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By Richard Asinof
WARWICK – As the first person to testify at the “dedicated public input meeting” on the 2013 rate hike requests by Rhode Island’s commercial health insurers, Lt. Gov. Elizabeth H. Roberts began by offering her frequent observation that “business people often have the least opportunity to have their voices heard.”
Not any more. The gathering on June 11 at the R.I. Public Utilities Commission hearing room, chaired by R.I. Health Insurance Commissioner Christopher F. Koller, drew more than 125 people, with more than 30 small business owners and managers offering testimony. The consensus position of many who testified was rates should be frozen at the 2012 levels.
Valerie Ann Leduc, vice president of operations at Angelo’s Civita Farnese restaurant on Federal hill, and a member of the ad hoc R.I. Health Insurance Small Employer Task Force, offered a direct challenge to Koller. “Hold all rate requests at zero,” she told him.
In the last three years, Leduc explained, her firm’s health insurance rates had jumped 96 percent. Those were increases in expenses that she said could not be passed on to customers. “If I charged $14 for a plate of pasta [instead of $7], you aren’t going to come in.”
Instead of small businesses having to bear the burden, Leduc said it was time for the health insurance companies to cope with the costs and change the way they do business.
Stephen A. Boyle, president of the Cranston Chamber of Commerce, delivered a similar message. “Businesses can’t pay the costs and employees can’t afford the premiums,” he said. “People are starting to drop health insurance and drop health care.”
Don Nokes, president and co-founder of NetCenergy in Warwick and president of the Rhode Island Business Group on Health, recounted how at his company, with 35 employees, the rise in health insurance costs last year was 22.2 percent, resulting in deductibles of $1,500 for an individual and $3,000 for a family policy.
Neil Berman, president of Stylecraft in Cranston, echoed Leduc’s challenge. “Tell insurers enough is enough,” he told Koller, asking that rates be frozen at the 2012 levels. “Tell them there will be no increases.”
Koller said that decisions about the 2013 rate requests by Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, UnitedHealthcare of New England, and Tufts Health Plan of Rhode Island will be made by the end of July, later than first announced.