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In Health Insurance Wastelands, Rosier Options Crop Up For 2019

Are your health insurance options improving?

by Kaiser Health News | Updated on 11.24.18

In recent years, places such as Memphis and Phoenix had withered into health insurance wastelands as insurers fled and premiums skyrocketed in the insurance marketplaces set up by the Affordable Care Act. But today, as in many parts of the country, these two cities are experiencing something unprecedented: Premiums are sinking and choices are sprouting.

In the newly competitive market in Memphis, the cheapest midlevel “silver” plan for next year will cost $498 a month for a 40-year-old, a 17 percent decrease. Four insurers are selling policies in Phoenix, which then-presidential candidate Donald Trump highlighted in 2016 as proof of “the madness of Obamacare” as all but one insurer left the region.

Janice Johnson, a 63-year-old retiree in Arizona’s Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, said her premium for a high-deductible bronze plan will be $207 instead of $270 because she is switching carriers.

“When you’re on a fixed income, that makes a difference,” said Johnson, who receives a government subsidy to help cover her premium. “I’ll know more than a year from now if I’m going to stick with this company, but I’m going to give them a chance, and I’m pretty excited by that.”

Across all 50 states, premiums for the average “benchmark” silver plan, which the government uses to set subsidies, are dropping nearly 1 percent. And more than half of the counties that use the federal healthcare.gov exchange are experiencing an average 10 percent price decrease for their cheapest plan.

In most places, the declines are not enough to erase the price hikes that have accrued since the creation in 2014 of the health care exchanges for people who don’t get insurance through an employer or the government.

Instead, experts said, next year’s price cuts help to correct the huge increases that jittery insurers set for 2018 plans to protect themselves from anticipated Republican assaults on the markets. Although Congress came up one vote shy of repealing the law, Trump and Republicans in Congress did strip away structural underpinnings that pushed customers to buy plans and helped insurers pay for some of their low-income customers’ copayments and deductibles. Insurers responded with 32 percent average increases.

“Insurers overshot last year,” said Chris Sloan, a director at Avalere, a health care consulting company in Washington, D.C. “We are nowhere close to erasing that increase. This is still a really expensive market with poor benefits when it comes to deductibles and cost.”

For 2019, the average benchmark silver premium will be 75 percent higher than it was in 2014, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

When Republicans failed to kill the health law last year, they inadvertently may have made it stronger. Insurers banked hefty profits this year, and new companies are moving in.

All these factors were especially influential in Tennessee, where the average benchmark premium is dropping 26 percent, according to a government analysis. That is more than in any other state.

In 2018, 78 of 95 Tennessee counties had just one insurer. That monopoly allowed the insurer to set the prices of its plans without fear of competition, said David Anderson, a researcher at the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy in Durham, N.C. “They were massively overpriced,” he said.

But for the coming year, 49 Tennessee counties will have more than one insurer, with a few — like Shelby County, where Memphis is located — having four companies competing. There, Cigna dropped the price of its lowest-cost silver plan by 15 percent. Nonetheless, it was underbid by Ambetter of Tennessee, which is owned by the managed-care insurer Centene Corp.

“We’re finally at the point where the market is stabilized,” said Bobby Huffaker, the CEO of American Exchange, an insurance brokerage firm based in Tennessee. “From the beginning, every underwriter, and the people who were the architects, they knew it would take several years for the market to mature.”

Still, the cheapest Memphis silver premium is nearly three times what it was in 2014, the first year of the marketplaces. A family of four with 40-year-old parents will be paying $19,119 for all of next year unless they qualify for a government subsidy.

“The unsubsidized are leaving,” said Sabrina Corlette, a professor at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute. “They are finding these premiums unaffordable.”

The landscape in Phoenix is greatly improved from when Trump visited after the federal government announced a 116 percent premium increase for 2017, as the number of insurers dropped from eight to one.

But now, three new insurers are entering Maricopa County. Ambetter, the only insurer this year, dropped its lowest price for a silver plan for next year by 12 percent and still offers the cheapest such plan.

