By Sandhya Somashekhar and Sarah Kliff
The Washington Post
A 27-year-old in Austin, Texas who earns $25,000 could pay $85 per month for health insurance next year, and a family of four in St. Louis with income of $50,000 might face a $32 monthly premium, according to new federal data on health insurance rates under the Affordable Care Act.
The report, released Wednesday by the Department of Health and Human Services, showed significant variation in the insurance premiums that Americans shopping on the individual market could pay under the president's health-care overhaul. Across the 48 states for which data were available, the unsubsidized monthly premiums could be as low as $70 for an individual and as high as $1,200 for a moderate plan for a family of four.
The average national premium for an individual policy will be $328 in 2014, before including any of the tax credits that will be available to low- and middle-income Americans to help them purchase coverage.
Officials say these prices will be affordable for people buying insurance through the government marketplaces slated to open next week.
"For millions of Americans, these new options will finally make health insurance work within their budgets," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.
Information about how much insurance plans will cost under the health-care law, often derided by critics as Obamacare, has been dribbling out for months on a state-by-state basis.
But the report from the administration, which has been collecting rate information since the spring, offers the first comprehensive look at the effect of the law on many Americans — specifically those who buy coverage privately and not through their employers, as well as low-income uninsured people who are not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid.
Beginning Tuesday, those people will be able to log on to government websites called marketplaces to peruse their plan options, apply for government subsidies and sign up for coverage effective next year. That is when the requirement kicks in that virtually every American carry health insurance or face a fine.
The report also includes information for more than two dozen states that declined to set up their own marketplaces, leaving at least part of the job up to the federal government.
Premiums will vary significantly depending on an individual's income, where she lives and what type of coverage she buys. A 27-year-old in Fairfax County, Va., for example, could spend between $124 and $258 on a health plan, depending on how robust she wants it to be.
A family of four in Fairfax County that earns $50,000 could get a health insurance plan with no premium at all, because the federal tax credit would cover the bill.
Most people using the marketplaces will have incomes low enough to qualify for a government subsidy. A recent administration report found that 56 percent of the roughly 41 million uninsured people eligible for the marketplaces could pay monthly premiums of $100 or less.
Health experts say it is a good sign for consumers that premiums have come in lower than expected. Under the law, the plans must offer a basic set of benefits, including mental health and maternity care, which previously were not included in many private plans. Insurers are also forbidden from rejecting or charging people more because of pre-existing conditions.
Many experts worried that those factors would drive up the cost of insurance. They partially credit competition on the marketplaces, where people will be able to directly compare plans from different insurance companies, for restraining premiums.
But they warn that premiums don't tell the whole story.
The low rates are possible in part because insurance companies created special plans that include fewer in-network doctors and hospitals than many current plans.
This may not be a problem for healthy people who currently lack insurance. But those with illnesses may discover that their specialists are not covered by an exchange insurance plan. Low-income people accustomed to a certain community clinic may find that going there is no longer an option. And everyone may encounter long waits to see a doctor.
In addition, many of the lowest-cost plans may carry high deductibles, despite a cap imposed by the law that limits out-of-pocket costs to $6,350 per person per year.
"Despite the fact that the premiums are lower than expected, enrollees on exchanges are likely to face very high out-of-pocket costs before they hit their cap, and they are at risk of being in very narrow network plans that may or may not include all the providers they need access to," said Caroline Pearson, vice president of health reform at the consulting firm Avalere Health, which did its own report on rates this month.
Some healthy people may also experience sticker shock on premiums. A recent analysis by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, found that some people who buy low-cost private plans today could see their rates jump by 24 percent.