Many of us in the advocacy world have been quick to point out examples of things we’d rather re-gift this season. But, as the days start to get longer, it’s worth acknowledging a big win for consumers in 2011 – the preservation of the medical loss ratio (MLR).

The MLR, or the proportion of a premium spent on medical claims vs. profit and administration, was a topic that previously interested only the wonkiest of health wonks. But this year it became a hot issue that moved thousands of consumers across the country to contact their insurance commissioners and demand greater transparency and understanding of how our premium dollars are spent. And in a surprising turn in early December, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released regulations on the MLR that kept one of the more controversial parts of the MLR, broker fees, as part of the calculation.

More recently, there were some significant state wins on retaining a strong MLR standard. Both Florida and Michigan insurance commissioners applied to “adjust” (read: reduce) the amount that insurers must spend on medical claims. After strong advocacy by state partners in FL and MI, the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight (CCIIO), the federal agency charged with deciding the MLR rule, denied both states’ requests to ease the MLR for insurers. The headline: consumer protections won out over insurers’ financial interests.

So what does this mean? One reason the MLR is a big deal is that if insurers do not actually meet the MLR standards, they must provide consumers with rebates, starting in 2012. This very tangible benefit of the ACA was improved by CCIIO’s recent decision to make these rebates tax-free, and to require notices to consumers detailing the amount of the rebate and health plan’s MLR along with an explanation of what it means. Stay tuned for more details from CCIIO on how those rebates will roll out. And for now, be thankful that the Affordable Care Act provided this valuable tool to help protect consumers.

— Christine Barber, Senior Policy Analyst