Thursday, February 13, 2014

Poorer counties have fewer options for health insurers, making their premiums higher

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is making health insurance more affordable for millions of Americans, but leaves it still out of reach of millions more. Perversely, that is more likely to be true in poorer counties, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal of the 36 states using the federal health-insurance exchange.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans in 515 lower-income counties in 15 states have only one option in the exchange, and the lack of competition forces them to pay high premiums, Timothy W. Martin and Christopher Weaver write for the Journal. In 80 percent of those counties, the only insurer is an affiliate of Blue Cross & Blue Shield. For the Journal's interactive, county-by-county database, click here.

"Residents of wealthier, more populated counties in the U.S. receive lower-priced choices than those living in counties with a single insurer," Martin and Weaver report. In counties with one insurer, the average price for a 50-year-old to purchase a silver plan, the one most commonly sold, through the marketplace was $406. In contrast, citizens in counties with four insurers could purchase a silver plan for an average of $329. This phenomena represents the tactics of insurers who avoid areas with unemployment problems and high numbers of unhealthy residents, the reporters write.

For example, Aetna Inc. and UnitedHealth Group Inc. offer services "in more counties outside of the marketplaces, where plans are sold directly to consumers and federal subsidies aren't available," they write. Rebecca Stephens found out that she only had one health insurer option in Hardee County, Florida, and the plan she wanted to purchase would cost her approximately $200 more per month than a comparable plan in Tampa. "That is costs me more for health insurance than someone in Tampa doesn't seem equal to me," she told the Journal.

Coverage prices were higher in rural places even before health reform. Jon Urbanek, a senior vice president at Florida Blue, cited shortage of hospitals and doctors as a key reason for the higher premiums. "Our costs are higher," he said. "The premiums we charge reflect the cost of the providers." People in smaller cities and suburbs, too, are often limited to fewer choices and subject to higher prices. "From a consumer's standpoint, it's unfair," said Dylan Roby, a program director at UCLA's health policy research center.

Glenn Melnick, a health-care economist at RAND Corp., thinks areas with low populations will not easily attract additional insurers. "I don't think the health law can overcome those economics," he said. The Congressional Budget Office reported that approximately 20 million Americans can get income-based tax credits to reduce health insurance costs; some brokers and insurers think these subsidies will negate the price disparities for some people. Russell Childers, an insurance broker from Americus, Ga., told the Journal, "Most people are receiving a high enough subsidy for coverage that they don't care." (Read more)

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