2nd Arizona insurer also asking for small 2018 rate boost

Federal filings released Tuesday show the largest seller of individual health insurance on Arizona's Affordable Care Act marketplace is seeking price increases of less than 5 percent next year for clients in Maricopa and Pima counties.

The filings by Centene Corp's Ambetter by Health Net mark a big departure from this year's major increases and come a day after Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona said its average rates would be rising by only about 7.2 percent next year amid growing market stability.

Health Net offers individual policies in the state's two largest counties that cover about two-thirds of the 140,000 people with marketplace policies statewide. Blue Cross insures in the other 13 counties.

This year's increases for both insurers topped 50 percent. A Blue Cross executive told The Associated Press Monday that a stabilizing market led to its smaller planned boosts. Health Net officials didn't comment on its reasoning.

The relatively small increases and market stability undercut some of Gov. Doug Ducey's arguments that the state's marketplace is broken. Ducey was in Washington on Monday to meet with Trump administration officials and a handful of other Republican governors on a possible repeal of former President Barack Obama's health law in the wake of the failure of an effort last week in the U.S. Senate.

Arizona had some of the lowest rates in the nation and robust competition from multiple insurers when the individual marketplaces launched for the 2014 coverage year. But insurers underpriced their plans and saw big losses, leading all but Blue Cross and Health Net to leave the state by this year and premiums to skyrocket.

Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak issued a statement noting that prior to the Obama law the state had over two dozen companies selling plans on the individual market.

"This year, most Arizonans had only a single provider to choose from in the federal marketplace while facing premium increases on average of 50 percent," he said in a statement. "The governor believes a healthy individual marketplace should provide choice, competition, and lower premiums for consumers."

University of Arizona health insurance expert Dr. Daniel Derksen said that's partially true but neglects pre-ACA issues that showed a troubled marketplace.

"I think a more complete context is that the individual or non-group marketplace has been unstable and volatile for the last 10 years, certainly preceding the ACA," Derksen said.

Blue Cross designed its 2018 rates to reflect the elimination of "cost sharing reduction" payments from the federal government that help lower costs for people earning less than 250 percent of the poverty line.

The law requires insurers to lower copays and deductibles for that group, but President Donald Trump has threatened to withhold the payments and let the Affordable Care Act marketplaces fail.

If Congress passes a bill ensuring the payments, there will likely be no rate increases next year, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona Vice President Jeff Stelnik said.

Health Net spokeswoman Monica Coury said its rate request assumes the payments continue.