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Health Insurance Premiums Up Only Slightly In Montana

Montanans who buy their own health insurance, or who want to, can start buying policies for next year starting on Saturday. It’s the beginning of the Affordable Care Act’s second so-called “open enrollment” period.

The process will be similar to last year, but significantly different, says Adam Schafer, at the Montana insurance commissioner’s office.

"Folks should not experience the same problems that came up last year," he says.

Last year, the website was famously awful upon launch. It got better, and, by the end of March, operated smoothly enough to help close to eight million Americans find and buy health coverage.

"They’ve had almost a whole year to fix those bugs that did plague the website at the beginning open enrollment last year," Schafer says, "so we have a bit more confidence this year that the site’s going to run smoothly."

How well the website runs remains to be seen. But one thing that is known is how the price of insurance for 2015 compares to this year. 

Montanans can go to now and check out prices before the actual buying period starts on Saturday.

"Over the last five years we were seeing increases of 10% to 13% on average each year. So having that 1.5% percent increase is a remarkable change. "

Schafer says prices this year show, "a historically low average rate increase of about 1.5% throughout the individual market.

"That’s not to say that some folks, individually may see bigger increases than that, or even a slighter increase. But we saw that rates, at least on average, as a whole, are not going up as much as they were in the past. Over the last five years we were seeing increases of 10 to 13% on average each year. So having that one-and-half percent increase is a remarkable change. "

Montanans will also have more health insurance policies to choose from for 2015. Last year, three companies  were selling health plans here, this year it’s four.

"We’ve got Pacific Source, the Montana Health Co-op, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Time Assurant this year,"Schafer says, "so we’re seeing more competition."

One other thing that’s also new this year, but familiar, is uncertainty over the future of the health care law.

Some members of the new Republican majority in Congress, like Montana’s Ryan Zinke, campaigned on throwing the law out. But Montana’s new senator Steve Daines, also a Republican, said on election night that he doesn’t think his party has the votes to do that.

Outside of Congress, though, the U.S. Supreme Court last week that it would hear a case regarding whether states like Montana that use will be able to continue operating the same way, and continue to offer subsidies to help lower income people afford health insurance.

That would really change things for shoppers in Montana, Adam Schafer says.

"You will still be able to purchase through the exchange, but you will not get your subsidy. So that could be a big change if the court rules in favor of the plaintiff."

Schafer says about 80 percent of Montanans who bought health insurance through last year got a subsidy to help them afford it. That’s roughly 30,000 people.

Subsidies are based on income. Anyone making less than than about $46,680 qualifies for a subsidy, and the subsidies get bigger for people making down to $15,521.

Montanans can start shopping on now, but won’t be able to start actually buying plans on the website until Saturday. Once that buying period, called open enrollment, starts, it’s only open until February 15th. That’s three months shorter than last year’s open enrollment period.

Open enrollment events are being planned across Montana. There’s one Saturday at the Missoula Fairgrounds, and another the following Saturday, November 22 at St. Patrick Hospital.

Find more info from the Montana Insurance Commissioner’s website about and the Affordable care act.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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