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Consumer Advocates Challenge Huge Insurance Merger

Getting healthcare could become more challenging for some consumer groups, including people with disabilities, as big insurance companies continue to merge. (stevepb/Pixabay)
Getting healthcare could become more challenging for some consumer groups, including people with disabilities, as big insurance companies continue to merge. (stevepb/Pixabay)
September 12, 2016

NEW YORK – Consumer advocates are concerned that the proposed merger of two major health insurance companies could raise premiums and reduce access to doctors.

Anthem, which owns Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, wants to acquire Cigna Life Insurance Company of New York. The resulting company would be the largest private health insurer of individuals in the nation.

But according to Charles Bell, program director at Consumers Union, other mergers of major insurance companies have resulted in the cost of premiums increasing as much as 14 percent.

"And so the concern is that the market gets more consolidated and there's fewer and fewer companies competing against each other, they have the ability to raise prices with relative impunity,” Bell said.

He noted that New York health insurance premiums are among the highest in the country.

At a hearing last week on the proposed acquisition, the companies said the merger would increase efficiency and create innovation.

But advocates are concerned because mergers often result in smaller provider networks. Heidi Siegfried, health policy director with the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York, said that people with disabilities already have difficulty finding the doctors and hospitals they need.

"When you can't find a product that incorporates all of your providers, you really don't have any choice,” Siegfried said. "That's what we're concerned about, and they're not answering our questions about that."

A recent study found that almost 40 percent of silver-level plans in the New York State insurance marketplace used networks that included only one-quarter of area providers, or less.

The U.S. Department of Justice has sued Anthem-Cigna, claiming the proposed merger would lessen competition and raise prices. And Bell said if that suit doesn't stop the merger, New York State could still step in.

"We in the consumer community have really called for New York State to reject the merger outright,” he said. "We think it's sufficiently damaging and the harm to consumers is so bad that imposing conditions are unlikely to alleviate it."

Bell said the federal challenge to the merger could be resolved by the end of the year.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - NY