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How HMOs Hid Rates on State Site

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Lottie Watts
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

How much will it cost Floridians to buy coverage next year on Lots of people want to know, but the insurers are keeping the prices secret in an unprecedented way.

(Editor's note: This is a conversation between WUSF All Things Considered Host Craig Kopp and Health News Florida Editor Carol Gentry.)

CRAIG: Carol, we’re here to talk about insurance rates on the individual market under the Affordable Care Act the next time people have opportunity to sign up for insurance under Obamacare but – Funny story -- you thought you had some news about those rates last week.

CAROL: Right. It was an amazing, unprecedented story if it had turned out to be true. Rates were not going up for the first time in history.

CRAIG: Where did you get that idea?

CAROL: From the state website, the Office of Insurance Regulation. All of the rates on that sheet that were not rate decreases said zero.

CRAIG: So you thought that it looked like the rates were either going to stay the same or go down on the individual market. Did you do any checking up on that?

CAROL: Oh sure, I called lots of people in the insurance industry and they were scratching their heads, they didn’t know what it meant. I checked with the agency and their press person didn’t know. Now the companies themselves, the insurance companies, their lips are zipped about rates. The whole point is they put that there to mislead one another. They’re trying to keep others from undercutting them so they didn’t want any word to get out.

CRAIG: So they put zeroes there instead of what their rate request was going to be.

CAROL: That’s right. Except that there was no indication on that website that’s what it was. So to everybody who knows how to use that website it looked like there were no rate increases.

CRAIG: Did you go with this story on our website Health News Florida?

CAROL: We published that story and It had lots of caveats and qualifiers. It said, Can this really be true? It would be the first time in history. Are we really sure about this? We put all those qualifiers in but the trouble is there are a lot of people around the country watching this whole thing about rates. So Politico and The Hill and some other publishing outlets that are very into politics, they picked up the story as ah, Obamacare is working and look at what’s happening in FL! And so all of a sudden we were the focus of a huge amount of attention. So then I get a call about 5 o’clock that afternoon from the state saying, uh, well, actually those rates aren’t true, those are incorrect.

CRAIG: Did they explain to you why there were zeroes up there?

CAROL: They said the plans didn’t want to tell their real rates so they put zero there. To make matters even more complicated, the companies now have invoked trade secret law. They say the insurance regulation department couldn’t release the rates because they were claiming them as a trade secret.

CRAIG: They’re eventually going have to release those rates because people are going to want to buy insurance.

CAROL: The enrollment starts Nov. 15 this year. If they want to compete in the market they’re going to have to be released.

CRAIG: So, what are the rates going to be like? You got any indication now, a week after you thought history might have been made? Do we have any idea where rates are heading when people go on the individual market to get insurance in November?

CAROL: The Insurance Department says there are going to be some increases and some decreases, but they won’t tell us any more than that. So the answer is no, we don’t know any more than we knew before.

CRAIG: Carol Gentry of Health News Florida, are you ever going to trust numbers you see on the office of  insurance in the state of Florida again?

CAROL: Not only will I not, but no reporter I know is going to trust anything off the state websites anymore.

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Carol Gentry, founder and special correspondent of Health News Florida, has four decades of experience covering health finance and policy, with an emphasis on consumer education and protection.