Consumers shopping on the federal and state insurance exchanges can generally expect more options and often a better deal than the plan they've got, according to new data from the Obama administration.
On Thursday, HHS announced that there has been an overall 25% increase in the number of issuers participating during the second enrollment period in 35 states relying on the federal exchange. More than 90% of consumers in the federal marketplace states will be able to choose from three or more issuers—up from 74% in 2014. On average, there are 40 plans available per county. This is an increase from an average of 30 total plans per county last year.
The administration is encouraging consumers to shop around even if they're happy with the plan they purchased for 2014. More than 70% can find a lower premium plan at the same metal-designated benefit level, before tax credits, by choosing a different plan.
However, HHS also disclosed that certain states have seen a modest drop in plan options. Those included Florida, where the average number of plans per county is 24 fewer than in 2014. Residents of Arizona have 10 less per county on average, Virginians have seven less, Kansans have five less, and Iowans will four less.
The conservative political leaders in those states are generally hostile to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but insurance officials and experts closely following the marketplaces say the decline in options is a matter of business and not politics. And it may in fact reflect that marketplaces are functioning as they should.
“The reduction in plans may reflect a self-enforcement of the meaningful-difference standard, which requires that different plans at same metal level actually have more than trivial or confusing differences,” said Joel Ario, a managing director at Manatt Health Care Solutions and former director of the HHS agency overseeing the development of the exchanges.
In Florida, even though the total number of plans per county is dropping, three new issuers have entered the state's marketplace for 2015 coverage. “Some companies are offering fewer plans as part of a natural consolidation and elimination of less popular plans,” said Harvey Bennett, a spokesman for the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.
An HHS spokeswoman said the numbers suggest insurance companies are "adjusting their plan options to the patterns and demands among consumers."
Two states led by liberals have fewer insurance companies competing this time around: Oregon and California, for which HHS did not provide data because they have state-based exchanges.
An analysis released this week by the liberal-leaning Commonwealth Fund found that each of those marketplaces lost one carrier. The study did not assess the number of plan options.
“This is a totally normal part of the dynamic of a marketplace ... as consumers figure out what they do and don't want,” said Sara Collins, an expert in healthcare access and coverage at the Commonwealth Fund.
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