Ambetter’s plan is still 114 percent above the least expensive silver plan in the first year of the exchanges. And none of the insurers are offering as broad and flexible a choice of doctors and hospitals as consumers had back then, said Michael Malasnik, a local broker.

Since the start of the exchanges, he said, insurers have “raised their rates by multiples, and they’ve figured out you have to be a very narrow network.”

Each plan for 2019 contains trade-offs. He said only Bright Health’s plan includes Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Ambetter’s plan includes the most popular hospital and doctor groups, but they are not as conveniently located for people living in the southeastern corner of the county, making other insurers’ plans appealing.

“Geography is the name of the game this year,” Malasnik said.

Theresa Flood, a preschool teacher who lives outside Phoenix, said none of the plans she considered accepted her doctors, who include a specialist for her spine problems — she has had four surgeries — and a neurologist who monitors a cyst and benign tumor in her brain.

“I have to establish care with a whole new spine doctor and establish care with a whole new neurologist if I want to follow up on these things,” Flood, 59, said. “You’re going from established care to who in the heck am I going to see?”

The plan she chose would have been too expensive except that she and her husband, John, a pastor, qualified for a $1,263-a-month subsidy that will drop the cost to $207 a month. That bronze plan from Ambetter carries a $6,550-per-person deductible, so she expects she’ll still have to pay for her doctors on her own unless she needs extensive medical attention.

“It’s gone from being able to have a plan that you could sort of afford and got some benefit from, to putting up with what you can afford and hoping nothing happens that you actually have to use your insurance,” she said. “At this point, I’ll take what I can get.”

Kaiser Health News

Written by Kaiser Health News

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(30)
  • burrkitty
    Voted No
    11/26/2018
    ···

    If you ever wanted to look at a form of pure evil, look at for profit “health insurance” companies. A model where billionaires are made by taking people’s money on the promise of helping them when they are sick and then not helping them as much as possible. UNIVERSAL SINGLE PAYER HEALTHCARE SYSTEM NOW!!!

    Like (8)
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  • SneakyPete
    Voted Yes
    11/25/2018
    ···

    PURE & SIMPLE, MY HEALTH 👨‍⚕️ OPTIONS ARE BETTER Following the debacle of the ill fated Affordable Care Act, regardless of the opposition put forth by the Democratic Members of Congress, consumers are getting the opportunity of selecting their own medical programs AND keeping their own doctors. SneakyPete..... 👨‍⚕️🏥👨‍⚕️🏥. 11*25*18.....

    Like (7)
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  • Miles
    11/25/2018
    ···

    Obamacare was a massive failure. If you can’t see that, you’re either just as stupid as Obama or lying to yourself because you want to be liberal no matter how bad liberal policies are. The sad thing is, it was one of the best things he did while in office, and it was awful. Everything he promised about it was a blatant lie & it needs to be replaced

    Like (5)
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  • Marylynn
    Voted No
    11/25/2018
    ···

    I'm fed up with insurance companies not including dental and eye care in their plans. It's really sickening because according to every doctor I've seen they feel that dental care is crucial, however the average cost of one filling is $400, if not more, root canals are over $1,000. Dentists charge outrageous prices and don't guarantee their work. Another thing that bothers me is that hearing aids aren't covered by most insurances either. WTF, the average cost to see a doctor is $200, that's just for the visit, it doesn't include any tests, ie: bloodwork, urinalysis, etc. Shouldn't our insurance companies cover the treatment of the entire body????? Most times when you see you PCP and have an issue, you're referred to a specialist.

    Like (6)
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  • Ken
    Voted Yes
    11/25/2018
    ···

    I am on medicare as I turned 65 last January. We need a plan similar to medicare that covers everybody. What we don't need is a system that rewards those who are most responsible for the mess we're in. CEOs of insurance companies that rake in 100s of millions in profit from excess money spent by hard working americans on insurance should be a crime. We need health coverage that we can afford. The insurance sector wants us to believe that we could not have health care without them. That couldn't be farther from the truth. We don't spend 200 dollars for a gallon of milk. That's highway robbery. Grouping funds together in order to fund health care does not have to be the way it is. Why do you think insurance companies spend millions lobbying against single payer or medicare for all? And who's money do you think they are lobbying with. That's right. Yours!

