Officials: Health plans affordable despite major price hikes

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — As consumers in Utah and around the country are expected to see higher health insurance premiums and fewer choices next year under President Barack Obama’s health law, the White House is on the defensive with a new report that says rates will still be relatively inexpensive for most Utah consumers.

If rates for all health plans available on the federally-run insurance website increased 50 percent next year, about 80 percent of Utah consumers would see monthly rates of $75 a month or less, according to a report Wednesday from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Federal health officials say the hypothetical increases would be offset because tax credits that help people afford the insurance would also rise, and the online insurance marketplace allows people to shop around for the best plan.

While most workers and their families are covered by employers, the online insurance marketplaces are a key prong of Obama’s health law, offering subsidies and a place to shop around for health insurance.

In Utah, about 164,000 are enrolled in insurance through the marketplace, with about 88 percent of them receiving some kind of federal tax credit to help pay the costs.

The rates for Utah 2017 plans are expected to be released in late September or early October, after the state Insurance Department finishes reviewing them, but insurers are expected to seek major premium hikes around the country.

The expected price increases come as insurance companies around the country have grappled with fewer people than expected signing up for coverage, and those getting coverage turning out to be sicker and costlier to cover than anticipated. Government efforts to stabilize insurance markets have had problems and as some insurers have left the arena, including nonprofits like Utah’s Arches Mutual Insurance Co., a nonprofit insurance cooperative which shut down last year.

Arches reported losing $20 million in 2014, the first year the online market opened, and closed last fall after learning it would receive only a fraction of the federal money it was counting on to offset the loss.

Another insurer, Humana Inc., said earlier this year that it would be scaling back its participation in online marketplaces around the country.

Utah Insurance Department spokesman Steve Gooch said Thursday that includes Utah, where Humana had covered about 9,000 people in Davis and Salt Lake counties.

Without Humana offering plans, people shopping on the exchange in those two counties are expected to have only three insurance companies to choose from next year, unless more insurers jump into the market.

Mike Valentine, an insurance broker in Murray, said he doesn’t expect Humana’s departure to have a huge impact. Valentine said the insurer offered low prices but had a comparatively small network of doctors, so most of his clients weren’t signing up for Humana plans.

Marina Renneke, a Humana spokeswoman, said in a statement Thursday that “a number of persistent issues” have made it difficult to keep offering plans through the online insurance marketplace. Renneke said the company is working to avoid coverage disruption wherever possible, and “We do not take these changes lightly.”

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