- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Obama administration urged customers to shop in the Obamacare marketplace instead of blindly re-enrolling in the plan they selected last year, citing increased competition and the resulting potential for savings as average premiums rise slightly among some of the most popular plans.

Health and Human Services Department said the number of plan issuers participating in open enrollment for 2015 coverage is up 25 percent from last year. And based on its analysis of 35 states, more than 90 percent of consumers can choose from three or more issuers, an increase from 74 percent during the last signup season.

As a result, the administration said, more than seven in 10 enrollees could find a cheaper plan within the same tier — known as a “metal level” such as bronze, silver, gold or platinum — by shopping around.

“We strongly, strongly encourage people to come back to the website and shop,” said Kevin Counihan, CEO of the HealthCare.gov marketplace that serves 37 states.

The report found that premiums in the second-lowest costs silver plan — the “benchmark” plan by which Obamacare subsidies are calculated — rose an average of 2 percent in before tax credits in the 35 states it looked at.

While Republicans hammer the health overhaul and point to rising premiums, its supporters say year-over-year increases are modest compared to the individual insurance market prior to passage of the Affordable Care Act.

Premium changes for the benchmark plan fluctuated wildly from place to place.

A 27-year-old selecting the second-lowest silver plan would see an average spike of 34 percent in Juneau, Alaska, while costs would go down by 24 percent, according to HHS’s analysis of select cities.

Premiums in one of the marketplace’s most popular plans, the lowest-cost silver plan, increased by an average of 5 percent across the analyzed markets, HHS said.

Officials acknowledged that outreach on their part is crucial, because shopping for insurance is complex and extends beyond the premium amounts that get so much attention.

An article published by ProPublica and The New York Times’ Upshot on Thursday noted that while some plans may have the same premiums and deductibles this year, certain “jargon” describes changes that can affect overall costs.

For instance, generic drug prices might go down while specialty medications go up, and co-payments for primary care may decrease while ER trips cost more, the report said.

Officials said they are trying to publish as much information as they can about plans and reach out to consumers in a targeted manner.

Customers can re-enroll in the same plan they had last year without doing a thing, while the vast majority of those whose 2014 plan no longer exists can re-up in coverage with “very similar characteristics,” said Andy Slavitt, a deputy administration at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

However, “we’d like to see them come back [to the marketplace] even if they’re satisfied with their policies,” he said.

About 765,000 people have chosen a private health plan on the federal Obamacare marketplace since year-two enrollment began on Nov. 15.

Roughly half of the customers shopped on the exchange known as HealthCare.gov for the first time, while the others are returning customers who selected a plan last year and have re-enrolled or shopped for a new plan, according to HHS data for Nov. 15-28.

But so far, it’s unclear whether returning customers are scrutinizing offerings and switching plans.

“We do not have a full picture on what people are doing and what people are selecting,” Mr. Slavitt said.

People have until Dec. 15 to shop for new coverage for 2015 before they are re-enrolled in what they have. Officials expect a rush of consumers around that time, and a last-minute throng before open enrollment ends Feb. 15.

The White House shifted around its enrollment deadlines last year amid widespread technical problems. Mr. Slavitt said they are hoping to avoid that kind of maneuvering this year.

“We do not plan on extending deadlines,” he said. These are critical deadlines that we’re living with.”

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