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updated: 11/14/2013 4:38 PM

Largest Illinois insurer reacts to Obama's shift

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Associated Press

With President Barack Obama shifting course Thursday to allow insurers to renew health plans they planned to cancel, Illinois regulators and the state's largest health insurance company found the ball in their court.

Obama announced he would give insurers the option to keep offering consumers plans that would otherwise be canceled because they fall short of coverage requirements under the nation's health overhaul. The change would be effective for one year, although an extension is possible.

In Illinois, a spokesman said state Insurance Director Andrew Boron was studying the issue, looking at options under state law. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois officials said the company, which has the most customers in the state's individual market, is "determining next steps," but stopped short of promising to renew its canceled plans.

Shonn Hild, a landscaper from the central Illinois city of Sullivan and whose health plan was canceled recently, said Obama's proposal may be "too little, too late." He said he called Blue Cross on Thursday after the president's announcement and was told the company is gathering information. But "as of right now they do not have any plans to bring back the discontinued plans," Hild said he was told.

Insurers are not required to continue the canceled plans under Obama's administrative change to the Affordable Care Act, and it's not clear what they will decide to do.

The companies will want to keep their paying customers, especially with enrollment numbers discouragingly low on the new insurance marketplaces, or exchanges, said Ceci Connolly, managing director of PwC Health Research Institute, which analyzes trends in health care. They will need to evaluate whether the patients they're insuring in the old plans are high risk, and they will want to avoid consumer anger.

"It's such a hot issue in our nation right now," Connolly said. "Because this is on the front page every week, insurance companies will be thinking about their role in the community."

The president's announcement follows his apology last week for his repeated promise that Americans who liked their health plans could keep them. At least 4 million Americans have received cancellation notices, according to Associated Press reporting.

"We are exploring all the possibilities," said Greg Thompson, a spokesman for Health Care Service Corporation, the operator of Blue Cross plans in Illinois and four other states. "We are reviewing today's announcement and determining next steps as we keep our members informed of their options both on and off the exchange."

Spokesman Mike Claffey said the state's insurance department has been in contact with federal authorities and is evaluating options under state law, keeping in mind what's best for the state's consumers.

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