- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2014

The Obama administration isn’t revealing how much prices will increase on Obamacare insurance policies until after the election, but Jonathan Wu can tell you right now.

Mr. Wu, the 33-year-old CEO of ValuePenguin, has posted an Obamacare calculator on the company’s website at www.valuepenguin.com that allows consumers to shop, compare prices and figure out how much they’ll be spending before the Healthcare.gov website unveils its plans on Nov. 15.

Oh, and there’s no charge. “It’s completely free,” Mr. Wu said. “All the resources on our site are completely free.”

He said most of the relevant data is available now from state insurance regulators, who approve price changes on policies before they wind up on the federal and state health-care exchanges. It’s just a matter of digging up the information and devising a way to make it accessible online.

That’s easier said than done — just ask anyone working on the government health-care exchanges — but Mr. Wu, who has a background in hedge funds and a degree in computer science from Columbia University, said he’s surprised more people aren’t doing it.

When the Obamacare websites launched last year, “tons of people were covering it going into open enrollment and they want to talk about prices, but it was interesting to us that no one actually pulled up the rate filing or no one talked to these regulators when all this information existed,” he said.

“We said, ‘Hey, this is where the actual plans are and they can get an accurate indication of how things are going to look.’ We thought it was a good tool for people to get an idea of what these exchanges look like — to let them shop around and do a little research before they go through the process of enrolling,” Mr. Wu said.

Founded in June 2013, ValuePenguin provides research and tools for evaluating health care policies and credit cards. Mr. Wu started the company with two friends, Ting Pen and Brian Quinn. The company’s name comes from their last names, which together sound like “penguin.”

The New York-based company began examining and posting information on Obamacare policies prior to last year’s inaugural rollout in October.

“We thought it would be a fascinating thing because a lot of people were talking about prices, but they had no idea how these plans were coming in,” Mr. Wu said. “So we were actively looking for states where the information was available.”

Now that U.S. consumers have experienced one Obamacare rollout, Mr. Wu’s goal for 2015 is to give them a sense of how the policies are changing.

“In 2014, it was to give people an idea of where the prices were set,” Mr. Wu said. “In 2015, it gives people an idea of what’s going to be changing, which insurers are going to be lowering their rates, as well as any changes that they should be aware of.”

In terms of trends, Mr. Wu said insurance companies appear to be seeking equilibrium this year, lowering the prices on last year’s more expensive policies while raising prices on the cheaper ones.

“The filings kind of give you a breakdown of which insurers got the most policy enrollment. So what we’re seeing is that people are obviously very price conscious,” Mr. Wu said. “A lot of the insurers that were kind of on the lower range, they tended to get a larger share of the market. In some of those states, they’re raising their rates a little bit. What we were also seeing is that a lot of the [companies] that were priced very highly in year one, they’re lowering their rates.”

Some state insurance boards have released figures that sound daunting — in Alaska, for example, two insurers are raising rates by more than 30 percent — but Mr. Wu warned against reading too much into one insurer’s drastic premium increases or decreases.

“One of the things I caution about is that if no one’s enrolled in the plan, then it doesn’t really matter if prices are coming down,” Mr. Wu said. “That’s not a price that anyone was willing to pay in the first place.”

Once enrollment begins Nov. 15, Mr. Wu says it’s still worth checking out the ValuePenguin website because it includes some information not found on Healthcare.gov.

“Even after open enrollment, if you go to Healthcare.gov, some of the anonymous shopping functionality doesn’t necessarily have all the plan benefits included, so you have to walk into the pdf,” said Mr. Wu, citing mental-health coverage as an example.

“We try to include that all on our site. We’ll also give you multiple resources about how to think about this stuff and so even after open enrollment, we try to supplement our resources to help people compare,” Mr. Wu said. “We’re trying to make this a tool for people who are really looking at this stuff and help them make a better decision.”

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