Sept. 26--The price of health insurance under Obamacare came sharply into focus Thursday, as Californians learned that they will pay the 10th-highest rates in the country for a mid-range policy.
With less than a week to go until open enrollment begins on the new health-insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration published insurance premiums and plan choices for 26 states where the federal government is taking the lead to cover uninsured residents.
The survey came as the administration went into full campaign mode to promote the benefits of the law to a skeptical public as Republicans in Congress refused to abandon their quest to derail Obamacare and continued to flirt with a government shutdown to force the issue.
In a call with reporters, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said premiums will generally be lower than what the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated when the legislation was being debated a few years ago. Consumers will be able to choose from an average of 53 plan options when the new markets open Tuesday, she said.
"For millions of Americans, these new options will finally make health insurance work within their budgets," she said.
If no federal subsidy is attached, the individual premium for a mid-range benchmark policy will average $328 a month nationally, according to the Health and Human Services Department. But in California, which leads the country in uninsured residents and is running its own exchange, that plan will cost $373.
The rates, however, will be lower for poor and middle-income people who qualify for the federal subsidies.
In the two other states with the highest uninsured population, a benchmark "silver" plan will average $305 in Texas and $328 in Florida. There are also gold, bronze and platinum plans.
"One surprise is Texas," Larry Levitt of the Menlo Park-based Kaiser Family Foundation told the Associated Press. "That is a state that has put up roadblocks to implementation, but the premiums there are below average."
Experts attributed the wide differences between states to the varying number of insurers competing and other free-market factors.
Under Obamacare, most Americans will be required to have health insurance by March 31 or pay a penalty.
A report by Sebelius' department estimated that about 95 percent of U.S. consumers will have two or more insurers to choose from. The report said a fourth of the insurers participating are new to the individual coverage market, a sign that could be good for competition.
"This reconfirms that like in California, the rates in other states came in lower than expected, and that's good news for the success of affordable health care," said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, a statewide consumer group.
California's numbers, initially unveiled in May, provided the first glimpse into plans and prices for up to 5.3 million people not covered by employers' insurance.
A spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said that premiums that are "lower than projected" are not the same as "lower than they are now."
Supporters of the law, however, argue that the policies under Obamacare will be a lot better because they'll cover more things and have lower out-of-pocket costs.
Meanwhile, a new poll of 2,001 uninsured people in the state showed that most of them had heard little about the details of Obamacare and didn't know how they would benefit from it. The same survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that almost half of illegal immigrants in California believe they will get coverage through the law, even though it bars them from receiving benefits.
The survey was done from July 11 to Aug. 29 to gauge the circumstances of uninsured people in the state before enrollment begins on Tuesday.
Nearly three-quarters of uninsured people whose income would put them in line to receive subsidies in the state's new health-insurance marketplace, Covered California, either said they do not know if they are eligible to get financial assistance to help pay for health insurance (31 percent) or think they will not be eligible for assistance (43 percent). Forty-seven percent of the uninsured with incomes that would make them eligible for Medi-Cal, the state's health-care program for the poor, either don't know if they will qualify (21 percent) or believe they will not (26 percent).
"The uninsured face a steep learning curve," said Mollyann Brodie, a Kaiser senior vice president and head of the foundation's public opinion and survey research team.
The lack of widespread public awareness of the health care reform law and its benefits was acknowledged Wednesday by a spokesman at Covered California.
But Larry Hicks said the exchange has an $80 million advertising and marketing budget that it will use over the next two years to promote the insurance plans available on the Covered California website.
About half of that budget will be spent starting next week through March 31, when the open enrollment period for the exchange ends, on ads statewide through a variety of media -- including ethnic media.
"Because it's a six-month process," he said, "we want to make consumers more aware during the period where it will be more likely that they will be paying attention and ready to buy insurance."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
The price of 'Silver'
Here are the average costs of a benchmark "silver" plan in the new health-insurance exchanges.
U.S. average: $328
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
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Original headline: Obamacare: Californians will pay 10th highest rates in country under health exchange
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