- Associated Press - Monday, July 31, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - A year after Arizonans were hammered with huge premium increasers, a major provider of Individual health insurance said Monday a stabilizing market means price increases will be much lower next year than in in 2017.

Blue Cross Blue Shield Arizona Vice President Jeff Stelnik said that premiums will rise an average of 7.2 percent next year, and some plans will have no increases at all. That’s far less than the 51 percent average premium boost Blue Cross imposed in January, and less than the 12 percent average increase all insurers imposed in 2016.

Arizona had some of the lowest rates in the nation and robust competition from multiple insurers when the individual marketplaces launched for the 2014 coverage year. But insurers underpriced their plans and saw big losses, leading all but Blue Cross and Centene Corp’s Ambetter by Health Net to leave the state by this year and premiums to skyrocket.

Blue Cross sells comprehensive plans in all but Maricopa and Pima County and covers about 45,000 people on the Affordable Care Act’s individual marketplace. It also covers about 55,000 individuals with non-ACA plans.

Next year’s small rate increases - from zero to 16 percent, depending on the plan - reflect a stable enrollment in its 13-county sales area, Stelnik said. Combined with a better understanding of costs and risks for the company, small plan changes that helped primary care doctors manage specialist referrals and earlier premium increases, the company may actually make money this year.

Blue Cross had $205 million in losses in first three years, but it appears that premiums and claims are now about equal. “There are good leading indicators that give us optimism that we may have turned the corner toward small profitability for 2017,” Stelnik said.

Federal statistics show about 140,000 people buy individual insurance on the marketplace in Arizona, meaning Health Net plans in Pima and Maricopa County cover the approximately 95,000 people not living in the rural counties where Blue Cross does business.

Health Net has not announced its increases, but the federal government is expected to post rate filings soon.

Blue Cross designed its rates to reflect the elimination of “cost sharing reduction” payments from the federal government that help lower costs for people earning less than 250 percent of the poverty line. The law requires insurers to lower copays and deductibles for that group, but President Donald Trump has threatened to withhold the payments and let the Affordable Care Act marketplaces fail.

If Congress passes a bill ensuring the payments, there will likely be no rate increases next year, Stelnik said.

- This story has been corrected to show Blue Cross’s 2017 final average premium increase was 51 percent, not 65 percent

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