- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2014

The administration is trying to preempt Obamacare sticker shock in 2015 by pleading with Americans to shop around in the marketplaces instead of automatically re-enrolling in the health plans they chose last year.

Officials said Thursday those who don’t look around and compare plans during open enrollment could see their costs rise because the so-called benchmark plans are more expensive this year.

But the Health and Human Services Department said there are more insurers offering more plans this year, meaning that in most states consumers can choose from three or more issuers. And HHS said those options mean most consumers who shop around should be able to find a cheaper plan if they switch from what they had last year.

“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.

If current Obamacare customers do nothing, they will be re-enrolled automatically in their current plan Jan. 1, and likely will see more expensive plans, which is prompting administration officials and consumer advocates to urge people to come back and shop.

“The vast majority of people, if they stay in the same plan, they will see rate increases in the single digits to high single digits,” said Andy Slavitt, a deputy administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Robert Laszewski, a health policy consultant from Alexandria, Va., said the administration realizes customers will soon see their premium statements for the coming year.

“They are worried about the negative reaction that will follow and are trying to pre-empt it,” he said.

On Capitol Hill, Republican critics accused the administration of clouding the overhaul’s true impact.

“Slowing the rate of growth is Washington-speak intended to hide the fact that the president’s promise of huge savings has been broken,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican and vice chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The new HHS report found that premiums in the second-lowest-costing silver plan — the benchmark by which Obamacare subsidies are calculated — rose an average of 2 percent in the 35 states it analyzed.

That’s important, because customers may pay more in 2015 if their subsidy amount does not rise as quickly as the cost of their plan, officials said.

Premium changes for the benchmark plans fluctuated wildly, depending on where a consumer lived.

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 in Jackson, Mississippi, according to HHS’ analysis of select cities.

Republicans have hammered the health overhaul over ballooning costs, although its supporters say year-over-year increases have been modest compared to jumps in the individual market before Obamacare’s passage.

“Prior to the Affordable Care Act taking place, we saw double-digit increases in health care costs in this country. Those were routine,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

The debate comes at a pivotal time for the health care law.

While administration officials are trying to rally the uninsured to the exchanges, senior Democrats who championed the law have said in recent days the party focused on health care at the wrong time or did not go far enough when it passed the overhaul in 2010.

Republicans will try to chip away at President Obama’s signature reforms when they take control of both chambers of Congress in January, and the Supreme Court could yank away exchange subsidies from two-thirds of the nation if it rules against the administration in an Obamacare case that considers whether the administration unlawfully extended premium tax credits to people in every state.

Health care reform advocates say dark clouds on the horizon are not keeping enrollees away from the exchanges. Instead, the main challenge is helping people sort through their options and update their personal information for 2015, such as income or family size.

Americans will also face the law’s tax implications for the first time when they file returns early next year.

Other challenges are state-based. Returning customers in Oregon and Nevada, for instance, must return to the marketplace to re-up in plans because their states switched from state-run portals to the federal marketplace, officials noted Thursday.

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

Roughly half the customers shopped on HealthCare.gov for the first time, while the others were returning customers from last year, according to HHS data for Nov. 15-Nov. 28.

So far, it’s unclear whether returning customers are scrutinizing and switching plans to get a better deal.

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

Returning customers have until Dec. 15 to shop for 2015 coverage before they are re-enrolled in what they have. Officials expect a rush of consumers around that time and ahead of Feb. 15, when open enrollment closes.

Open enrollment season for 2015 is now in its third week and runs through Feb. 15. The next big deadline for consumers is Dec. 15, the date by which new customers must sign up if they want their coverage to take effect on Jan. 1. For current customers, it’s the deadline to make changes and updates that would take effect Jan. 1.

The White House delayed deadlines last year to give consumers stymied by the broken website more time to sign up, but Mr. Slavitt said they do not want to do that again.

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

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