This month, the Pennsylvania Insurance Department will announce health insurance premium rates on individual and small group plans for 2017, just ahead of the open enrollment period that begins in November. In July, the Department held its first annual public informational hearing on proposed rate increases following eight months of pressure from Put People First! PA (PPF-PA) members who engaged hundreds of impacted people and organizations across the state. At the hearing, dozens expressed opposition to rate increases, with story after story about how insurance companies are bankrupting PA families. Testifiers were supported by advocacy groups, public health organizations, unions and state legislators.

Citing rising healthcare costs, their own profit margins and not enough young and healthy people signing up for plans, insurance companies seek to stem profit losses by hiking rates on people who need access to care, and putting pressure on government regulators to allow it – something we saw in public for the first time during the hearing in July. At last month’s PA Health Access Network (PHAN) Conference in Harrisburg, Insurance Commissioner Teresa Miller foreshadowed the announcement of potentially large increases, lamenting that rates were kept ‘too low’ last year. But if increases of up to 26.7% are still considered too low to prop up big insurers, nearly a million enrolled in the Marketplace face a dastardly trick this fall.

In “Beyond Coverage, Putting People First In Pennsylvania’s Healthcare System”, a recent report based on a survey of people in 46 counties by PPF-PA, 82% of respondents indicated that last year’s premium increases affected their lives, while 37% indicated that the cost of medical care has forced them to skip paying for basic necessities like food and rent within the past 12 months.

As another round of increased insurance premiums impact family budgets, more Pennsylvanians  will be driven out of the marketplace, leading to a vicious cycle of more expensive yet narrower plans. Currently the individual penalty for not buying insurance of $695/yr., or 2.5% of personal income (whichever is higher), is well beyond what most people can afford.

July’s public hearing was a triumph for democracy in Pennsylvania. The Insurance Department responded to the organized power of people, and listened attentively to our struggles with out-of-control insurance costs. We called on the department to represent the interests of the people because proper regulation of insurance companies is necessary to protect our health and human rights. In our survey of PA residents, 9 out of 10 people agreed that the government needs to do more to protect Pennsylvanians’ health.

The people have already said loudly and clearly that insurance companies cannot be allowed to balance their books on our backs. There is no situation in which a company’s bottom line should come before the needs of a cancer patient or a pregnant person. Our lives are at stake – the health of people comes before the health of the bottom line. Put People First looks forward to the release of new insurance rates for 2017. It will be a pivotal moment to understand whether there is a place for democracy in our healthcare system, and if not, what must be done about it.

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