Cheaper, expanded health insurance coming for 2015

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Hoosiers buying health insurance on the federal marketplace will have more choices next year - "including cheaper plans," according to figures released by the federal government Thursday.

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Average monthly premiums in Indiana for a mid-level plan will be slightly lower, thanks to an increase in the number of insurers participating in the federal HealthCare.gov exchange.

The figures emphasize the importance of consumers reviewing all options, instead of automatically re-enrolling in an existing plan.

"We strongly encourage people to come back to the website and shop," said Kevin Counihan, who runs the federal marketplace. "There's more choice and competition."

The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that, nationally, more than 70 percent of those already enrolled could find a cheaper plan for next year in their same tier of coverage. Most can get coverage for $100 a month or less, after subsidies are factored in, although the cheapest plans have the highest deductibles.

In Indiana, the number of insurers selling plans increased from four to nine, the largest increase among 35 states using the federal system.

The average monthly premium for the second-lowest-cost "silver" plan for a 27-year-old in Indiana dropped from $270 this year to $265 for next year, a 2 percent decrease.

In Indianapolis, the drop was 7 percent.

That cost doesn't take into account any tax credits, which reduce premiums on a sliding scale for those earning between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

The premium costs in the report are averages, and changes vary by location. In addition, in order to get a lower premium, a consumer may have to switch plans.

But Avalere Health, a health care consultancy, likewise found average premium decreases in Indiana similar to the federal report.

Avalere found slight declines in the average premiums offered in Indiana for the cheapest "bronze" and "silver" level plans - the most popular coverage tiers. That compares with a 3 percent to 4 percent average increase for those plans in all states that are using the federal exchange.

Premiums for insurance sold on the individual market commonly rose by double-digits before passage of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, which created the exchange and set new rules for providers.

"While automatic renewal could increase continuity of care for many consumers, many enrollees will be better off shopping and comparing again," said Caroline Pearson, vice president of Avalere Health. "In particular, people who do not undergo a re-determination during the open enrollment period could end up paying more than they need to for insurance."

Consumers who want to buy plans, or make changes, for coverage that starts in January must enroll by Dec. 15. The open enrollment period for 2015 coverage ends Feb. 15.

Most people currently enrolled who do not take action before the deadlines will be automatically enrolled by their insurance company into their current plan or a plan with similar benefits.

But there are reasons, beyond just new offerings and premium changes, that consumers will want to shop around.

For example, the network of doctors and hospitals covered by a plan may have changed. Deductibles and co-payments may also be different.

The investigative journalism organization ProPublica (www.propublica.org) has posted a tool to help consumers quickly see any significant changes to a plan.

Consumers also should be aware that the amount of their subsidy might go up or down if their income has changed, or if there's a change in the cost of the area's "benchmark" plan. That's because what someone pays for a plan is the difference between the premium of the plan they choose and the premium of the second-lowest-cost silver plan.

"That just underscores the message of having people come back to the website, update their eligibility, and shop and compare," Counihan said.

About 130,000 to 140,000 Hoosiers get insurance on their own - mostly through the exchange - instead of through an employer or a government program like Medicare or Medicaid. That figure could double next year.

The federal government has not released any figures on how many Hoosiers have re-enrolled for 2015, or are signing up for the first time.