* Health insurance premiums up 20 pct on average
* Kaiser Family survey looks at those who buy own coverage
* Future impact of health care reforms unclear
By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON, June 21 (Reuters) - U.S. health insurers are raising prices by an average of 20 percent for adults age 64 and younger who buy their own policies, according to a survey released by a nonprofit healthcare group on Monday.
Such premium cost increases affected more than three-quarters of the 14 million adults who buy their own health plans and caused some to either seek a cheaper option with fewer benefits or switch insurers altogether, the Kaiser Family Foundation study showed.
The findings come as the Obama administration works with insurers to implement some of the new rules under the recently passed healthcare law, which aims to expand consumers’ coverage while cracking down on discriminatory industry practices.
Although individual, or “nongroup,” policies are a small slice of the health insurance industry, they have attracted sharp scrutiny in recent months amid reports of price increases as high as 39 percent.
U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has blasted health insurance companies such as WellPoint Inc WLP.N for their significant premium hikes in California and other U.S. states.
“With people in the individual market being hit with average increases of 20 percent, the survey shows that the steep increases we have been reading about over the last several months are not just extreme cases,” Kaiser Family Foundation Chief Executive Officer Drew Altman said in a statement.
While most working-age adults who have insurance get it through their employers, roughly 14 million people in the United States — mostly small business owners or those whose companies don’t offer insurance — buy their own policies.
In comparison, 157 million adults under 65 have employer or “large group” policies, while roughly 45 million people 65 and older have coverage through the nation’s Medicare program for the elderly and disabled.
Besides WellPoint, other health insurers include Aetna Inc AET.N, Cigna Corp (CI.N), Humana Inc (HUM.N), UnitedHealth Group Inc (UNH.N), Health Net Inc HNT.N, Amerigroup Corp AGP.N and the Blue Cross Blue Shield network.
Kaiser’s findings, drawn from the responses of nearly 1,040 working-age adults via an online survey, found those who have to buy their own policies still worry about their access to care and whether their insurance will adequately cover them.
The survey was conducted in late March and early April. Most responses came on or before March 23, when President Obama signed the healthcare bill into law.
Many insurers have already begun adopting some reforms ahead of schedule, such as ending lifetime caps on coverage and stopping cancellations when a policyholder gets sick.
But other reforms, such as protections for those with pre-existing health conditions, do not go into effect until 2014 — a more than three-year gap.
By then, all Americans will be required to have health insurance or risk paying a fine. States can also set up health insurance exchanges aimed at providing consumers one-stop shopping to compare plans.
In the meantime, 52 percent of respondents who buy their own coverage said they would keep their current plan next year, while 32 percent said they were not sure they would do so. Another 14 percent said they would switch companies.
“In the vast majority of states, the nongroup market is subject to substantially less regulation than group insurance,” the Kaiser report said. “Much will change under the new health reform law.” (Reporting by Susan Heavey, editing by David Alexander and Lisa Von Ahn)