There were villains and victims aplenty in Pennsylvania earlier this year, and the press was on the stories when the state threw some 42,000 people with low incomes off a special program called Adult Basic that offered coverage at low prices so that people with chronic conditions could see doctors when they needed to. They were on the case when Highmark, a Blue Cross Blue Shield plan in western Pennsylvania, announced a rate increase of 9.9 percent on special policies with more limited coverage sold to those stranded when the state ended their Adult Basic plans. Headlines such as “Highmark set to raise low-income plan rates,” in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Blue Cross seeks to increase rates for low-income, elderly clients,” in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette; and “Blue Cross seeks rate hike for insurance products for low-income members,” in the Scranton Times Tribune showed that low income people (the victims) and Highmark (the villain) made good copy. Press coverage as well as advocacy activities undoubtedly helped Highmark change its mind and revise its rate request to only 4.9 percent. (These are policies sold to individuals that are subject to rate approval.)
The Highmark case shows the power of the press when they practice what is now called “accountability” journalism. That’s the old-fashioned stuff that some of us cut our teeth on when newspapers were robust purveyors of the news. No matter what it’s called, the Pennsylvania tale shows why we have to be watchdogs for the public in matters of health insurance now and in the future, and why we have to learn how to decipher arcane rate requests, no matter how complicated. If the state won’t protect their interests, then the job falls to us.