Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Are you paying too much for health insurance?

Did you know that Pennsylvania and Hawaii are the only states that place no limits on how commercial insurance companies base their premiums for small employers?

That means for-profit insurance companies can charge whatever they want. They can raise their rates 10 times higher than the rate of inflation at time of renewal. And guess what? That’s what these companies have been doing in Pennsylvania over the past five years.

Since 2000, more than 330,000 non-elderly Pennsylvanians have lost their health coverage. Others have been forced by employers to pay a bigger share of the cost of health insurance, while at the same time, paying higher deductibles and co-pays. Some employers are reluctant to fill vacancies because they will have to pay so much in health insurance premiums for new workers.

State Sen. Rob Wonderling, R-24th Dist., wants to help small companies and their workers by placing the same regulations on for-profit firms that the state already imposes on non-profit insurance carriers like Blue Cross and Blue Shield and HMOs.

In the next few weeks, Wonderling will introduce Senate Bill 671 to reform health insurance rating practices for small employer groups. The bill, and its companion legislation in the state House, would restrict how insurance carriers assess companies with workers at an average age of 45 or firms that have too many women working there or places of employment where the group’s medical questionnaires showed possible health needs.

Senator Wonderling’s legislation would implement a uniform modified demographic rating requirement that would be used by all health insurers writing health insurance for small employers in the Commonwealth.

In plain language, it would level the playing field for small employers and allow companies to continue offering health coverage to workers at reasonable rates.

The proposed legislation would prohibit the use of "medical underwriting" to adjust the rate of a small group policy. Insurers could not use medical questionnaires to identify employee and dependent health status, physical or mental conditions, genetic information or disability when setting rates. "Pre-existing condition" standards could be used for the first 12 months of policy coverage. Renewal of small group plans would be guaranteed.

"My biggest reason for being the prime sponsor of a bill to lower the cost of health insurance is the number of people in my Senate district who work very hard but do not have health care coverage," Wonderling said. "During my campaign, I talked to both employers who wanted to provide health care coverage but couldn’t because of the cost, and employees who don’t have health insurance provided by their employers. I knew that the problem existed but I was struck by how common the problem was."

As Wonderling looked into the issue, he found a shocking statistic — 80 percent of the people who don’t have health insurance have jobs.

"Think about that. These are hard working people trying to feed their families but are terrified that they will get sick or hurt because if they do, the money needed to pay for health insurance has to come from some other important priority," Wonderling said. "I want to help hard working people get ahead, not just get by. This is part of making the American dream a reality for more people in Pennsylvania."

Small group health insurance reform is long overdue in Pennsylvania. The continuation of the current practices that discriminate against groups based on age, gender and health status will only lead to the creation of a large group of uninsured and uninsurable Pennsylvanians.

And if you’re currently enrolled in a Blue Cross plan, don’t think this doesn’t affect you. The higher insurance premiums go for small companies, the more workers will be left without private insurance. That means they will go on Medicare, which is funded by taxpayers.

Wonderling needs our help. If you’re fed up with the high cost of health insurance, you need to impress on your state senator or representative that his or her job depends on whether they support Senate Bill 671 and its companion bill in the state House.

I urge to call, write or e-mail your state senator today with a simple message: Support Senate Bill 671 to curb skyrocketing health insurance costs. Be sure to include your full name and your home address so they know you’re a registered voter and you’re serious about holding them accountable.

For all the talk about politicians catering to special interests and being wooed by industry lobbyists, the bottom line is that a politician can be fired by the voters. Without your vote, they can’t go back to Harrisburg and enjoy those very generous perks of public office.

So let’s call in a favor and get our representatives in Harrisburg to do something in the best interests of hard-working Pennsylvanians.

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at


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