3/23/20 4:43 PM
MARCH 23, 2020.....With many businesses facing unprecedented financial pressures as their operations have ground to a halt amidst the coronavirus pandemic, the Baker administration on Monday urged insurance carriers to be flexible in their collection of premiums, and insurers are hoping Congress will extend a lifeline.
Insurance Commissioner Gary Anderson published a notice on Monday urging all insurers, including those who provide health coverage to millions of residents, to provide employers and individuals "as much flexibility as is reasonably possible" on the payment of premiums during the public health crisis.
The bulletin was released the same day Gov. Charlie Baker ordered the physical closure of all non-essential businesses to employees and customers beginning at noon on Tuesday through at least April 7.
But while some insurers have been willing to work with their clients, there is an acknowledgment in the health insurance community that their ability to suspend the collection of premiums and continue to pay claims in the midst of the public health emergency will be limited.
"I am aware that plans are getting requests from small and mid-sized businesses for grace periods to pay premiums but the plans cannot do that for great lengths of time. These are largely non-profit plans with low reserve levels and I think plans are looking at this on a case-by-case basis," said Lora Pellegrini, the president of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans.
Pellegrini said MAHP was working with members of Congress to include premium assistance for employers in the next relief package. A $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill has currently hit a roadblock on Capitol Hill as Senate Democrats and Republicans fight over where the aid should be directed.
MAHP was drafting a letter to send to Congress on Monday, and soliciting the signatures of business leaders to join in the lobbying effort.
"The alternative is these people end up on Medicaid and that's bad for providers because of the lower rates of payment, and it's bad for state government. The best thing is to keep them on commercial plans," Pellegrini said, referring to workers displaced from their jobs because of COVID-19 impacts.
The Division of Insurance bulletin published on Monday urged carriers to "explore all possible ways to relax due dates" for premiums, extend grace periods or waive late fees and other penalties.
The bulletin was not exclusive to health insurance carriers, but specifically called on health plans to be ready to explain available grace periods for businesses and individuals, as well as opportunities for employers to continue to pay for coverage for employees who have been furloughed or laid off.
"With restrictions on certain types of activities, the Division is aware of growing stress for policyholders as businesses reduce or suspend operations and how this may impact the payment of all expenses, including premium payment," Anderson wrote.
"During this period, the Division believes that carriers should be looking for all ways to be flexible in collecting premiums and find ways to address what the Division hopes will be a short-term disruption in the business environment," the notice stated.
Several individual health plans referred questions about premium relief for subscribers to MAHP, while Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts -- the state's largest health insurance carrier -- said it was extending grace periods for subscribers on a "case-by-case basis."
"We recognize what an incredibly challenging time this is for all of our customers. We’re in touch with them on a regular basis to support them and answer their questions, including the payment of premiums," said Blue Cross spokeswoman Amy McHugh. "On a case-by-case basis, we will extend the existing statutory grace period, one time, for an additional 30 days."
McHugh said Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts was also "advocating strongly for federal assistance that will support small to mid-size businesses that may struggle to pay their health care premiums during this period."
Since even before Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency on March 10 in response to the coronavirus outbreak, major health insurers in the state have been waiving all cost sharing and co-payments connected with testing for COVID-19, as well as all co-pays on treatment for those infected with the virus.
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