    Like (4)
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  • David
    11/26/2018
    ···

    Universal single payer healthcare!

    Like (3)
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  • Hillary
    Voted No
    11/25/2018
    ···

    My premiums have significantly increased. My deductible has increased and my total out of pocket has increased. Covered services have higher co pays. Nothing about the same plan I had last year is less expensive or better. Thanks trump and gop abettors.

    Like (5)
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  • TexasTRex
    Voted No
    11/25/2018
    ···

    Get rid of ACA and make health insurance competitive again. That’s the only way costs will come down.

    Like (5)
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  • WhiskeyBravo
    Voted No
    11/25/2018
    ···

    All I have seen since the ACA is my monthly insurance bill jump by nearly $100mo and limit my options as far as providers

    Like (3)
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  • Dave
    Voted Yes
    11/25/2018
    ···

    ACA or Obamacare had put in place a standard for the minimum. Your federal representatives will get government payed healthcare and government pensions for the rest of their life, You get Medicare and social security, which group do you think is the better deal?

    Like (3)
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  • Terry
    Voted No
    11/25/2018
    ···

    The ACA screwed it all up. Congress screwed it all up.

    Like (2)
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  • Robert
    Voted No
    11/25/2018
    ···

    Nice job Democrats. You fools from MD better learn how to legislate your way out of the mess you created with your unaffordable care act. I won’t be holding my breath to watch you do anything other than resist. Fools.

    Like (2)
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  • Julie
    Voted No
    11/25/2018
    ···

    Not improving in Iowa. We can and will do better. Be a part of the improvement or get out!

    Like (1)
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  • Robert
    Voted Yes
    11/25/2018
    ···

    Let’s hope so. My remains relatively good. (Knock on wood)

    Like (1)
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  • burrkitty
    Voted No
    11/26/2018
    ···

    If you ever wanted to look at a form of pure evil, look at for profit “health insurance” companies. A model where billionaires are made by taking people’s money on the promise of helping them when they are sick and then not helping them as much as possible. UNIVERSAL SINGLE PAYER HEALTHCARE SYSTEM NOW!!!

    Like (1)
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  • Dara
    Voted No
    11/25/2018
    ···

    My health insurance coverage is not improving because the imbeciles in congress are incapable of making changes to healthcare policies! Status quo NEVER works. Everything is dynamic. Move forward you backward ignorant thinking people. The people around the world that want to live in the Dark Ages need to find a place to live. The religious right, Wahabis, Taliban, and other ignorant groups need to find that place. Mankind is moving forward.

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  • Ann
    Voted No
    11/26/2018
    ···

    My plan is increasing from $961/month to $1,085/month-my deductible is going down but still paying more. I am 60 with my brother and sisters all with cancer diagnosed over the years. Only one choice that allows me to keep the doctors I have worked with for 15-20 years.

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  • Nancy
    Voted Yes
    11/26/2018
    ···

    ONLY BECAUSE I AM ON MEDICARE----DEFINITELY NOT BECAUSE OF ANYTHING THE REPUBLICANS HAVE DONE

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  • Duane
    Voted No
    11/26/2018
    ···

    Get rid of obamacare!!! It’s a POS.

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  • Catherine
    Voted Yes
    11/25/2018
    ···

    Next January I will go on Medicare! I can’t believe I will be excited to turn 65! Health insurance has been one of my hot button issues for many years as I have been self employed so needed to provide my own. Very sad that the richest country cannot provide quality healthcare for its citizens! The ACA has not been a failure and if the GOP had not been trying to dismantle it we could be improving heath insurance options. Medicare for all is a very popular idea whose time has come!

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