Separating myth from reality on Obamacare

News media scare stories, website glitches hide savings for those who look at insurance alternatives

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 Updated:

My heart sank when I got an email late last month from my friend Robert, who has been battling multiple sclerosis for the past decade. He wrote to tell me that he was among the many Americans who in recent weeks received letters from their insurance companies saying that their policies won’t be available next year.

Insurance companies are sending those letters primarily because the policies they will no longer offer don’t provide enough coverage — or have deductibles that are too high — to comply with the Affordable Care Act. In many cases, however, the policyholders getting those letters are simply victims of a business practice insurers have engaged in for years: discontinuing policies because they’re no longer sufficiently profitable.

Robert understandably was worried. Like most of us, he’d been seeing the news stories about people who had received similar letters and seemed to be resigned to having to pay more in premiums next year for comparable or even less coverage, thanks to Obamacare.

Considering his very serious and costly preexisting condition — his medications alone cost more than $5,000 a month — Robert was nervous as he started looking for a replacement policy. How much more would he have to pay to stay insured?

A couple of weeks went by. I assumed Robert, like many others, was still waiting for the Obama administration to fix Healthcare.gov so he could shop online for coverage. It turns out Robert wasn’t willing to just wait. He decided to call an insurance agent and talk to a real live human being about his options for next year.

He could barely believe what he heard: he could get better coverage than the policy being discontinued — and pay less — thanks to Obamacare.

“The overall cost of the plans I’m considering is cheaper than the plan I am currently paying for,” he wrote me this week. “My total cost for coverage now, including premiums and out of pocket costs, is about $9,800. Two of the plans I’m seriously considering for next year have total costs of $8,400. I’m shocked, but in a good way.” 

So not only did Robert not experience the sticker shock he had been expecting, he will save $1,400 next year on health insurance.

The plan he is leaning toward — a top-of-the line “platinum” plan — will have a higher monthly premium, but he will still save on average about $117 a month because of the way his out-of-pocket costs will be calculated.

Robert is among many who are losing their current coverage but in the end will be better off. In fact, considering that many folks buying coverage on the individual market have at least one pre-existing condition — which insurers can no longer take into consideration when pricing their policies — it’s likely that more people will get more for their insurance buck next year than less.

In addition, most of the people who buy coverage through the new insurance marketplaces (as Robert will when the balky Healthcare.gov website is working more smoothly) will be eligible for tax credits and subsidies from the federal government that will lower their monthly and overall costs even more.

Robert knows that you can’t determine how much you’ll spend on coverage during a given year just by multiplying the monthly premium by 12. If you don’t take into consideration out-of-pocket costs and just pick the policy with the cheapest premium, you could wind up paying more overall than if you picked a plan with a slightly higher monthly premium.

Robert also will be able to spread the cost of his coverage more evenly over the year. Under his current plan, he had to have at least $5,000 in the bank at the beginning of every year when his policy renewed to cover the cost of his medications for just one month. Under the new plans he is considering for next year, his monthly out-of-pocket costs will range from $80 to $120 a month.

“It will be easier to manage paying for my drugs spread out over a period of 12 months instead of in one lump sum at the beginning of the year,” Robert told me.

Robert said the insurance agent told him his case is not unique, that a lot of the people she talks to who have been frightened by the media coverage are pleasantly surprised to learn that they will get better coverage for less money next year. Once the Healthcare.gov website is fixed, more people who have received letters from their insurance companies will get a similar pleasant surprise.

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