Health insurers have threatened to pull out of two Washington state counties, potentially leaving thousands of people enrolled in the individual market in limbo.
Washington state's insurance commissioner says, so far, no health insurers have filed plans in Grays Harbor and Klickitat counties ahead of the deadline to submit plans for 2018.
Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler blames continued uncertainty over the future of the Affordable Care Act, as well as destabilization of the insurance market nationwide.
Currently, three insurers provide coverage in the individual market in Grays Harbor; two insurers in Klickitat.
Premera and its affiliate LifeWise which currently offers insurance through the exchange in both counties, said the decision was made to help keep cost increases lower for customers in other counties, according to a spokeswoman.
Kreidler says insurers have also proposed withdrawing from other Washington counties as well, but Grays Harbor and Klickitat would be the only areas left with no options in the individual market or through the state exchange.
As of March 2017, 1,119 people in Klickitat and 2,227 in Grays Harbor County were enrolled in the individual market, according to the Insurance Commissioner's office.
"If it stays the way it is right now, and you buy your own health insurance, you have to really hope you don’t get sick," Kreidler said Thursday.
"There’s going to be a lot of people hurting," said Gail Mallow, a line cook at Duffy's restaurant in Aberdeen.
She and her teenage daughter currently receive coverage through the state exchange and doesn't yet have a contingency plan if she loses coverage.
Under state law, if no health insurer is available in a particular county, residents could seek coverage through the state's high-risk pool, known as WSHIP. However, subsidies would not be available, because WSHIP is not a qualified insurer for the state's health exchange, according to the Insurance Commissioner's Office.
“The policies will be up around $1,000 a month. While it’s a comprehensive policy, for many individuals, they’d find $1,000 a month cost prohibitive, particularly if they’re receiving a subsidy for their health insurance right now. Some of the larger subsidies in the state right now, by county, is going to be in those two counties,” Kreidler said.
"We would be homeless," said Mallow. "I’d have to give up our home and our car to pay that much."
"Somebody has to insure us," said Ralph Larson, who owns Duffy's Restaurant, a longtime staple in Aberdeen. "I don’t know what we’re going to do."
Insurance Commissioner Kreidler said he will spend the coming weeks talking to insurers, members of Congress, as well as the legislature to discuss potential options.
"My first hope is that one or more of our current state insurers will step up to the plate and say, 'You know what; we can keep this county or that county for 2018.' That’s what I’m really working on right now," he said.
A spokesman for Washington's Health Benefit Exchange also stressed that it's likely a solution will be found for both counties, by the time open enrollment occurs later this year.
Congressman Derek Kilmer, D-Washington, whose district includes Grays Harbor County told KING 5 he's also been working the phones Friday.
"We're going to continue working to find a solution for this," Kilmer said.
"For years, I've been working to get Congress how to change how health care is provided in rural communities," he continued.
Health policy experts attribute higher rates and weaker networks in rural areas to demographics, as well as the medical need of the participants, among other factors.
"The people are no different here than they are anywhere else," said Larson who would like to see increased access to health care in his hometown.
One of his servers, Elaine Lutz, who enrolled in coverage through the Affordable Care Act, says she can't even afford that, after her rates doubled year over year.
"It’s all upsetting; the whole thing is upsetting," said Lutz who plans on paying the penalty in lieu of monthly coverage. "That’s why I just chose not to worry about it. I was upset from the very beginning."
Ralph Larson doesn't blame either political party for the current standoff over health care, but he does want lawmakers to work together to find a solution.
"I see these politicians get on (TV). If they’re Democrat, I know what they’re going to say; if they’re Republican, I know what they’re going to say," he said.
"There's gotta be a middle ground, but if you don’t talk, you’re not going to reach it."
Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the number four ranking Republican in the U.S. House, released a statement Friday saying the situation in Washington state proves the GOP health care repeal and replace bill, titled the American Health Care Act, is more important than ever.
"This is just another example of how Obamacare is collapsing," she wrote.
Meanwhile, Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Senator Patty Murray both blamed the Trump administration for undermining the current health care system and causing insurers to pull out of markets.
"I urge President Trump to stop trying to pass Trumpcare and sabotage our health care system, and instead, work with me and other Democrats to truly help Washington state families," she wrote in part.
The Insurance Commissioner's Office will spend the next couple of months working with stakeholders and reviewing the 2018 insurance proposals submitted this week.
Overall, 11 insurers filed more than 70 plans for 2018, down slightly from 2017. Kaiser Options, formerly Group Health, as well as Community Health Plan of Washington, retracted from the individual market, according to the Insurance Commissioner's Office.
Proposed rate changes won't be made public until June 17.