Ark. Commissioner: Healthier People, Insurance Competition Can Reduce Rates

Arkansas has a healthy market for auto and homeowners policies, but not for health insurance, the state’s new insurance commissioner Julie Benafield Bowman said.

According to the Associated Press, Bowman said she plans to follow Gov. Mike Huckabee’s lead by focusing on health and fitness to control rising insurance rates, but she added that the state’s health insurance market needs a checkup of its own.

“We need to provide consumers with more choices,” Bowman said.

Bowman made her comments in front of a table of fruit and water and after promoting more exercise for employees of the Arkansas Insurance Department. She said the department regulates insurance carriers to protect consumers, but consumers share the responsibility for keeping rates down by improving their own health.

“Being more healthy spreads the risk (for insurance companies) out,” she said. “Right now, the crisis for the insurance industry is in the health care system, and each of us is responsible for doing our part.”

Bowman took over as commissioner in January and said Huckabee’s staggering weight loss and nationally recognized Healthy Arkansas program inspired her to educate Arkansans about how healthy living can reduce insurance rates.

Two of the state’s major health insurance providers, QualChoice of Arkansas and Blue Cross and Blue Shield, supported Bowman’s fitness initiative. Rob Thorpe, major accounts manager for QualChoice, said more competition could help lower rates, but maybe only initially.

“We’ve had more carriers in the state in the past, but then they pulled out,” Thorpe said. “More choice is good, but the real focus is on getting people healthier.”

Thorpe said people have been spoiled by low insurance co-pays in the past and the image that a trip to the doctor only costs $15 or $20. Meanwhile, 40 percent of Arkansans say they don’t exercise and 90 percent say they don’t do any strenuous exercise, and somehow, they expect insurance rates not to increase, he said.

Bowman and Thorpe both acknowledged that some health insurance issues cannot be controlled through better fitness. Coverage for serious mental health treatment continues to lag behind physical health insurance. Bowman said Arkansas has a parity law, but the industry still needs to improve what it offers for mental health care.

“The industry is starting to see that and embrace that, and I think the entire concept of mental illness is more understandable now,” Bowman said.

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