State wants to boost scrutiny of health insurance

SALEM — Oregon officials want to give the public more of an opportunity to comment on proposals to hike health insurance rates.

The Oregon Insurance Division, the state's insurance regulator, is asking state lawmakers for authority to spend a $4 million federal grant that would pay for better scrutiny of proposed rate hikes and public hearings that would allow consumers to weigh in. Officials explained the idea to a panel of legislators on Thursday.

The Insurance Division is responsible for reviewing proposals to set health insurance rates on plans offered to individual consumers and small businesses, which represent about 12 percent of the market, said spokeswoman Cheryl Martinis.

"People want to know what we're doing, how closely we're looking at rate requests," Martinis told The Associated Press.

For the first time in decades, the agency held public hearings this year to scrutinize rate hike requests by two insurers, Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon and ODS Health Plan. Regulators cut Regence's rate hike from a requested 22.1 percent to 12.8 percent. The ODS proposal is still pending.

The federal grant would pay for the state to equip a meeting room for broadcasting rate-hike hearings online, to pay a consumer advocacy group to review mathematical analyses and to hire more staff to evaluate and explain proposed rate hikes. The state has already secured the grant, but the Legislature's budget committee still has to vote to approve taking the money.

The public has long had an opportunity to comment on rate hike requests. But officials hope the extra money will allow them to improve their analyses and make it much easier for affected consumers to share their thoughts. They also say public hearings would provide a forum for the insurance companies to explain their proposal.

Scott Burton, a Regence spokesman, said the Insurance Division already has a very transparent process for approving rate increases.

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