A consumer group filed a lawsuit Monday against Anthem Blue Cross, accusing the insurer of raising rates to force members into policies with higher deductibles and lower benefits.
Consumer Watchdog accuses Anthem of violating state law by failing to offer policyholders comparable coverage and minimize rate hikes after the company directs customers to alternative plans when closing out existing plans.
San Rafael resident Mary McNamara Feller, a plaintiff in the suit, which was filed in Ventura County, said she had to do something after Anthem last month proposed raising rates on the policy covering her and her husband nearly 39 percent to $1,658 a month.
She said the company offered her the option of switching to a policy with a higher deductible and skimpier benefits by a specific deadline, but also told her she could stay in her current policy. The company notified her of the enormous premium increases in her plan after the deadline had passed.
"It just seems like there's no end in sight," said Feller, 56, adding that she experienced a similar increase last year. "The way Blue Cross handles this is by forcing plan members into plans that increasingly put people at risk financially. ... It's no longer just about us. It's about 800,000 people who don't have any recourse."
Anthem, which is owned by WellPoint Inc., has come under state and federal scrutiny for hiking the rates of its 800,000 individual policyholders, or those not covered through a group plan, by as much as 39 percent. The increases were scheduled to take effect Monday, but the company agreed to delay them until May 1 to allow the state time to investigate.
California authorities have little power over rates, but Consumer Watchdog's lawsuit relies on a 1993 state law that requires an insurer to offer enrollees a comparable alternative plan.
The suit accuses Anthem of forcing older and sicker members, who are unable to switch carriers, to pay higher and higher premiums until they accept inferior coverage or drop coverage altogether.
"Either way, Anthem wins," said Jerry Flanagan, Consumer Watchdog's health policy director.
Anthem officials said they had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.
This is not the first lawsuit filed over Anthem's rate hikes. On Feb. 11, Burlingame attorney Ron Galasi, an Anthem customer, filed a lawsuit in San Mateo County Superior Court, accusing the insurer of unfair competitive business practices.
"I want to show this corporation, whether we win or lose, we're not going to let them walk over us anymore," Galasi said.