In more than 30 states, government insurance departments have the authority to reject what they determine to be excessive rate hikes for health insurance. But not in California. Earlier this month, consumer advocates launched a drive to put an initiative on the November ballot to let voters decide if California's Insurance Commissioner should have this power.
"Right now, my sole authority over rates, if I find a rate to be unreasonable, is to sentence a health insurer to my website," joked Dave Jones, California's Insurance Commissioner, in an interview.
That's a bit of an overstatement, as his department does review rates, making sure the math is right and ensuring there are no inaccuracies. Still, what the Department is left with is "whatever element of the bully pulpit we have to try to rein those rates in," Jones says.
Before he was Insurance Commissioner, Jones served as an Assemblyman. He says he introduced legislation in the State Assembly every year for seven years to give the Insurance Commissioner more authority over health insurance rates. But his bills never passed. When he was sworn in as Insurance Commissioner a year ago, he again authored legislation. It went through the House, but is a handful of votes short in the Senate, he says.
"After having tried to accomplish this through the legislature for the last seven years," Jones says, "I know only too well how influential the HMOs and the health insurers are in the state legislature. Time and time again, they've been able to block this legislation, so I think it's time we took this issue to the voters of California."