As insurers push large premium increases for 2017 Obamacare plans, some of the steepest hikes have been requested by insurers in crucial swing states that could determine control of the Senate.
In nine of 11 states with competitive Senate races, at least one insurer seeks to hike rates for Obamacare customers by at least 30 percent next year: Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield in Pennsylvania wants to jack up average premiums by more than 40 percent. In Wisconsin, three insurers have asked for rate hikes of more than 30 percent. In New Hampshire, two of the five carriers want to sell plans with rate increase above 30 percent.
The potential sticker shock — coupled with the likelihood many consumers will have fewer choices next year after major insurers scale back their exchange participation — creates a potential political opening for Republican candidates, especially since the next Obamacare enrollment season starts one week before Election Day.
“People who are feeling it in their pocketbooks are going to be very unhappy about [rate hikes],” said Brian Walsh, a former communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “You would expect to see this will be part of the campaign messaging for House and Senate Republicans. … If it hasn’t started, it will be coming.”
While Donald Trump often cites eye-popping rate hikes as proof the health care law is a “disaster,” rate hikes haven’t yet emerged as a major campaign issue in most Senate races — although several Republicans said they plan to spotlight the issue in the fall.
Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, one of the most endangered Republicans, said the health care law has been a “massive consumer fraud and it’s harming real people.” In an interview, Johnson said his campaign will “lay out the facts” about 2017 premium hikes, and he accused his Democratic opponent, former Sen. Russ Feingold, of having a “blasé attitude” about the law’s problems.
“People are experiencing enormous premium increases,” Johnson said. “It’s not working.”
The reality is that most Obamacare customers won’t have to pay headline-grabbing rate hikes since the vast majority are eligible for federal subsidies that reduce their monthly insurance costs. And proposed rates, which HHS posted publicly earlier this month, are likely to come down under regulatory scrutiny.
However, millions of people who buy their own coverage and who don’t receive federal help will be exposed to the full rate hikes unless they can switch into a cheaper plan.
In Indiana, where Indianapolis-based Insurance giant Anthem wants to raise Obamacare premiums by as much as 36 percent, Rep. Todd Young, the Republican candidate for Indiana’s open seat, is already making the rate hikes an issue against former Sen. Evan Bayh his Democratic challenger. Bayh voted for Obamacare but didn’t run for reelection in 2010.
“This is sort of the first chance that voters have had to hold [Bayh] accountable for all the negative effects,” said Young’s campaign manager Trevor Foughty. “He’s never faced the voters on this issue.”
Bayh acknowledged in a recent interview with POLITICO that the law needs to be improved, but cited its ban on denying coverage to sick individuals and the expansion of Medicaid as major improvements that would hurt Indiana residents if overturned. In particular, Bayh pointed to the experience of his wife, Susan, who recently had successful brain surgery that would have cost $90,000 without insurance, as evidence of the need for the law.“If a family without insurance had gotten that bill? They’d be bankrupted,” Bayh said in Indianapolis. “Lose their home, lose their car, lose their life savings. We can’t go back to those days.”
Until now, Obamacare hasn’t packed the same political punch it had in the last three election cycles when anger over the law helped Republicans recapture both chambers of Congress.
According to Kantar Media, which tracks political ads, Obamacare has been mentioned by campaigns or outside groups in eight Senate races since the start of the year: Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
As in previous cycles, Republicans are spending more than Democrats on ads mentioning Obamacare. But overall spending on Obamacare ads is significantly down. According to Kantar, the health care law this year accounts for slightly less than 10 percent of ad spending in Senate races.
“I think there are parts of both parties’ bases where this is either a great accomplishment or this is still heresy,” said Kantar Media Vice President Steve Passwaiter.
Across the country, insurers’ requested rate increases for 2017 are larger than in the first three years of Obamacare’s insurance marketplaces. Charles Gaba, an Obamacare supporter who analyzes enrollment data, estimates that insurers on average have requested rate hikes of 23 percent for 2017 health plans. That’s compared to just a 6 percent increase this year for so-called silver plans, the most popular level of coverage on the exchanges, according to the Commonwealth Fund.
The steeper 2017 hikes are the result of many factors, including faulty policies, ongoing Republican opposition to the law, and some insurers’ calculation they can’t sustain massive financial losses on the exchanges any longer. Insurers say Obamacare exchange customers are sicker than expected, though the Obama administration disputes that claim.
Either way, the damage to the exchanges has been done. Aetna this month joined Humana and UnitedHealth Group in significantly paring back its exchange offerings for 2017 after losing hundreds of millions of dollars on Obamacare customers in the individual market — and after Obama’s Justice Department sought to block the company’s merger with Humana.
In Arizona, Sen. John McCain has run anti-Obamacare ads as the state’s insurers seek rate hikes topping 88 percent. And Aetna’s decision this month to cut back its exchange business left one Arizona county without any company planning to offer coverage next year. Part of that county happens to be in the home district of McCain’s Democratic opponent, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick.
“Arizona families cannot afford Congresswoman Kirkpatrick’s liberal policies,” McCain’s campaign said following Aetna’s announcement.
GOP strategists said some Republicans are missing an opportunity to run on Obamacare’s missteps. Massive rate hikes and fewer insurance options this year could be attractive fodder for 30-second attack ads.
Johnson is in danger of losing to Feingold, the Democrat he unseated in 2010 amid a tea party wave fueled by anti-Obamacare sentiment. Feingold holds a substantial lead in the polls in a state that Trump lost by double-digits in the Republican primary.
GOP strategists in Wisconsin say the “ad wars” are just starting, which may be why Obamacare hasn’t gotten significant attention. Johnson and Feingold have both run ads on national security issues, but there hasn’t been a “broad palette of issues yet,” said Wisconsin Republican strategist Brian Fraley.
“[Obamacare] is a sleeper issue that Ron Johnson could use,” Fraley said. “It’s one of the few issues that you can contrast with and the effects are here."
Democrats admit that Obamacare’s exchanges need fixes, but they argue that Republican plans to repeal the health law would be disastrous for the 20 million people who have been insured through its coverage provisions, including expanded Medicaid. About 11 million people signed up for coverage through the exchanges this year.
Pennsylvania Democrat Katie McGinty’s campaign said her challenger, Sen. Pat Toomey, has “no actual plans” to improve the health care system.
“[Toomey] just wants to slash and burn our system just like Donald Trump, even though he knows it would kick millions of Americans off of their health insurance plans,” said McGinty spokesman Sean Coit.
Democrats are also downplaying the role Obamacare rate hikes will play in an election year that they argue will be defined by Trump’s polarizing comments.
“This may be the first election in a while where Obamacare won’t have a big role, if any, in these Senate races,” said former Harry Reid aide Jim Manley, a director at QGA Public Affairs. Any attacks about Obamacare, he said, are “going to be drowned out by the clown show that’s the Trump campaign.”