Health insurance consumers using HealthCare.gov will get their first look at the prices for 2015 coverage starting Sunday night, when window shopping goes live on the website, federal officials announced Sunday.
Shoppers won't be able to choose a health plan for 2015 until Nov. 15, when the three-month enrollment period begins. But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is providing early access to estimated health insurance premiums and the value of subsidies available to low- and moderate-income households. The window-shopping tool proved to be the most-visited part of HealthCare.gov during the first Obamacare enrollment period, officials said.
HealthCare.gov, which serves insurance consumers in more than 30 states, debuted Oct. 1, 2013, without the ability for people to window shop, which forced users to create accounts and begin applications for coverage before they could view prices. And since the website was barely functional for the first two months of the six-month sign-up period last year, the absence of this tool made it nearly impossible for people to gauge whether they could afford coverage -- and put greater strain on the system -- until the feature was added.
Obamacare officials said they would release an analysis of the health insurance premiums for 2015 later this week.
"We think the news is largely positive," said Kevin Counihan, the CEO of HealthCare.gov and the director of the Center for Consumer and Information and Insurance Oversight within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Independent analyses based on health insurance pricing information made public by state regulators have shown modest average premium increases for Obamacare plans across the nation. According to the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, rates will rise an average of 6 percent in states that have reported 2015 prices. The changes vary greatly, however, so some consumers will see double-digit increases while others will see prices go down if they keep their current coverage. The number of health insurers selling plans on the exchanges also is increasing by about 25 percent.
Consumers will be automatically re-enrolled into the plans they have this year if they are still being sold by their insurance carriers, but Counihan stressed that federal officials want individuals who already have coverage through the exchanges to revisit the website to ensure they're getting the best deal based on the new prices and the subsidies they can receive based on their incomes.
"The majority of our customers will be able to save money by shopping and comparing," Counihan said during a conference call with reporters Sunday. "We are strongly encouraging our customers to return back to HealthCare.gov, update their income and eligibility information, shop and compare, and see if there are better values out there for them."
Next year's prices will be available Sunday night on both HealthCare.gov and CuidadoDeSalud.gov, the Spanish-language portal to the federally run exchanges. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia operate their own exchanges and will provide premium information on their own schedules, the federal officials said.
The health insurance exchanges will open on time next Saturday, said Andy Slavitt, principal deputy administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. "We've hit all the critical deadlines," he said. "We're not contemplating anything unusual or out of the ordinary, regarding Nov. 15."
The HealthCare.gov team has streamlined the application process most consumers will use, and has completed more than a month of testing to ensure the website functions this time. The website also will be able to serve more users at a time than it did during the first enrollment period.
Officials said it will be easier than it was last year for visitors to HealthCare.gov to access the window-shopping tool and view estimates of the price and benefits of plans available in their local area before this sign-up period.
Shoppers can provide their zip codes, approximate income and information about the make-up of their households to get a look at what's available and what it costs, including the effects of tax credits to reduce premiums, and subsidies to reduce out-of-pocket costs. Then users can sort health insurance plans by price and level of benefits, view information on what services are covered or not covered, and see how much they will pay when they receive medical care. When consumers find a plan they may want to purchase during the enrollment period, they can print out or email the information to themselves or save the link to that plan.