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No Obamacare sunshine: Florida rates still secret

Want to know the rate hikes that insurers are proposing to charge Florida residents for Obamacare plan premiums in 2015? It's none of your damn business.

Insurers selling Obamacare plans in the state were being allowed as late as Tuesday to claim in online filings that they are not raising their premium rates for next year at all—despite the fact that that is not true for at least some insurers, said a spokesman for the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.

Six insurers, including the state's largest, Florida Blue, entered the value zero when they reported their percentage changes for proposed rates to OIR, according to that agency's website, which can be seen by the public.

But that doesn't mean that all, or any of them are actually keeping their rates for 2015 the same as for 2014. Instead, the insurers are claiming that information is a trade secret, according to state regulators.

People sit with an insurance agent from Sunshine Life and Health Advisors as they try to purchase health insurance under the Affordable Care Act at the Mall of the Americas in March 2014 in Miami.
Getty Images
People sit with an insurance agent from Sunshine Life and Health Advisors as they try to purchase health insurance under the Affordable Care Act at the Mall of the Americas in March 2014 in Miami.

Two insurers did disclose information about their rate changes, and they are proposing to slash their premiums for health plans by a significant percentage—as much as 16.05 percent in one Florida county.

"Some insurers chose to put in zero," said OIR spokesman Harvey Bennett, whose state has nearly 1 million enrollees in Obamacare plans. "The companies did this—they put it in there."

"Due to system limitations, the companies could not shield their information that they deemed as trade secrets from public view, so some of those companies filled in the value of zero in the fields they knew were visible to the public in order to protect the information from public view, again claiming a trade secret," Bennett said.

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The Sunshine State will allow insurers to keep dark their proposals for how much their rates should rise or decrease next year for plans sold on HealthCare.gov, the federal Obamacare marketplace that sells plans in 36 states, including Florida, he said. Oddly, there is still an option on OIR's website for the public to comment on an insurer's proposed rate changes, even if they aren't visible.

Bennett told CNBC that the OIR is not going to challenge the Florida insurers' claims of privacy, nor will it release that information about rate changes on its own. Asked if OIR believed the insurers were legally correct in claiming that trade secret exemption in not disclosing their proposed rates, Bennett said, "A judge would have to decide that."

He said insurers are claiming the exemption under Florida statute 624.423 f.s. which can be viewed here.

The move by insurers means that Floridians, as opposed to residents of at least 10 other states so far, may not know what the Obamacare rates for 2015 will be until they are finalized, which is expected in late July.The other 10 states' insurance regulators have publicly disclosed what insurers want to charge Obamacare enrollees.

Bennett did say, "Of the filings we've gotten so far, we have had some increases and we've had some decreases." He did not have information about what the range of those increases and decreases were.

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Ironically, Florida's insurance regulator, because of a decision by the state legislature, does not have the power until 2016 to approve or disapprove Obamacare exchange-sold plan rates, unless they affect an insurers' solvency.

But because OIR has had rate approval over plans sold in the individual insurance market, the federal Obamacare regulator, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, does not have the authority to alter proposed rates for Florida plans sold on HealthCare.gov.

"We're accepting the rates as informational only," Bennett said. HealthCare.gov has not released the proposed rates for the 36 states that it sells plans in. The federal exchange sells Florida plans because the state opted not to run its own Obamacare exchange.

Florida Blue, the state's largest insurer and a major player on the Obamacare market, refused to comment.

Cigna referred questions about its rates to OIR. The other insurers who sold plans on the exchange last year and are seeking new rates had no immediate comment.

United Healthcare of Florida, a division of UnitedHealthcare, said it would not yet disclose its proposed rates for 2015, the first year UnitedHealthcare will be selling Obamacare plans in the state.

The situation in Florida came to light Tuesday after the publication of a story about Florida's Obamacare rate changes on the site Health News Florida entitled "No Rate Increase? Can it Be?"

The story reported that no insurer in Florida, out of the nine that had filed proposed rates, had asked for a rate increase over 2014 premium prices. The story was based on information that reporter Carol Gentry viewed on OIR's website, which showed zero percentage change for six insurers, percentage decreases for two other insurers and one insurer who was new to the Obamacare market and thus had no prior prices. Four other insurers that sold plans for 2014 have yet to file proposed rates.

Gentry told CNBC that she had called OIR's media affairs office for comment on that information on Monday, but received no immediate response. She then posted the story Tuesday.

After her article appeared, and after inquiries by other health-care reporters, Bennett said, "The information that the reporter was looking at was incorrect."

"It's not her fault, she did nothing wrong," Bennett said. "This was the first time we were aware of the zeros there."

Gentry later posted a story reflecting OIR's explanation of why most insurers showed no rate changes compared with 2014 prices.

But, she said, "I have never been so angry," because the situation could have been easily avoided.

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OIR has since amended its website to include a disclaimer that says, "Displayed rate changes may not fully reflect increases and decreases due to claims of trade secret."

One insurer that did reveal its proposed rate changes, Molina Healthcare of Florida, is proposing rate decreases ranging from 10.79 to 16.05 percent, for an average reduction of 11.6 percent. Like the other company that has publicly disclosed its average 7.9 percent proposed rate cut, Ambetter Health, Molina is primarily a Medicaid plan provider, and was offering Obamacare plans to capture potential former Medicaid enrollees.

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Molina's CEO, Dr. J. Mario Molina, said the insurer is only offering plans in just three Florida counties, and that it saw relatively low enrollment in 2014 plans, which was expected.

"We were fairly conservative," Molina said. "We had relatively high rates to begin with."

Asked why Molina had disclosed its proposed rate changes publicly, Molina said, "It's been our philosophy that we just want people who are our investors to have a good understanding of our business."

"I think it's only a disadvantage if people are going to use that information to adjust their own rates, but in the end, the rates are all going to become public," Molina said.

Most other states that have reported proposed Obamacare rates for 2015 have had most of their insurers ask for higher premiums, although some states have seen a handful of insurers ask for rate cuts. The Wall Street Journal last week reported that in 10 states that have completed filing submissions, the largest insurer in each state was calling for premium hikes that ranged between 8.5 percent and 22.8 percent.

The news about Florida comes as insurers scramble to make their rate submissions for the 2015 plan year. Friday is the deadline for initial rate submissions for such plans.

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The consultancy Avalere Health, in an analysis released last week, examined proposed rates in nine states where premiums for 2015 have been submitted. Avalere focused on the premiums of so-called silver plans, the second least expensive plans sold on Obamacare exchanges, which cover about 70 percent of a customer's health costs.

"Across the nine-state group, average monthly silver premiums will rise by 8 percent from $324 in 2014 to $350 in 2015," Avalere said. "In particular, average monthly silver premiums will rise in eight of the states, ranging from a 2.5 percent increase ($8) in Rhode Island to a 16 percent average increase ($54) in Indiana."

"Oregon was the only state examined in which average premiums will decrease for 2015—falling 1.4 percent or $3 per month," the report said.

By CNBC's Dan Mangan

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