EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 26, 2013

Study: Insurance costs cheaper than expected

By John Toole

---- — Consumers will pay about 16 percent less than expected for health insurance in 36 states, including New Hampshire, under the new Affordable Care Act, a newly released federal study says.

The federal Department of Health and Human Services released the analysis this week as uninsured people prepare to sign up for the new health insurance plans beginning next week.

Advocates are still reviewing the report, but are encouraged.

“It does look like rates are going down and that’s terrific,” said Lisa Kaplan Howe, policy director with New Hampshire Voices for Health.

“This is welcome news for middle class families everywhere, who have already started to see positive returns on health reform and will continue to as ‘Obamacare’ is fully implemented,” said Zandra Rice-Hawkins, executive director of Granite State Progress.

But critics remain wary.

“Unfortunately, the numbers released by HHS (Tuesday) still don’t allow people to make a comparison between how much their plans cost this year against how much they will cost next year,” said Greg Moore, state director for Americans For Prosperity.

The study said the average premium nationally, before tax credits, is $328 for the second lowest silver plan, about 16 percent below Congressional Budget Office forecasts.

People in New Hampshire would pay an estimated $360 for the same coverage, the study concluded.

That’s less than their neighbors in Maine, $403, and Vermont, $413.

The study looked at states where the federal government will fully or partly run the marketplace.

Plans are categorized as bronze, silver, gold and platinum and reflect the split in healthcare costs between plan and consumer.

A bronze participant would typically pay 40 percent of costs, while a platinum participant would pay just 10 percent.

Tax credits will make a difference for those who qualify. Some would see monthly costs as low as $18 when the upfront credit is factored, Howe said.

She cautions the federal study isn’t truly an apples-to-apples comparison, because consumers will have new benefits such as maternity and mental health coverage.

Moore also noted some hospitals, including Derry’s Parkland Medical Center, are shut out of the New Hampshire network, which has consquences for consumers.

“This means that many people in the Greater Derry area will lose access to their doctors, and that will have real consequences for many individuals who have built up strong relationships with their physicians,” he said.

But Rice-Hawkins sees improvements coming.

“New Hampshire’s health insurance market can only become stronger as more competition is introduced,” she said.

The Affordable Care Act aims to deliver insurance to people who lack it. But the existence of new insurance exchanges under the act has some national firms terminating their own plans.

The release of the federal study not only coincides with the upcoming enrollment, but also efforts by some Republicans to block funding in Congress as a condition for resolving budget differences.

“I’ve learned it’s not a good idea to make predictions about what happens in Washington,” Moore said, “but my guess is that ‘Obamacare’ will survive the immediate defunding challenge, only to fall under the weight of its own poor design.”

Polls are showing the law is increasingly unpopular as it moves into implementation, he said.

“The issue will become a referendum in future elections and the public will have its voice heard,” Moore said.

Rice-Hawkins expects Republican opponents will pay the price, not supporters of the Affordable Care Act.

“We’ve come too far with health reform, and seen too many good things come from it, to put it back on the chopping block so some politician can score political points,” she said.

In New Hampshire and other states, meanwhile, efforts are underway to educate consumers about their options under the new law.

Pelham Public Library has scheduled an educational forum, led by AARP, next month.

“Librarians have been asked at the national level, by President Obama, to step up and be sources of information for their patrons on this topic,” library director Corinne Chronopoulos said.

The session is set for Thursday, Oct. 24 at 6 p.m. at the library, 24 Village Green.

The Pelham library also has dedicated a page to the healthcare issue on its website.

People can find the page by visiting pelhampubliclibrary.org and clicking on the Research category at the top of the page.

Howe said New Hampshire got started late on promoting consumer options, but is ramping up.

Besides AARP, organizations including Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and Bi-State Primary Care Association are engaged in outreach, she said.

Granite State Progress and Americans For Prosperity have also been in an unfolding public debate over the pros and cons of the Affordable Care Act.

Just because enrollment starts next week, doesn’t mean consumers have to rush a decision. Howe said they will have until Dec. 15 to sign up.

“People shouldn’t feel the need to finish the process in a day or week,” she said.

Some consumers also could be affected by whether the state decides to expand Medicaid.

Howe said that is now under review by state officials, with a decision expected by the Legislature later this fall.

More information about the report and the Affordable Care Act is available at HHS.gov. A related link will help people calculate their own potential insurance costs.