The prices for a popular and important group of health plans sold through the federal insurance exchange will climb by an average of 7.5 percent for the coming year, a jump nearly four times bigger than a year ago, according to new government figures.
The rate increase for 2016 compares with average growth of 2 percent, from 2014 to this year, in the monthly premiums for a level of coverage that serves as the benchmark for federal subsidies that help most consumers buying coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
A “snapshot” of insurance rates, released Monday by the Department of Health and Human Services, also shows that the rate increases for next year vary substantially around the country. Although there are exceptions, more populous states and metropolitan areas tend to have more modest premium increases for the coming year than smaller areas.
The changes for next year have a wide range — from premium increases averaging 35 percent in Oklahoma and Montana to a decrease of nearly 13 percent in Indiana.
The analysis is based on hundreds of health plans sold in local markets within 37 states that use HealthCare.gov, the federal online insurance marketplace. It excludes plans in other states that have created separate ACA insurance marketplaces.
The rates reflect the prices of the second-least expensive health plan in each market for 2016 in a tier of coverage known as silver. ACA health plans are divided into four tiers, all named for metals, depending on the amount of customers’ care that they cover. Silver plans have proven by far the most popular.
Officials at HHS issued the analysis as less than a week remains before the start on Nov. 1 of a third open-enrollment season for Americans eligible to sign up for health plans under the insurance marketplaces created by the 2010 health-care law. The exchanges are intended for people who cannot get affordable health benefits through a job.
In their analysis, federal officials contend that the health plans sold through the exchanges will be affordable to people willing to shop for the best rates. The cost to consumers, HHS officials emphasize, is cushioned by the fact that nearly nine in 10 are eligible for tax credits.
Taking the subsidies into account, nearly four in five people who already have gotten insurance through these marketplaces will have access for 2016 to a health plan for which they could pay no more than $100 in monthly premiums, the analysis found. The analysis does not address other costs to consumers, such as co-payments and deductibles, which tend to be more expensive in ACA health plans than in employer-based health benefits.
The figures in the analysis reinforce a theme that Obama administration officials introduced last year and have revived as the third sign-up period approaches: the usefulness of researching the best and most affordable coverage, even if it means switching insurance from year to year.
“If consumers come back to the Marketplace and shop, they may be able to find a plan that saves them money and meets their health needs,” Kevin Counihan, the HHS official who oversees the health exchanges, said in a statement.
The new figures show that existing customers who went back last fall to HealthCare.gov and picked a different plan at the same level of coverage saved an average of nearly $400 in premiums over the course of this year. Slightly fewer than one-third of those who bought such coverage for a second time switched health plans, according to the analysis.
During this open enrollment, Obama administration officials are striving both to attract existing customers again and to ferret out Americans eligible for the exchanges who remain uninsured even though the law requires them to have coverage.
Although many consumers can be largely shielded from rate jumps through subsidies and shopping around, the increases ratchet up the government’s expenditures on the tax credits that the law provides, health policy analysts point out.
Analysts have expected that premiums for the coming year would grow more rapidly than they did for 2015. “This is the first year that insurers actually have a full year of experience with how much care people use,” said Larry Levitt, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy organization. “In the first two years of the program, insurers were essentially guessing.”
In addition, Caroline Pearson, senior vice president at Avalere, a health-care consulting firm, said that, as some health plans have attracted a significant share of customers, “the need to price really low diminishes a little bit.”
Clare Krusing, a spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s main trade group, said that “averages don’t tell the whole story” and that insurance rates hinge on “location and the cost of providing care to individuals in particular markets.” In particular, Krusing said, last year was “a record-breaking year for prescription drug prices. That trend is likely to continue.”