Murkowski Speaks to Alaskan Perspective of Short-Term Health Insurance Plans

‘I would ask that they turn to the realities that we are facing a state like Alaska’

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) yesterday spoke on the Senate floor on Senate Joint Resolution 63, a resolution of disapproval that would overturn a Trump administration rule that expanded the length of time that consumers can keep short-term health insurance plans. Senator Murkowski used the opportunity to explain an Alaskan perspective on short-term plans and its influence on her no vote on the joint resolution.

“In Alaska we are the highest cost in terms of cost of care, highest in terms of cost of coverage, and we are still one of those states that has but one insurer on the exchange in Alaska. So our options are really pretty limited. And so as I am speaking to individuals on what they are hoping for when it comes to coverage. They’re looking for additional options but they’re looking for affordable options, as well. And it is true, absolutely true, that the short term plans do not offer as much, or certainly may not offer as much, in the way of coverage, as those plans that are offered on the individual exchanges. But I have had to come down on this issue on the side of more choice for consumers, more options, being a good thing for consumers.”

Insurance Plans Snip

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During her speech, Senator Murkowski explained that roughly 18,000 Alaskans are enrolled on the individual exchange and in recent years roughly 15,000 have chosen to pay the individual mandate penalty rather than purchase insurance due to unaffordability.

“The average premium for plan year 2018, this is according to CMS data, was $804 per month. So what I’m getting from constituents as they’re writing in and calling in to me- they’re telling me what they’re paying for their plan. For a family of four, premium was over $2,000 dollars a month with a $7,500 dollar deductible. And when you think about what that actually means for this family, folks with those kinds of bills have basically only catastrophic coverage as it is. So you think, again, about the number of folks on the individual exchange. You think about those who chose to not pay the fines. You look at the numbers of those who receive the subsidies in the state of Alaska, which is quite considerable. We also have about 10,000 or so Alaskans, according to State Division of Insurance, that have enrolled in healthcare sharing ministries. So this is yet another option for people out there. So a significant number have turned to these healthcare sharing ministries. And these folks have managed to avoid the penalty in prior years but in fairness, some of the ministry plans don’t provide much in the way of coverage. But it’s an indicator of what people feel that they have to do in the face of very high cost plans.”

The Senator explained that she understood the perspective of Senators who opposed the rule, but asked that there be greater appreciation for the realities faced in Alaska.

“15,000 Alaskans have chosen not to buy insurance over these past few years because it’s too expensive, but they want to have something. They want to have something that they can afford. And these short term plans, while not ideal, I’m not suggesting that they are, it is an option for them to consider. And then what about the people that don’t get subsidies that are paying over $50,000 dollars per year before their insurance covers anything? That, too, is a situation where they are looking for an alternative. So, perhaps these short term plans could be a viable option.”

Senator Murkowski explained short-term plans in Alaska are also important to Alaska’s large number of seasonal employees-- including construction workers, fishermen, and those working in the tourism industry-- and their need for flexibility in duration of coverage.

“Our fishing industry is a great example. If you are working in the processing end of fishing, it may be 3 months. If you are working as a crabber it maybe be 2.5 months. If you are working on a tender up in Bristol Bay it may be a very truncated two months. And then we’ve got the tourist season, and we’d like to think we can entice you all to come up year round, but quite honestly, it too is very, very seasonal. And so we need to have some level of flexibility for those many Alaskans who move between these seasonal employment opportunities. Under the prior rule, short-term insurance plan could only last for three months. Well, that’s not going to help out those in the tourism or the fishing industry or so many of these areas where you need longer term coverage but you don’t need a full year.”

Lastly, Senator Murkowski spoke to concerns over transparency regarding both regulators and individuals as consumers.

“Some of the things that we have heard is that people have bought these less expensive plans, these shorter term plans, and then when they need it the most they realize the coverage doesn’t take care of them. That’s not a place we want anyone to be. So making sure that there is a level of transparency, that there is a level of disclosure that is real. So I do think that as we look to how we do more in this Congress, how we do more to help those for whom healthcare and the cost of healthcare, and access to healthcare is still their number one issue, still the number one subject of discussion. And I have come down on this particular issue today, because there’s about maybe 25,000 people in the state that could see some benefit from these types of plans being available and also because I believe that trusting the regulators, and certainly in my state, to handle the plan intelligently is an important part of how we move forward as well.”