Opinion Pieces

Goldendale Sentinel: Working to Bring Health Insurance Back to Klickitat County

Dwindling health insurance options in the individual market have been a troubling trend under Obamacare in rural communities like Klickitat County.

Dwindling health insurance options in the individual market have been a troubling trend under Obamacare in rural communities like Klickitat County. Last week, Washington State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler announced that not a single insurance provider had filed to sell individual plans in Klickitat or Grays Harbor Counties in 2018. It’s my sincere hope that relief can be found for affected residents – and I’m actively seeking solutions.

Unfortunately, this development does not come as a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to trends in rural counties since the Obamacare exchanges were fully implemented. From the very beginning of the exchanges, rural residents had few options. In 2014, Klickitat had two insurance carriers offering plans. This year, the county is down to only one, and next year there will be none at all if a solution isn’t found. And with this most recent troubling announcement, we now learn that the number of counties with only one insurance carrier “option” has grown three-fold, from two to six of Washington’s 39 counties. Now, Skamania County, also in the district I represent, is on this unfortunate list.

In 2018, when the last insurer is gone from Klickitat County, more than 1,100 of its residents who purchase their health care insurance in the individual market – including 626 on the Obamacare exchange – have no options. Further demonstrating the poor treatment of rural communities under Obamacare, individuals in Klickitat will not be eligible for tax credits to help offset the cost of premiums; the law stipulates that only plans purchased through the exchange are eligible. 

If that weren’t enough, individuals in these counties - through no fault of their own - will still be subject to the individual mandate penalty imposed by Obamacare if they don’t purchase insurance.  In other words, these rural residents who have just been stripped of all health insurance options and the tax credits must now pay a minimum $695 penalty, even though they did nothing wrong.  When Obamacare proponents tout its “successes” in Washington state, they ignore residents in rural communities like Goldendale, Dallesport, and Lyle and turn them into second-class citizens when it comes to their health care.

Particularly troubling is that in the face of all these predictable trends, state officials have engaged in after-the-fact shifting of blame and pointing to “uncertainty” stemming from the last presidential election and federal bills drafted in the past few months. We’ve had a new President less than six months, while the state exchanges in rural areas have been deteriorating since their inception. Attempts to fault recent developments aren’t just disingenuous; they raise fears that the state officials who hold a direct role in ensuring residents have health insurance options would rather avoid blame than do what is necessary to fix the problem. 

There are some options that would provide relief. I have supported legislation in Congress called the Health Care Options Act of 2017 that would allow folks in Klickitat County to purchase a state-approved insurance plan in the individual market.  They would also have the subsidies that will help lower their premiums – the same subsidies available in other counties under Obamacare – available to them. Additionally, this bill would protect them from being forced to pay a penalty for not purchasing insurance.  These same relief measures would be available to residents of any county where Obamacare has collapsed and no options are available.

State officials like Commissioner Kreidler need to take swift action to restore Klickitat County residents’ ability to purchase health insurance as soon as possible. Upon hearing this news, I’ve urged the commissioner to do whatever is necessary to reverse this troubling trend so that additional counties are not stripped of health insurance options going forward (You can read my full letter to Commissioner Kreidler on my website: jhb.house.gov).

The commissioner’s office has reported that he would be having conversations with insurance carriers about the lack of options in Klickitat County. If only urgent action had been taken sooner, we wouldn’t be in a situation where whole counties are without options in the first place. I simply can’t imagine the panic hundreds of rural residents are feeling after hearing that no insurance options will be available to them on the individual market. I’m committed to doing everything in my power to assist them.

Everybody deserves access to quality, affordable health care – regardless of where they live. I will stay on top of this issue and continue fighting to make this a reality.