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Wisconsin health insurance exchange / marketplace

Five of fifteen exchange carriers request double digit rate hikes; lawmakers introduce bill to increase regulatory oversight of rates

  • By
  • contributor
  • September 14, 2015

2016 rates

Five of the fifteen carriers in the Wisconsin exchange have proposed rate increases of at least ten percent:

  • All Savers Insurance Company (proposed rate increase averages 23 percent; 15,102 members)
  • Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin (proposed rate increase averages 11.22 percent; total of 853 members)
  • Security Health Plan of Wisconsin, Inc. (average proposed rate increase for the Classic plan is 22.7 percent; 20,819 members impacted)
  • Unity Health Insurance (proposed rate increase of 10.34 percent for Community Individual product, with 3,292 members; also 18.26 percent proposed rate increase on Individual Product Four, with 2,278 insureds).
  • WPS Health Plan Inc. (Arise) (’s rate review tool shows 17.33 percent proposed increase for HMO and 20.83 percent proposed rate hike for POS; but filings with the Wisconsin Office of the Insurance Commissioner show a 9.9 percent rate hike and 19,000 enrollees).

Proposed rate increases of less than ten percent are not displayed on’s rate review tool, although some of the filings can be found through the rate filing search on the Wisconsin Insurance Commissioner’s website.

Bill to increase rate oversight

In early September, Wisconsin State Senator Chris Larson and State Rep. Debra Kolste announced the introduction of new legislation that would require Wisconsin to utilize a robust rate review process, much the same as many other states.  Among other things, the legislation would require the Insurance Commissioner to hold public hearings on proposed rate increases over ten percent, and would also give the Insurance Commissioner the ability to deny rate hikes that aren’t justified by claims costs.  Currently, Wisconsin is a “file and use” state, which means that carriers set their own rates, and must simply file them with the state no more than 30 days after implementation.

The legislation notes that “current law prohibits premium rates from being excessive, inadequate, or unfairly discriminatory”, and the state does have an outside actuary that reviews the rates. HHS also reviews proposed rates that include a premium increase of ten percent or more.  But Larson and Kolste’s bill would give the Wisconsin Insurance Commissioner far more regulatory oversight for health insurance premiums.  However, it’s unlikely that the bill will ultimately pass in the state’s Republican-dominated legislature.

Wisconsin’s health insurance rates are dramatically higher than neighboring Minnesota.  In 2015 the average benchmark (second lowest cost silver) plan costs $373/month (before any subsidies), which is the fourth highest average in the country.  In Minnesota, the average benchmark plan costs just $183/month.  Consumer advocates note that Wisconsin’s lax health insurance rate review process is harmful to consumers, as there is little that state regulators can currently do to hold rates in check.

Wisconsin exchange carriers

There are currently 15 carriers that offer individual plans through the Wisconsin health insurance exchange, although not all carriers offer plans in all areas of the state:

  • All Savers Insurance Company (UnitedHealthcare)
  • Ambetter (Managed Health Services Insurance Corp.)
  • Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield
  • Common Ground Healthcare Cooperative
  • CompCare Health Services Insurance Corp.
  • Dean Health Plan
  • Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin
  • Gunderson Health Plan Inc.
  • Health Tradition Health Plan
  • Medica Health Plans of Wisconsin
  • MercyCare HMO Inc.
  • Molina
  • Physicians Plus
  • Security Health Plan of Wisconsin, Inc.
  • Unity Health Insurance
  • WPS Health Plan Inc. (Arise)

Ambetter (Managed Health Services Ins. Corp.) and All Savers (UnitedHealthcare) are new to the Wisconsin exchange in 2015.

Subsidies, insurance market no longer in danger

Since Wisconsin has a federally-run exchange, the Supreme Court’s decision in King v. Burwell was of critical importance in the state.  The plaintiffs argued that the ACA only allowed subsidies to be provided in state-run exchanges, and 34 states – including Wisconsin – have federally-run exchanges ( instead.  But on June 25, the Court ruled that subsidies are legal in every state, including those that use

At ACAsignups, Charles Gaba estimated that 159,000 people in Wisconsin would have lost their subsidies if the court had ruled that subsidies were only available in state-run exchanges.  Coverage would have become unaffordable for them, but also for tens of thousands of other Wisconsin residents who purchase their own health insurance without subsidies.

The American Academy of Actuaries estimates that premiums market-wide would increase by at least 35 percent in states where subsidies are eliminated, and the Urban Institute pegged the potential rate increase at 55 percent.  Either way, it would have been catastrophic for the individual insurance market and people who purchase their own coverage.

But fortunately for the residents, medical providers, and insurance carriers in Wisconsin, subsidies were upheld by the Supreme Court, and will continue to be available for current and future enrollees.

Gov. Walker and the King case

In January, ThinkProgress put forth a video from 2013 of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker saying that there’s “no real substantive difference between a federal exchange or a state exchange…”  ACA supporters who wanted the Supreme Court to rule that subsidies are available in every state jumped on Walker’s comments as proof that nobody who was implementing the ACA was aware of the fact that subsidies might be in jeopardy in federally-run exchanges.

Indeed, Walker’s unique solution to Medicaid expansion (details below) indicates that he clearly believed that subsidies would be available in federally-run exchanges, since Wisconsin shifted about 83,000 people from Medicaid to subsidized plans in the exchanges as of 2014 (they are enrollees with incomes between the poverty level and 138 percent of the poverty level, so they are currently eligible for subsidies in the exchange).

But Vox’s Sarah Kliff explained that Walker’s comments didn’t really dismantle the King case, as he was simply talking about who would really be running the show in the exchange, and was pointing out that the state would have to comply with the federal government’s requirements, even if it were technically a state-run exchange.

And to be clear, Walker is no fan of Obamacare.  He’s repeatedly called for repeal of the law, and following the Supreme Court’s ruling, Walker said that lawmakers should “redouble their efforts to repeal and replace” the ACA.

 2015 enrollment numbers

As of February 22 – after the second open enrollment period had ended – 207,349 people in Wisconsin had finalized their 2015 private plan enrollments through the exchange.  Of those enrollees, 90 percent qualified for premium subsidies.  More than half of the enrollees (115,755) were renewing plans from 2014, and of those renewals, more than half (66,759) were “active” renewals as opposed to auto-renewals.  Of the active renewals, 40,303 switched to a new plan for 2015.

By the end of June, effectuated enrollment in private plans through the Wisconsin exchange stood at 183,682.  Attrition is to be expected in the individual health insurance market; some enrollees never pay their initial premiums, while others choose to cancel their plans mid-year.  In addition, has stepped up enforcement of documentation requirements for immigration and income verification, which has resulted in the termination of some plans and/or premium subsidies.

In addition to the private plan enrollments, another 27,628 exchange enrollees in Wisconsin were eligible for Medicaid or CHIP during the 2015 open enrollment period.  Medicaid enrollment continues year-round, but tends to increase during the general open enrollment due to additional outreach and advertising.

Open enrollment for 2015 has ended, and most people can only purchase a new plan at this point (including off-exchange) if they have a qualifying event.  However, enrollment is year-round for Native Americans and for enrollees who qualify for Medicaid or CHIP.

Average 2015 rate increase of just 3 percent

In late September, the Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance released rate filings for 2015 health plans.  The average rate increase in Wisconsin’s individual market (including on and off-exchange plans) is just 3.2 percent for 2015.  And two carriers – Medica Health Plans of Wisconsin and Molina Healthcare of Wisconsin – have reduced their premiums by 17 and 11 percent, respectively.  Anthem’s rates have increased an average of 9 percent, but that includes exchange plans as well as plans sold outside the exchange.

For a 40 year-old non-smoker, a Commonwealth Fund analysis calculated an average rate increase of 7 percent in the exchange in Wisconsin for 2015, across all metal levels.  For people who are enrolled in the benchmark plan (second lowest-cost silver plan) from 2014, The NY Times Upshot found that they could see rate decreases across much of the southern and western portions of Wisconsin, as long as they’re willing to switch to the new benchmark plan for 2015.

There is significant disparity in rate changes from one area of the state to another though.  The northeast part of Wisconsin has had the highest rate of health insurance inflation in the state over the last 14 years, although people enrolled in the benchmark plan there should see average rates increases under 6 percent for 2015.

In the Milwaukee area, the benchmark plan is offered by a different carrier in 2015, and so are the lowest-cost silver and bronze plans.  People who are on a plan that was auto-renewed on December 15 are still eligible to shop for a new plan anytime until February 15, and Wisconsin is a market where it’s definitely worth shopping around during open enrollment.

New carriers joined the exchange in 2015

The federally-facilitated (ie, through Wisconsin exchange had 13 carriers in 2014, but has 15 for 2015.  Two new carriers – UnitedHealthcare and Managed Health Services Insurance Corporation – joined the exchange for 2015, and their entry is one of the factors that held down rate increases.

Wisconsin was one of only seven states with a federally facilitated marketplace that had at least ten carriers in 2014.  But despite the robust competition, Wisconsin’s exchange rates were relatively high in 2014.  The average premium for the lowest-cost bronze plan in Wisconsin in 2014 was $287, compared with $249 nationally.

In late October 2013, Citizen Action of Wisconsin created a report highlighting the very different ACA paths taken by Minnesota and Wisconsin, and placed some of the blame for Wisconsin’s high rates on the fact that the state ultimately took a hands-off approach to the exchange and also refused to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid.  2014 rates in Wisconsin are double the rates of neighboring Minnesota.  But the rate increase for 2015 – an average of just three percent – is significantly lower than the 5.4 percent national average rate increase.

Despite the small increase for 2015, Citizen Action of Wisconsin released a new report in October that highlighted the ongoing differences between the neighboring states, and the expectation that rates would still be higher in Wisconsin than in Minnesota in 2015.

How many people enrolled in 2014?

The 2014 Obamacare open enrollment period ended in April.  139,815 people had purchased private plans in the Wisconsin exchange by April 19 – nearly a 96 percent increase over the number who had done so by March 1.

In addition to the private plan Obamacare enrollments, Wisconsin’s exchange has also enrolled 97,509 residents in the state’s BadgerCare Medicaid program by the end of June.

According to a Gallup poll, 11.6 percent of Wisconsin’s population lacked health insurance in 2013.  The poll found that the rate had dropped to 9.6 percent by the middle of 2014.

Wisconsin Medicaid – a unique approach…

Wisconsin has not expanded Medicaid under the ACA, but has taken a more proactive approach than most non-expansion states in providing coverage for people living in poverty.  Wisconsin dropped the existing BadgerCare Medicaid eligibility to 100% of poverty level, which resulted in 72,000 people losing BadgerCare eligibility.  Since subsidies for private Obamacare plans purchased in the exchange begin at 100% of poverty level, the residents who lost BadgerCare eligibility were able to purchase heavily subsidized plans in the exchange instead.

However, critics have noted that a lot of those 72,000 people (with incomes just over 100% of poverty) were probably unable to afford a private plan, even with the available cost-sharing and premium subsidies.

As of the beginning of September, the state estimated that 25,800 former BadgerCare members had not yet enrolled in a subsidized plan through the exchange.  They initially had until June 30 to do so, but HHS has granted them another special enrollment period – September 4 through November 2 – during which they could apply for a subsidized plan in the federally-facilitated Wisconsin exchange.  The Wisconsin Department of Health Services sent letters to the former BadgerCare enrollees who had not yet obtained new coverage, informing them of the special enrollment period.

But an additional 83,000 childless adults with incomes below 100% of poverty level are newly eligible for BadgerCare in 2014.  Wisconsin created their own version of Medicaid reform without using the federal funds allocated by the ACA.  As a result, the state was able to make its own rules, and people in Wisconsin with household incomes between 100% and 138% of poverty level are expected to purchase subsidized private plans – they are not eligible for Medicaid.

…but not fully expanded Medicaid

Technically, this means Wisconsin has not expanded Medicaid under the ACA (if it did, people with incomes up to 138 percent of poverty would be eligible for Medicaid and the state would receive federal funding for Medicaid expansion).  Although Governor Scott Walker has received criticism from consumer advocates, among states that have not expanded Medicaid, Wisconsin is the only one without a coverage gap, since BadgerCare was expanded to cover everyone up to 100% of poverty level (in most states that did not expand Medicaid, eligibility limits are far lower than that).

Nevertheless, 19 Wisconsin counties and the city of Kenosha added referendum questions to their ballots in November, asking citizens to weigh in on Gov. Walker’s decision to not fully expand Medicaid under the ACA.  Voters passed all 20 of the ballot initiatives, but they are essentially just a way of communicating resident wishes to lawmakers, as the final decision on expanding Medicaid is up to the Governor and the state’s lawmakers.

Wisconsin’s go-it-alone approach to modified Medicaid expansion could end up being financially challenging, as the state incurred significantly higher Medicaid spending in 2014 and does not have the federal government funding Medicaid expansion as they would do if the state followed the guidelines laid out in the ACA (federal funding in that case would cover 100 percent of newly-eligible enrollees through 2016, and then the state would gradually pay a small portion of the new expenses, capping out at 10 percent by 2020).

Over four years, it’s estimated that the total cost to state and federal taxpayers for Wisconsin’s unique approach to Medicaid will be $2 billion more than it would have been under straight Medicaid expansion as called for in the ACA.

Wisconsin exchange history

Gov. Walker had previously expressed a preference for a state-run exchange rather than a “one size fits all” federally operated exchange. In 2011, Walker used an executive order to create the Office of Free Market Health Care to plan for a Wisconsin exchange.  Walker’s plan for a “free-market, consumer driven approach” leaned heavily on an insurance marketplace implemented by former Gov. Jim Doyle. According to one state insurance expert, the only notable change proposed by Walker was to put the exchange online.

However, Walker showed a changed mindset in 2012, returning a $38 million federal grant and closing the Office of Free Market Health Care. In announcing his November 2012 decision to accept a federally operated exchange, Walker said the state would have no real control and much higher financial risk with a state-run exchange.

Legal challenge to the ACA in Wisconsin

The fight against Obamacare is on-going in Wisconsin.  US Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, has brought a lawsuit against the federal government over the issue of congress and congressional staffers receiving subsidies to purchase health insurance through the exchanges.

The federal government believed that the case should be thrown out, as they claim that Johnson has no legal standing since he’s not being harmed by the rule that allows congress and staffers to receive subsidies in the exchange.  In September, Johnson began an appeals process with the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals after a lower court sided with the federal government and ruled that he lacked standing to challenge the law.

The oral arguments for the appeal are scheduled for January 21 in Chicago, and Johnson plans to attend the hearing.  He and his attorney will be arguing that he does have legal standing to challenge the ruling that allows members of congress and their staffers to receive subsidies in the exchanges.

The whole issue stems from language that Chuck Grassley (R – Iowa) added to the ACA when it was being drafted.  His addition requires that congress and congressional staffers lose their employer-sponsored health insurance and switch instead to exchange plans.  But those who earn too much to qualify for subsidies would be taking a significant financial hit.  They would have gone from having 75 percent of their premiums subsidized (under their government group plan) to paying 100 percent of their own premiums.  As such, the Office of Personnel Management intervened and said that congress and staffers could keep their existing subsidies and apply them to the exchange plan premiums.  Sen. Johnson is attempting to repeal that ruling.

Wisconsin health insurance exchange links

Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance
Assists consumers who have purchased insurance on the individual market or who have insurance through an employer who only does business in Wisconsin.
(800) 236-8517 /

State Exchange Profile: Wisconsin
The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation overview of Wisconsin’s progress toward creating a state health insurance exchange.