NASHVILLE — Two Tennessee Democratic lawmakers want GOP majority colleagues to hold a special hearing on why state Commerce and Insurance Commissioner Julie McPeak last week approved whopping double-digit rate hikes for three companies providing coverage on the state's Obamacare health insurance exchange.
"These are the highest rate increases approved in the country," fumed Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville on Tuesday during a news conference.
Yarbro and Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, questioned McPeak's approval of Chattanooga-based BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee's requested 62 percent premium hike, a 46.3 percent increase requested by Cigna and a 44.3 percent percent premium boost sought by Humana.
They say increases are much lower in other states and demanded to know why McPeak gave way to the insurers' full request and did not attempt to negotiate.
McPeak has defended her actions, saying last week the federally subsidized exchange program is "very near collapse" in Tennessee.
Kevin Walters, a McPeak spokesman, said the department reviewed the revised filings "along with our contracted team of credentialed actuaries and, unfortunately, the numbers were quite clear."
BlueCross estimates it has lost nearly $500 million since the healthcare exchange plans began three years ago and claims it needs the 62 percent rate increase to cover the unexpectedly high medical claims from those signing up for Obamacare plans.
Walters said the department had "significant concerns that if the carriers, including Cigna and Humana, were not permitted to revise rates due to negative risk trends" it would be "guaranteeing another year of multi-million dollar losses."
And that, Walters said, would have left a "substantial probability that one or more of the companies could walk away from the Marketplace, leaving all Tennesseans with at most one carrier choice — and in the areas cited above, a choice that remains at a higher cost."
Last year, McPeak drew criticism from President Barack Obama himself after she prepared to sign off on a requested 36 percent increase requested by BlueCross.
"The key for Tennessee is just making sure that the insurance commissioner does their job and not just passively reviewing the rates, but really asking what is it you're looking for, why would you need very high premiums," Obama said at a town hall in Madison, Tenn., WPLN public radio reported last year.
Commerce and Insurance officials at the time fired back, saying they were "not passively reviewing insurance rates for the coming year as Obama suggested."
"The Commissioner and our team have always taken the job of protecting Tennessee consumers seriously and are unafraid to ask hard questions," Walters said.
Contact Andy Sher at asher@times freepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.