Burwell Kicks off Marketplace Open Enrollment, Touting Healthcare.gov Improvements

Burwell Kicks off Marketplace Open Enrollment, Touting Healthcare.gov Improvements
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"The marketplace is open for business," Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell declared Sunday on the first day of open enrollment for the health insurance marketplaces created by the 2010 health law.

Burwell spoke at an enrollment center in the lobby of the Martin Luther King library in downtown Washington. She quoted King in her speech as having said, "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is one of the most shocking and inhumane."

HHS expects to have about 10 million individuals covered by a marketplace plan when open enrollment concludes at the end of January. That would be up from about 9.1 million Americans currently carrying marketplace coverage, but it would still leave nearly 10 million eligible Americans uninsured. Burwell promised that HHS would "work harder and work smarter" to sign up as many as possible.

Many of those expected to remain uninsured are young adults and people with lower incomes. "They're worried about costs, and many don't know about the financial assistance that is available to them," Burwell said.

For consumers in the 37 states that use the federal healthcare.gov marketplace, Burwell cited improvements designed to make marketplace plans more enticing to those still wary of seeking coverage. First, HHS would work to better communicate the availability of subsidies for lower income individuals and families. As part of this effort, HHS said last week that it has budgeted $35 million for television advertisements focused on affordability.

Second, Burwell said the healthcare.gov website offers improved shopping tools, including an out-of-pocket cost estimator to help consumers compare the total costs of buying and using health insurance, not just the price of insurance premiums. 

Finally, the HHS secretary said the government would publicize the availability of help from assisters and brokers for consumers uncertain how to choose the best plan for their own circumstances.

Those who do shop for insurance on the marketplaces will mostly see higher premium costs for 2016 compared to prices paid this year. According to HHS, premiums for a benchmark insurance plan will rise by an average of 7.5 percent in the 37 healthcare.gov states. But premium changes vary widely from state to state, and even within states, so in many cases consumers will be hit with much higher increases, while in some cases costs will be lower than this year. Furthermore, rising subsidies will protect many lower income shoppers from these price increases.

Adults who lack health insurance coverage next year will be subject to a penalty of at least $695 when filing their 2016 taxes -- up from a minimum of $325 for the 2015 tax year. These rising penalties could help motivate consumers to purchase insurance, but with the April 15 tax filing deadline falling well past the end of open enrollment season, this penalty is not likely to be top of mind when insurance is available again next fall.

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