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Maine's Online Marketplace Insurance Shoppers Likely to See Lower Premiums

According to federal estimates released this week, Mainers who shop on the online insurance marketplace will, on average, see lower premiums this year compared to last.

That's in contrast to a slight increase in marketplace premiums nationally. But some Mainers could miss out on better insurance deals if they simply re-sign with their current plan, rather than shop for options.

Historically, health insurance premiums have been known to jump as much as 10 percent or more per year. It happened in the early 2000's, and in 2010. So the fact that insurance premiums in the Affordable Care Act's online marketplace are, on average, dipping this year in Maine is startling, says independent health policy consultant Mitchell Stein.

"The idea that these things are decreasing at all - that is such huge news," Stein says.

Nationally, premiums for benchmark plans are increasing about 2 percent. In Maine, they're dropping by about 2 percent. Chalk it up to a number of factors, says Stein: "One is competition."

Last year, Maine had two insurance companies in the marketplace - Anthem and Maine Community Health Options. This year, there are three, with the addition of Harvard Pilgrim.

Another factor, says Stein, is what he calls a decline in medical inflation, likely due to the recent recession, as well as national and state initiatives to reduce medical costs. Maine's Project Coordinator for Marketplace Navigators Jake Grindle says the reduced premiums will mostly affect a certain segment of enrollees.

"Particularly for people whose incomes stay steady, the price that they're seeing this year is going to be lower than the price they saw last year," Grindle says.

But those re-enrolling shouldn't count on those lower premiums to just fall in their laps, says Executive Director of Consumers for Affordable Health Care Emily Brostek. She says they'll need to shop around again.

"We're definitely encouraging people not to rely on the automatic re-enrollment process," Brostek says. "And that's because it's extremely unlikely you'll end up in the right plan, at the right price, for you."

And Mitchell Stein points out that enrolling in insurance this year is smooth sailing compared to last year - particularly for returning customers. "HHS has tried to make the process for shopping around easy, in that when you go to do your re-enrollment, for most people the fields will be pre-populated for most of the application, so it shouldn't be as onerous as the first time around."

For those seeking help, Maine Health Access Foundation's Alyson Cummings points to the website enroll207.com, which she says has a search box designed to find free assistance across the state.

"An assister or a certified broker can really help people look at all of their options and choose one that's right for their individual needs or their family's needs," Cummings says.

Cummings says it's important to remember that the enrollment period is shorter this year - ending on Feb. 15, and to have coverage begin by the first of the year, the deadline is Dec. 15 - just over a week from now.

Editor's Note: The online marketplace will be the topic Monday, Dec. 8, on Maine Calling. The program begins at noon on MPBN Radio.

Learn more about re-enrolling through the online marketplace.