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What is a Prior Approval Law?

As the news of expected and enacted premium increases spreads across the country, these state-level legislative measures are receiving more and more attention. Elected officials proudly tout them and insurance companies are already suing states in response to them. Most people, however, don’t know much about prior approval laws.

The term “prior approval law” refers to legislation that grants the officials of a state the power to review and approve health insurance premium increases before they take effect. These laws are passed at the state level and usually give the authority to the State Insurance Department. Without prior approval laws, states are restricted in their ability to regulate premium increases and, de facto or de jure, the insurance industry self-regulates.

Prior approval laws have gained attention as a result of the recent healthcare reform, which affords the federal government limited power to curtail premium increases. Although the federal reform includes provisions such as that which requires insurers to justify “unreasonable” rate increases, much of the power necessary for premium moderation has been left outside the reach of the national government.

Regulating premiums has traditionally been the responsibility of the states, and now, as we continue to see double digit premium increases during this economic crisis, it is more important than ever for states to fulfill this responsibility. It is the disappointing truth that only 19 states currently have prior approval legislation on the books. Of those 19, however, some states are making great progress by enforcing these laws. For example, Oregon officials have modified or dismissed 20 of 71 proffered premium increases in the individual and small group markets since April 2009.

Some consumer advocates and politicians support granting prior approval authority to all states. Doing so would likely end many current lawsuits between insurance companies and states. But the effectiveness of such legislation in suppressing premium increases would depend on politicians’ willingness to resist the influence of the insurance industry.

It is well known that the healthcare insurance industry aggressively lobbies federal officials and helped pen much of the recent healthcare reform. Few realize, however, that the industry exerts significant pressure at the state level as well. Much of that pressure comes from over $42 million in contributions since 2003. Jim Duffett, executive director of the Illinois-based Campaign for Better Health Care, describes the result of excessive lobbying: “State government here has basically been a wholly owned subsidiary of the insurance industry.”

Apparently, insurance companies already know what many of us are just learning; as Washington State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler warns, “The battle has shifted to the states.”

Look for more on this and other healthcare legislation in future posts.

L.A. Times
N.Y. State Government

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