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Health Insurance Commissioner Says Budget Cuts Would Hobble Oversight

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Rhode Island’s health insurance commissioner says she’s concerned about funding cuts in the proposed state budget. The agency may have to cut nine of...

Rhode Island’s health insurance commissioner says she’s concerned about funding cuts in the proposed state budget. The agency may have to cut nine of its 12 employees, who currently oversee health insurance regulation.

State lawmakers created the Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner to try to get a handle on rising health insurance rates. The federal Affordable Care Act infused the office with additional money to help get cost-reduction efforts off the ground. That money has dried up, and now state lawmakers want to cut a million dollars from OHIC’s budget. Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Hittner says that would hobble her office’s ability to investigate consumer complaints among other services.

“That would leave us with the three original positions that this office was created with: the commissioner, a lawyer, and an assistant," says Hittner. "There is no way – there is zero way – that we can do the work that is intended.”

For example, the office is currently conducting a comprehensive review of the adequacy of mental health insurance coverage in Rhode Island. Called a "mental health parity market conduct exam," the aim is to find out if insurers are denying consumers coverage unnecessarily. If the budget passes as is, Hittner says she will be left without the funding or staff to continue that exam.

“This is really critical for us to understand if our people in Rhode Island who need mental health services are being adequately treated and protected," says Hittner. "Our ability to do consumer protection will go away.”

The House budget for the fiscal year that starts in July would strip three-quarters of the staff at the Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner. Hittner says that would also hamper efforts to investigate other kinds of consumer complaints against insurers. 

Lawmakers in the House hope to vote on the budget this week. A spokesman for the House could not be immediately reached for comment. 

Update: Larry Berman, a spokesman for the House, later emailed a statement about the Speaker's rationale for the proposed cut. The expectation, he said, is that new federal money will become available or "the enhanced work being done...would be scaled back." The concern, he said, is that it is too common for state agencies to accept federal grants and then expect the state to continue funding programs when the money runs out."

Operators at HealthSource RI, the state's health insurance exchange.
Operators at HealthSource RI, the state's health insurance exchange.