U.S. bill would apply antitrust to medical insurers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top Democratic U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation on Thursday to eliminate a half-century-old antitrust exemption for health insurance and medical malpractice insurance companies amid concerns over rising premiums.

The bill, introduced by the chairmen of the Senate and House of Representatives Judiciary Committees, would repeal an exemption granted in 1945 and make health insurance and malpractice insurance companies subject to antitrust laws that forbid price fixing, bid rigging, and dividing markets between them.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate panel who had previously introduced similar legislation, said he did so again at least partially because of concern about rising costs.

“In the markets for health insurance and medical malpractice insurance, patients and doctors are paying the price, as costs continue to increase at an alarming rate. Insurers should not object to being subject to the same antitrust laws as everyone else,” said Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont.

A separate report released on Tuesday found that U.S. workers who get health insurance for their families through their employers have seen their premiums more than double in the last decade.

The Kaiser Family Foundation said the average premium for a company-provided family health insurance plan rose from $5,791 in 1999 to $13,375, a 131 percent jump.

Separately, the Business Roundtable, an organization that represents large U.S. corporations, said per-employee health costs would jump to $28,530 in 2019 from $10,743 currently if nothing is done.

On the House side, the bill was introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr.; Rep. Hank Johnson, chairman of the subcommittee on Courts and Competition (Antitrust) Policy and Rep. Diana DeGette, vice chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce Committee Vice-Chair.

Ipsita Smolinski, a senior health policy analyst with Capitol Street Research, said the bill had little or no Republican support. “This would likely face an uphill battle,” Smolinski said in an email.

Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Tim Dobbyn, Leslie Gevirtz