New health law premiums will go online this weekend



WASHINGTON — Premiums are expected to rise in many parts of the country as a new sign-up season under President Obama’s health care law starts Nov. 1. But consumers have options if they shop around, and an upgraded government Web site will help them compare.

Consumers can see their own premiums for 2016 starting Sunday night on, officials said Friday. The federal Web site will serve 38 states this time. States running their own sites might have different timetables.

Online health insurance markets are entering their third year, offering taxpayer-subsidized private coverage. That’s helped cut the share of Americans who are uninsured to about 9 percent, a historical low. Still, the many moving parts of the Affor­­dable Care Act don’t always click smoothly. Here’s a look at what’s new for 2016:

AVERAGE PREMIUM? NO SUCH THING: Independent experts are forecasting bigger premium increases in 2016 than last year, averaging from the high single digits to the teens. Next week the government will release a master file that researchers use to piece together national trends.

Averages won’t tell the story, because health care is local. Premiums can vary widely from state to state, and within a state.

For more than 8 in 10 customers, premium increases will be cushioned by taxpayer subsidies. That will absorb most of the cost, but it still might pay to shop around.

NEW HELP FIGURING OUT COSTS: Too many consumers look only at the monthly premium when picking a plan. Other costs can be just as important. These include the deductible – the amount individuals must pay each year before their plan kicks in – and cost-sharing or copays for medical services. will now feature a new calculator that estimates total costs based on a consumer’s expected medical needs.

SMOOTHER RENEWALS?: As before, returning customers who don’t want to make any changes will get automatically re-enrolled. That process will be smoother this year, insurers say, because the government has better information to update subsidies for customers who just want to keep the same plan.

SOME NEW FEATURES STILL IN TESTING: Consumer advocates have been clamoring for an upgrade that allows patients to easily search for insurance plans that their doctor participates in. That’s coming, but it may not be ready by Nov. 1, the date when consumers can start signing up. Officials say a prescription drug finder is also in final testing.

PENALTY PERIL: The tax penalty for people remaining uninsured in 2016 will rise to the greater of either $695 or 2.5 percent of taxable income.

WEB SITE UPGRADES: A “privacy manager” will let consumers opt out of embedded connections to third-party sites.

DATE CHANGE: The dates of Health­’s sign-up season are now Nov. 1 through Jan. 31.



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