A public hearing on a proposed 19.9 percent increase in Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield health insurance premiums became an outlet for anger at both the insurer and the department that regulates the industry Wednesday.

Consumers spoke of struggling to pay for dwindling health insurance benefits, fears of businesses failing, and anger at what they called Anthem’s “unconscionable” behavior.

Anthem protestors

Protestors criticize a proposed Anthem rate hike

At one point, the hearing was interrupted when a dozen audience members, representing the group Citizens for Economic Opportunity, stood and held signs that read “CEO $13.1 million salary,” “Shame,” and, across a series of signs with multiple zeroes, a number they said represented the insurer’s profits.

Hearing Officer Mark Franklin ordered the protestors to put the signs down or leave, but they continued standing, prompting him to call a recess. Franklin later resumed the hearing after agreeing to let them hold signs if they stood at the back of the room and remained silent.

Anthem and the Connecticut Insurance Department became the focal point of a heated dispute over the effects of health care reform this fall after the department approved a set of rate increases for Anthem individual policies, including a 47 percent increase for one plan, attributed largely to new requirements of health reform.

Larry Deutsch Anthem hearing

Hartford councilman Larry Deutsch protests Anthem’s proposal

The subject of Wednesday’s hearing was a proposal for a 19.9 percent increase for premiums for other individual-market plans, which cover an estimated 48,000 state residents. The plans are considered “grandfathered,” meaning that several of the new provisions of the health reform law will not affect them.

But some of the testimony was also tinged with anger at the previous rate increases, which the department approved without a public hearing.

Speakers described the hardships the rising rates put on consumers and questioned why Anthem needed to raise premiums when it could afford to spend money on lobbyists and on opposition to federal health care reform.

“I’m scared half to death that I’m going to lose my business,” said Harvey Wooding, who owns a marketing business in Redding.

Although he never spoke at a public hearing of any kind before, Wooding said he was now moved to do so. In the past year, his Anthem premium cost $20,535.60 for two people; this month, it increased by 23.6 percent, he said.

Wooding said he feared future increases, then added, “I’ll probably be out of business, and it won’t matter.”

Since she joined an Anthem plan in 2007, Scotland resident Jennifer Bass said, her monthly premiums rose from $274 to $478.

Last fall, Bass took a second job to help cover the cost, but she had to give it up earlier this year to care for her 84-year-old father. Because she has a farm that is in financial trouble, Bass, 50, said she stopped taking a salary and has considered dropping her health insurance. But friends advised against it because she would not be able to afford medical care if she needed it.

Instead, Bass said, she gave up her car to save on auto insurance.

A 19.9 percent increase in Bass’ premiums would be about $570 per month. Could she afford that?

“Right now I’m not affording it,” she said. “Even if I had a full-paying job right now, that would be more than an entire week’s salary. It’s just more than I can handle, really. I’m not a high wage earner.”

Other speakers were critical of Anthem’s justification for the premium increase and the scrutiny the department would give it.

Jennifer Jaff, executive director of Advocacy for Patients with Chronic Illnesses, questioned Anthem’s claims that the proposed increase was based in part on utilization of medical services when statements from the chief financial officer of WellPoint, the insurer’s parent company, suggested that people have been using fewer medical services than expected.

“Anthem should be required to explain this obvious discrepancy,” she said.

Under questioning from insurance department actuary Paul Lombardo, Robert Ruiz-Moss, Anthem’s market segment lead of individual markets, said WellPoint covers more than 33 million people and the company’s statements might not be consistent with the experiences of the Connecticut members who would be affected by the proposed rate increase.

Jaff also raised concerns about the process for reviewing insurers’ rate requests.

“We are not singling out Anthem,” she said. “What we want to talk about today is the process, the lack of a process, the need for transparency, the need for the department to ask hard questions.”

Clinton resident Lauren Santos, who is covered by an Anthem group plan, took more direct aim at the department.

“This is not a public hearing,” she said. “It’s a sham”

Lauren Santos

Lauren Santos: Hearing is a sham

By holding the hearing during working hours in Hartford, and not making information about it easily available on its website, Santos said the insurance department made the hearing barely accessible to the public.

She also questioned why Acting Insurance Commissioner Barbara Spear was not at the hearing.

Anthem has said the premium increases are driven primarily by health care costs and utilization. “We continue to be concerned with the rapidly increasing claims cost in Connecticut, which our own actuarial analysis indicates is growing by double digits,” spokeswoman Sarah Yeager said in a statement earlier this week.

“We have worked hard and been successful in keeping provider contracts steady, unfortunately the use of various high cost services including hospital care, new technologies, other expensive diagnostic services, and prescription drugs are increasing – and we owe it to our members to cover those costs and ensure access to a broad network of providers,” the insurer said in a statement Wednesday.

The statement also said Anthem’s proposed increases are in line with those of its competitors, and are based on “an economic reality faced throughout the entire industry.”

Anthem testimony

Anthem representatives explain the need for premium increases

During testimony Wednesday, WellPoint actuary Jennie Keith Casaday noted that the health reform law requires the insurer to spend at least 80 percent of the money it earns in individual-plan premiums on medical care. If it doesn’t do so, Anthem will be required to issue rebates to members.

Because the plans are grandfathered and not subject to some health reform requirements, they cannot take new members. Ruiz-Moss said that can affect the pool of people covered because if healthy people leave the pool, the effect cannot be counteracted by other healthy people joining it.

Franklin is expected to review testimony and written submissions, then submit a proposed decision to Spear, who will decide whether to adopt or amend it. The department is aiming to have a decision within 30 days of the record being closed.

Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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