Only days into the job, state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones faced off with the health insurance industry Thursday, calling on Blue Shield of California to delay plans to raise premiums by as much as 59 percent on nearly 200,000 Californians who buy health coverage on their own.
Jones, a Sacramento Democrat who was sworn in Monday, also renewed his push to give his agency the authority to reject "excessive rate increases."
The latest increase created an immediate uproar, not only among consumers, but among Democrats in Washington and consumer advocates trying to defend the nascent federal health care law against repeal by the new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
If Blue Shield moves forward with the rate hike, it would be the third increase for the company's customers since last fall, including about 7,400 Blue Shield customers in the Sacramento area.
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The most recent increase took effect less than a week ago, on New Year's Day, when the insurer hiked rates on individual policyholders by a relatively minuscule 1 percent, on average.
Under its latest planned rate increase, slated to take effect March 1, Blue Shield's customers would see an average increase of 30 percent on their premiums.
In a letter sent to Blue Shield's chief executive officer on Thursday, Jones asked the insurer to delay the increase by at least 60 days, to give the state Department of Insurance time to review the rate filing.
"As you undoubtedly know, I took office three days ago on January 3, 2011. I am very concerned about the impact of the premium increases that Blue Shield is proposing, increases that I have not had the opportunity to review," Jones wrote.
As an assemblyman, Jones long pushed hard, but failed, to win the state watchdog the same authority to reject rates filed by health insurers as it has to turn down car and property insurance rates since the passage of Proposition 103 in 1988.
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