Richard A. Bell, 62, of Greenville, had never testified before at a public hearing, and he admitted to being a little nervous. He had driven down to Warwick on Jan. 17 to voice his concerns about the proposed rate hikes requested by Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island for its Direct Pay health insurance plan.
In his fleece pullover, jeans and sneakers, Bell was easy to distinguish from the lawyers and professionals who had gathered in the hearing room at the R.I. Public Utilities Commission, representing Blue Cross and interveners from the R.I. attorney general’s office and the R.I. Department of Business Regulation.
Providence Business News talked with Bell as he waited to give his testimony.
PBN: How did you end up as a member of the Direct Pay health insurance plan?
BELL: I was laid off from my job in December of 2009 as a manager at Mandeville Sign in Lincoln. Before that, I worked as production manager for 30 years at B.A. Ballou, a jewelry manufacturer in East Providence. I’m still looking, hoping to get a position somewhere.
My health insurance under COBRA ran out in mid-2011. Since then, my wife and I have been buying health insurance under the Direct Pay plan. It’s our only option.
PBN: Why did you decide to testify against the proposed rate hikes?
BELL: In the news, the public has heard that Blue Cross is proposing an average 4.4 percent increase. What they haven’t heard is that some groups could experience an increase in premium payments as high as 17 percent. In my group, the proposed increase in the premium is 10.3 percent. How would you like to deal with that while you are out of work?
When you’re working, the company looks out for you. Now, we don’t have anyone to represent us; we’re out there [on our own]. There’s no employer to fight for us, to ensure that Blue Cross, with its monopoly, will treat us fairly.
PBN: How much will your health insurance cost if the proposed rate hike is approved?
BELL: The 10.3 percent increase amounts to $1,552 in additional costs a year, bringing the total to $16,669 [under the family plan], for me and my wife. But it’s not just the proposed increases in our premiums, it’s the ways that they want to cut our coverage, too.
PBN: What are those cuts in coverage? Can you be specific?
BELL: Under Vantage Blue Direct Plan 1500/2000, which replaces the Healthmate Coast-to-Coast Direct Plan 1000/2000 we had, there’s a 50 percent increase in our deductible to $3,000, and a 40 percent increase in the maximum out-of-pocket expenses to $9,000. Blue Cross says that it will also no longer pay for three services that were previously covered – diagnostic radiology and diagnostic laboratory services, and surgery in a physician’s office – until the higher deductible is meant. And then, they will only pay 80 percent of the cost. And, Blue Cross plans to increase my Tier I pharmacy co-payments by 43 percent.
PBN: Are you required to take specific medications?
BELL: I have to take drugs for high blood pressure and for cholesterol, and thyroid medicine. I had my thyroid removed in 2010 when they found and removed a mass in my throat. My wife takes stomach medicine for acid reflux.