Opinion Pieces

Chinook Observer: Pacific County deserves better healthcare options

Beginning Jan. 1, residents of Southern Pacific County enrolled in Premera health insurance plans will face a healthcare crisis.

Beginning Jan. 1, residents of Southern Pacific County enrolled in Premera health insurance plans will face a healthcare crisis.

In 2018, residents here will no longer have access to essential health care services in nearby Ore­gon towns. Instead, if you’re a Premera customer in Ilwaco, you’ll face a 67-mile one-way drive into Longview to see a cardiologist; a 70-mile drive to Aberdeen for a pediatrician or to deliver a baby; or that same 70 miles to see a psychologist. These plans are wholly inadequate to offer people the health services they need, yet they were approved by Washington’s insurance commissioner.

It’s well established that even when individuals have insurance, geographic barriers prevent folks from receiving potentially lifesaving healthcare. For individuals with a limited income, children, a job, or a disability, a 90-minute trip just to reach an appointment may force them to postpone a cervical cancer screening, avoid regular mental health treatment, or skip a diabetes checkup. With winter approaching, those trips become even more difficult.

How did we get here? Unfortunately, under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) rural residents have seen healthcare options dwindle while premiums and costs continue to climb. The looming crisis for Premera customers in Pacific County began when Premera filed its plans — and the restricted networks they now offer — with Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler’s office in the spring of 2016. Staunch defenders of the ACA often point to the election of President Trump or congressional efforts to replace the law as the causes — but these explanations don’t reflect the facts. When Premera filed these plans, the 2016 presidential campaign was still under way, and President Obama was still in office vetoing any attempt to alter the ACA.

And the crisis continues to play out throughout rural America. In rural Klickitat County earlier this year, it took an 11th-hour scramble by Commissioner Kreidler to fix an issue where residents had zero health insurance options.

On Dec. 6, I sent a letter to Commissioner Kreidler highlighting this crisis and urgently requested he work with insurance companies to restore timely access to care in Pacific County.

There are some small signs of encouragement since that letter was sent. Premera has let us know that it offers a “benefit level exception” that requires action on the part of enrollees. That means if you have to travel farther than a set distance for certain types of care, lack your own vehicle, or meet a few other exceptions, you may be able to qualify to see doctors closer to home in 2018 at in-network prices. To find out the details of those exceptions, people should call Premera at 1-888-742-1479.

This is certainly not a long-term fix. Rural residents deserve better than to be treated as second-class citizens, and I urge Commissioner Kreidler to work with insurance companies to restore reasonable health care options to Pacific County — quickly.

Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, is the congresswoman representing the Third Congressional District in Southwest Washington.

-Chinook Observer