opportunity to weigh in on proposed increases of 10% or greater before the rates are finalized," Hill said.

Consumers can look up their plan on ratereview.healthcare.gov to see what rate change their insurance carrier is requesting. If they're not happy with the requested change they can "weigh in" in the "consumer comments" section, but few insurance experts believe customers' comments will carry much weight in rate negotiation.

"I don't see it having an effect," said Joel Koral, a health insurance broker based in Montvale, New Jersey. "It's not like appealing to a planning board for a public project.”

Consumer advocacy groups will also be pushing back on rate increases, according to Katherine Hempstead, director of health insurance coverage at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"Consumers shouldn't panic, because there [are] a lot of steps involved before rates are finalized," she said.