In the news

WashPIRG
|
News Tribune (Tacoma)
By
Steve Breaux

Let’s face it. The 2011 Legislature will be remembered for one thing: the fierce debate over whose ox was gored to balance the budget.

Even before convening in early January, legislators were bombarded by a vast array of advocates pleading that funding be protected for programs such as children’s health, assistance for the needy and education at every level.

Although the focus is still on balancing the budget as the Legislature nears adjournment from the regular session, there is some good news from Olympia for consumers, and legislators should be recognized for delivering some meaningful consumer protections that will help people all across our state.

Foreclosure mediation will help keep more people in their homes

It’s generally recognized that no one wins in a foreclosure; a family loses its home, a bank gets stuck with real estate it didn’t want, the community suffers from another empty house on the block, and the county and state see a drop in property tax revenue.

Fortunately, help is on the way for homeowners facing a foreclosure, thanks to legislation that makes Washington the third non-judicial foreclosure state in the nation to offer a third-party mediation process for struggling homeowners.

Supported by a broad coalition of advocates led by the Statewide Poverty Action Network, House Bill 1362 will charge banks a $250 fee for every property they foreclose on and use the money to add housing counselors. Third-party mediators could determine whether the lender and borrower had followed the rules and “acted in good faith” during mediation, a failure of which would be a violation of the Consumer Protection Act.

Rate review oversight will benefit health care consumers

The state Office of the Insurance Commissioner (OIC) is responsible for reviewing and approving insurance rate increases in Washington, including those for health insurance in the individual and small-group markets.

Unfortunately, the OIC has to do much of its work with one hand tied behind its back: It’s not allowed to consider the beyond-reserve surpluses held by nonprofit health care insurers when they raise rates, and are only allowed to announce whether or not a rate review is approved – not what was included in the increase proposal or why the increase was approved or declined.

Although insurance lobbyists succeeded in blocking House Bill 1301 to allow the OIC to consider a not-for-profit health insurer’s surplus when reviewing a rate increase, advocates from groups such as WashPIRG, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Washington State Nurses Association and the AARP were able to overcome the insurance lobby and convince the Legislature that other measures were necessary for the OIC to work more effectively on behalf of Washington consumers.

House Bill 1220 will allow the OIC to disclose information included in health insurance rate filings before they are approved, including how much of the proposed rate will go to actually paying medical claims versus administrative costs, salaries, and profits.

Having this information publicly available before a rate increase is approved (as opposed to after-the-fact, which insurance provider Premera aggressively lobbied for) will allow the public to participate in the approval process and help keep health insurance rates down.

Other legislation that will benefit health care consumers include House Bill 1303 to maintain the OIC’s authority to review and approve rate filings for individual health plans and Senate Bill 5445 to create a state Health Benefits Exchange that will include representation for health-care consumers.

Having a health care consumer advocate at the table – alongside employee benefits specialists, health economists, small business representatives, and others – will help provide balance to the process as Washington begins implementing the state-level provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

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Author's note:

Among those who deserve credit for this years accomplishments to protect WA consumers:

  • Everyone at the Statewide Poverty Action Network, particularly Danielle Friedman and Marcy Bowers, for taking charge of organizing public and grassroots support of House Bill 1362, the “Foreclosure Fairness Act,” as well as Rep. Tina Orwall for sponsoring the bill and Sen. Adam Klinefor sponsoring companion legislation and moving the bill through the Senate.
  • State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler and the Staff of the Office of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner for requesting several bills that provide greater consumer protection in the area of health-care insurance oversight. Crucial to these efforts were Rep. Laurie Jinkins for sponsoring House Bill 1303, to Rep. Christine Rolfes for sponsoring House Bill 1220, and Sen. Karen Keiser for sponsoring companion legislation and her leadership on the Senate Committee on Health & Long-Term Care.
  • Governor Chris Gregoire for requesting legislation to create a state Health Benefits Exchange, to Sen. Karen Keiser for sponsoring Senate Bill 5445, and to Rep. Eileen Cody for sponsoring companion legislation and shepherding it through the House.

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