Insurers point to several reasons that premiums will rise. They will soon be required to offer more-comprehensive coverage than many currently provide. Also, their costs will increase because they will be barred from rejecting the sick, and they will no longer be allowed to charge older customers sharply higher premiums than younger ones.
Supporters of the law counter that concerns about price hikes are overstated, partly because federal subsidies will cushion the blow.
The insurers’ public relations blitz is being propelled by a growing cast of executives, lobbyists, conservative activists and state health officials. They increasingly use the same catchphrase — “rate shock” — to warn about the potential for price surges.
Aetna chief executive Mark T. Bertolini invoked the term at his company’s recent annual investor conference, cautioning that premiums for plans sold to individuals could rise as much as 50 percent on average and could more than double for particular groups such as the young and healthy.
The danger of rate shock has also become the favored weapon of conservative opponents of the law, repeated in a drumbeat of op-eds and policy papers in recent weeks.
The argument is a powerful one because the success of the law, which was the signature domestic accomplishment of Obama’s first term, depends on enough people signing up for insurance, particularly healthy people. The issue is surfacing as the most recent significant challenge in implementing the health-care overhaul.
Supporters of the law complain that the warnings amount to a smear attack by special interests and political partisans, akin to earlier claims that the law would allow bureaucrats to deny life-saving care to save money.
“ ‘Rate shock’ is the new ‘death panels,’ ” said Wendell Potter, a former head of communications for the health insurer Cigna who is now a critic of the industry. “They’ve chosen these words very carefully to scare people. It’s the ideal term for what is, at its core, a fear-based campaign.”
Yet even analysts who favor the law concede that it will result in higher costs for some young, healthy people.
Most of the new rules that could push up premiums will not apply to plans sponsored by large employers, only to those sold to individuals and small businesses. These policies will be available on insurance marketplaces, or “exchanges,” that the law sets up in each state beginning in 2014, and that are ultimately expected to serve about 26 million people.
The law will require insurers to offer a generous package of benefits for exchange plans, including coverage of maternity care, prescription drugs and treatment for mental illness. It also caps customers’ out-of-pocket expenses.