Campaign to regulate health insurance premiums launched in SF

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Consumer Watchdog is making Blue Shield the poster child for health insurance reform in California.

Representatives from Consumer Watchdog and other groups today launched a ballot measure campaign to regulate health insurance rates in California with an event outside the San Francisco headquarters of Blue Shield of California, which is in the process of substantially increasing health premiums for a second consecutive year despite sitting on billions of dollars in cash reserves.

Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court told us the measure and the campaign to gather the 505,000 valid signatures needed to qualify it for the November ballot would be similar to the group's landmark 1988 campaign to pass Prop. 103, which regulated car insurance rates. That will include an extensive effort to mail petitions directly to voters and seek donations for the efforts, supplemented this time by an e-mail campaign.

“On 103, they got all but 100,000 signatures that way,” Court said, adding, “This is Prop. 103 for health insurance.”

The 800-word measure would require health insurance companies to publicly justify their rate increase requests, make the company CEOs affirm that financial data under penalty of perjury, and make the rate increases subject to approval by California's Insurance Commissioner.

Significantly, the first person to sign the petition was U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who Court told us is co-chairing the campaign. “She has a real passion for the issue,” he said, describing how she was so outraged by a Blue Shield executive's testimony to Congress over its double-digit proposed rate hike last year that she sponsored legislation to regulate health insurance premiums, which was defeated.

Blue Shield is officially a nonprofit company, and Court said its public filings show it has $3.4 billion in reserves, with is about 1400 percent more than the state requires. He also said many Blue Shield customers will be hit with a 15 percent rate hike on March 1, and he cited California Healthcare Foundation figures showing health insurance premiums have increased 153 percent in the last decade, while inflation increased by just 29 percent.

Calls to Blue Shield's press office have not been returned, but I'll update this post if/when they call.