Walker’s Health Insurance Lapdog

by Robert Kraig, executive director, Citizen Action of Wisconsin

wallker risking 183,000 B.jpgCitizen Action of Wisconsin released a devastating new report showing that Wisconsinites are paying dramatically more for health insurance than our neighbors in Minnesota, and documenting the direct responsibility of the Walker Administration’s lax insurance regulations. The report also called attention to the catastrophic impact a possible U.S. Supreme Court decision pulling health insurance subsidies from people just above the poverty line would have here in in Wisconsin.  

One would assume that the responsible state regulatory agency would have a substantive response defending their record and their preparedness for a potential cataclysmic Supreme Court decision. Not so much.

Lisa Kaiser of the Shepherd Express, in her article on our research, got the following reply from Governor Walker’s Office of the Commissioner of Insurance:

When asked to respond to Citizen Action’s findings or discuss Walker’s plans if the Supreme Court ends tax credits for Wisconsin’s insurance purchasers, J.P. Wieske, spokesman for the state insurance commissioner, refused.  “We don’t provide comment on press releases from partisan political sources,” Wieske emailed the Shepherd.

This refusal to engage critics, even when they present serious public policy research, is becoming a pattern. A few months ago the same Mr. Wieske, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Insurance Commissioner, abruptly pulled out of a health care panel discussion sponsored by the Oshkosh Northwestern he agreed to be part of when he learned that Kevin Kane of Citizen Action would be on the panel (Kevin did the research for our Minnesota-Wisconsin report).

As the public agency charged with regulating the insurance industry the Insurance Commissioner owes consumers an explanation for why premiums are so high, and policymakers advice on how to bring them down. In addition, with the health coverage of over 184,000 Wisconsinites is currently threatened by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Insurance Commissioner has a critical public responsibility to recommend ways to protect those consumers from a predictable human made disaster which threatens lives and livelihoods.

The new Citizen Action report should be a wake up call, not something to be ducked.

The report finds that insurance premiums in Wisconsin for Silver plan are 60% higher than in Minnesota on average, amounting to $1,692 more per person per year. In addition the report provides direct evidence that a significant part of this rate disparity is a consequence of Walker Administration policies which, in contrast to Minnesota’s, are tilted towards the insurance industry. The report finds that the Insurance Commissioner's refusal to conduct robust rate review of large premium hikes and his decision to continue to allow the sale of substandard health insurance policies together are leading to increased premiums. Also turning down the federal dollars for BadgerCare likely increasing private health insurance rates another 8% to 10%. In total, the report shows that up to half of the rate disparity can be linked through empirical data to Walker Administration policies.

My guess is that the Insurance Commissioner’s Office won’t respond because they have nothing to say. They see their role as protecting the industry they are charged with regulating, have no serious plans for trying to tackle the critical issue of rising health insurance costs, and are making no contingency plans for a threatening U.S. Supreme Court action. In their press releases the Insurance Commissioner’s Office makes the assertion that Wisconsin has a competitive health insurance industry that keeps costs down, but this is belied by all the empirical research that Wisconsin health insurance premiums are high.

One thing that would create more accountability is an elected insurance commissioner. A Citizen Action of Wisconsin report released last year found that states with elected insurance commissioners have health insurance premiums nearly $600 a year lower. This stands to reason, because if an Insurance Commissioner has to face voters he or she will be less likely to become the complete captive of the industry they are supposed to regulate.

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