Premera files for 4.4% increase in small group plans

Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield, the dominant firm in the state’s health insurance market, has filed for a relatively modest 4.4 percent increase for its small group plans in 2016, which is down from the 5.26 percent increase filed last year for 2015.

The 2016 increase is only proposed and has not yet been approved by the state Division of Insurance, Premera spokeswoman Melanie Coon said.

The modest increase in small group premiums contracts sharply with a major 37.8 percent increase requested for individual health insurance policies sold through the federal Affordable Care Act exchange for Alaska, but the individual insurance market has been affected by unusual factors, Coon said.

Those are mainly high costs experienced when individuals with health problems moving out of the state-sponsored high-risk pool where premiums are subsidized by all insurance companies selling health policies in Alaska, to the “metallic” individual plans (gold, silver, bronze) sold through the Affordable Care Act federal exchange.

Premera and other companies selling individual policies are working with the Division of Insurance on possible solutions for those problems, Coon said.

Rates for 2016 on Premera’s large groups (100 employees or more) aren’t yet known because those contracts are renewed through the year and are not part of the programs through the ACA exchange. For 2015 to date, the large group increases have averaged 9 percent, Coon said, “but because these don’t use the metallic system it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison to the small groups.”

Meanwhile, the modest rise in premiums for group plans this year is a success story that reflects efforts of Alaska employers to control health costs, and that is at least partly related to the aggressive adoption by employers of wellness programs to promote health among their workers, Coon said.

Alaska is leading other Pacific Northwest states in the number of employers promoting wellness programs to control health care costs, and in fact may also be leading the nation, she said.

Premera Blue Cross and Blue Shield also sells in Washington state and in Oregon under another company in the Premera group, LifeWise Health Plan of Oregon, so the company has good comparative data on employer wellness initiatives and preventative care, Coon said.

If that is good news, some not-so-good news is that Alaska is lags in another key health indicator, preventative checkups for adults and vaccinations for children. That is matter of concern to Premera, Coon said, because checkups and vaccinations result in better health and ultimately lower health insurance costs for employers.

The company has another campaign underway for that, however, the “Checkup Challenge.”

Meanwhile, “Our Alaska market has definitely been the leader for the rest of Premera as it relates to embedded wellness products,” or wellness programs encouraged by employers, Coon said.

“Other markets are starting to catch up in engagement (of wellness) but they lag behind Alaska,” she said.

That’s because wellness initiatives got started here earlier but also because the program have embraced by Alaska employers who were moving aggressively to control health costs, she said.

Premera promotes the programs with its customers and offers discounts of up to 7 percent to 10 percent on group health premium costs depending on how many employees sign up for the wellness initiatives. 

Groups that are not affiliated with an Affordable Care Act plan, those sold in an ACA insurance exchange, can get up to a 10 percent discount. Groups in one of the ACA metallic plans can get up to 7 percent off on premiums, she said.

“Currently we serve more than 1,000 employer groups in Alaska and approximately 25 percent of these participate in the wellness program,” Coon said.

This amounts to about 30 percent of the total number of employees in the plans, she said.

Premera is now stepping
up its initiatives with a new program launched in July: the “Activity Challenge.”

Until now Premera’s wellness programs have been focused more on promoting periodic health screening and checkups, with biometric screening, blood pressure and weight monitoring, but the new initiative is aimed at promoting more physical activity, which has been shown by data to be linked to improved health, Coon said.

 “Physical activity is the fastest and most proven way to improve one’s health and health outcomes,” Coon said, and encouraging activity among employees can be a key driver for employers to manage their health costs.

To promote this Premera is now offering “Fit Bit Zip” tracking devices to large group employees and the program may eventually expand to small group plans.

“These are wearable trackers that clip onto clothing and tracks steps, distance, calories burned and active minutes. People can sync their Fit Bits wirelessly to their computers or smart phones to see all their activity stats and chart their progress,” Coon said.

Premera’s “Activity Challenge” campaign allow employees in large group plans to earn points by having their physical activity tracked on the Fit Bit, and logging their activity through “EveryMove,” an online application that compiles the data from the tracking device and can transmit tothe employee’s iPhone or computer.

In the contest, “if employees log 750 points in a month, or 30 minutes of activity five times a week, they get to keep the Fit Bit device and earn a $100 Visa gift card,” Coon said.

The activity data remains confidential to the participant but EveryMove does keep track for Premera of how many employees are participating and when enough activity has occurred to get the incentive card. The challenge goes through September.

On the checkup and vaccination front, the Alaska statistics are not so good, Coon said. Nearly half of employees covered by Premera’s policies in Alaska have had no preventative care in the last two years. Also, 35 percent of children in the 19-month through 35-month age group have not had the recommended vaccinations for children.

Because Premera is a the largest insurer in the Alaska market, in health insurance, the statistics on preventative care and vaccinations may reflect the situation across the broader Alaska population, however.

To improve this, Premera has launched yet another initiative, its “Checkup Challenge,” also with a gift card incentive, this one a $200 Amazon gift card. A key difference is that this incentive is available to all Alaskans, not just those covered under Premera’s plans, Coon said.

However, the card is awarded through a weekly drawing among people who sign up with Premera for the Check Up Challenge.

 “You don’t have to be a member of Premera to participate. Even if you’re a nonmember we’ll pay for the gift card,” she said. A plus for Premera is that the campaign gets people to the company’s website, which in the long run could result in more business for the company.

Premera is also looking to improve preventative care in Washington and Oregon where it also has a checkup initiative and a gift card, but Alaska is getting special emphasis.

“We have not seen the staggering low numbers of checkups and vaccinations in those markets like Alaska,” Coon said.

11/20/2016 - 2:41pm