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Missouri's high-risk pool will see decrease in health-care premiums

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 10, 2011 - When Missouri set up a new high-risk health-insurance pool last year, officials projected that the program would serve about 3,000 people. In fact, fewer than 600 have signed up, with many others saying they cannot afford the premiums.

That's part of the reason state insurance officials have announced rate reductions averaging 23 percent for new and existing participants. The rate reductions are funded with $81 million in federal funds and premiums by policyholders.

John M. Huff, director of the Missouri Department of Insurance, says the new rates mean monthly premiums will now range from $137 to $601. The amount will depend on the person's age and number of deductions. Previous rates ranged from $178 to $780.

"Our aggressive rate reduction is intended to make this much-needed health coverage more affordable," Huff said in a statement. "This pool is now insuring more than 550 Missourians who previously had no health coverage because they could not find affordable coverage in the commercial market."

Even if all eligible Missourians took advantage of the program, it would make only a small dent in the state's uninsured population, which exceeds 700,000. Even so, Huff says the reductions "will make comprehensive health-care coverage more accessible to Missourians with pre-existing medical conditions."

The pool was set up last year and is supposed to bring relief to a relatively few until the Affordable Care Act takes full effect in 2014. That law is supposed to provide health insurance to most Americans by making them eligible for an expanded Medicaid system or through insurance exchanges and other programs.

Missouri is not alone in having problems signing up members for the new pool. A year ago, the Department of Health and Human Services projected that at least 200,000 people nationwide would take advantage of the program. But the Associated Press reports that 24,712 had enrolled as of May 31.

This pool is one of two in Missouri. The first is not federally funded. It was set up by state law in 1991, and it serves more than 4,100 members through funds from premiums and fees assessed on health insurers doing business in Missouri. Both pools are governed by a nine-member board appointed by Huff as director of the state insurance system.

Funding for the Beacon's health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization that aims to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.