Senate HELP committee eyes regulation of health insurance premiums

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) on April 20 held a hearing to discuss unjustified premium increases by health insurers, once again setting the stage for federal rate regulation, reports the New York Times.

"I want to be clear that no one is talking about capping premiums or imposing price controls. What we are talking about is protecting consumers from insurance companies' jacking up premiums simply because they can," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the committee chairman. "Protections must be in place to ensure that insurance companies do not take advantage of current market conditions before health reform fundamentally changes the way they do business in 2014."

Some 22 states in the individual market and 27 states in the small-group market don't require premiums to be reviewed prior to implementation, he noted. "This is a gaping hole in our regulatory system, and it is unacceptable." Harkin highlighted the Health Insurance Rate Authority Act of 2010, a bill introduced earlier this year by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), noting that Democrats were "redoubling our efforts" to pass federal legislation to "ensur[e] that unjustified premiums are corrected in every state."

While some hearing witnesses, such as Michael McRaith, director of the Illinois Department of Insurance, threw their support behind the Feinstein bill, others didn't. Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans, recommended that Congress give the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act "time to be implemented and evaluated."

News broke during the hearing that UnitedHealth Group in Minnetonka, Minn., reported first-quarter fiscal year 2010 (1Q10) earnings of $1.03 per share, a 27 percent increase over 1Q09.

UnitedHealth raised its expectations for 2010 earnings per share to a range of $3.15 to $3.35 per share, up from its January estimate of $2.90 to $3.10 per share. The insurer reported revenue of $23.2 billion compared to $22 billion in the year-ago quarter. Analysts had anticipated 69 cents per share on 1Q10 revenue of $22.76 billion, notes the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal.

To learn more about the hearing and bill:
- read the New York Times article
- read Sen. Harkin's statement
- read Sen. Feinstein's press release on the proposed bill
- watch the hearing or read the panel members' statements here

To learn more about UnitedHealth's earnings:
- read this Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal report