Local BlueCross group drops kids’ options

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Regence BlueCross Blue­Shield will sell no new individual health insurance policies to people under age 19 beginning Friday, spurring Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler to condemn the nonprofit.

“I’m appalled,” Kreidler said Tuesday in a statement. “So far, no other health carrier in Washington state has signaled its intent to leave this market.”

Regence’s decision will affect people who buy insurance on the open market, not through jobs or government programs; 2,500 children currently on individual health insurance plans will be allowed to stay enrolled.

The change was spurred by federal health care reform provisions that went into effect Sept. 23, which require insurers to cover all health conditions of the children they enroll — no exclusions for preexisting conditions like asthma are allowed.

Large for-profit insurers Anthem Blue Cross, Aetna Inc. and Cigna Inc. have already dropped individual coverage for people younger than 19, but none of these plans has substantial reach in the Pacific Northwest. The nonprofit Regence Group — which operates as Regence BlueShield in most of the state and as Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon in Clark County — is Washington’s most powerful insurer, covering more than 720,000 lives, or roughly 18 percent of the market.

Kreidler’s office had hoped to convince Regence to continue offering individual plans to children.

The state issued an emergency rule last week that creates a special open-enrollment period for children. Limiting enrollment to Nov. 1 through Dec. 15 makes sure that parents don’t insure kids only when they need expensive health care.

Ultimately, Regence was not convinced.

 “Our experience tells us the best way to provide coverage to these members is through family policies,” spokeswoman Samantha Meese said in an e-mail. “Therefore, we will no longer offer individual policies to applicants under 19 except as part of a family policy.”

Regence will accept new children during the state’s open enrollment period — but only if their parents also remain or become Regence members.

That limits options for adults whose work-based health insurance plans don’t cover family members, said Sandi Peck, deputy commissioner for public affairs for the Washington Office of the Insurance Commissioner. It also leaves independent 18-year-olds unable to obtain coverage from Regence.

Four insurers continue to offer individual health plans to children in Clark County: KPS Health Plans, Kaiser Permanente, Lifewise Health Plan and Assurant Health.