Deadline approaching for people who want health coverage through federal exchange on Jan. 1

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — South Carolinians have until Monday to sign up for health insurance through the federal exchange if they want coverage to start Jan. 1.

The deadline applies to both the uninsured and current Healthcare.gov customers. While the second year of enrollment under President Barack Obama's signature health care law continues through Feb. 15, the deadline is important for people who want insurance — or a new plan — to take effect on New Year's Day.

Current customers who do nothing will be automatically renewed in the plan they have now on Jan. 1. But with premiums changing for 2015, administration officials and consumer advocates are urging people to come back and shop.

"There is still a great gap of information. Understandably, people are confused," said Patti Embry-Tautenhan, spokeswoman for BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, which is educating people about the deadline and their choices through three retail stores in South Carolina and two roaming recreational vehicles.

South Carolinians have more choices for 2015, with one additional company selling policies through the exchange and the state's largest insurer doubling its offerings.

"We know people value choice, and we wanted to give them as many options as we could," Embry-Tautenhan said.

The online marketplace for private insurance is intended for people who don't have access to affordable coverage through their jobs. According to the state Department of Insurance, 10 companies write individual health insurance policies in South Carolina. Five of those offer plans through the exchange, through which people can get federal subsidies to help offset premium costs.

The fifth company joining the exchange this cycle is Assurant Health. BlueCross BlueShield and its licensee, BlueChoice, as well as the health insurance cooperative Consumers' Choice — one of 24 nationwide created by the federal law — continue to offer plans statewide. Coventry Health Care, which was bought last year by Aetna, is also again offering plans.

On average, premiums in South Carolina have risen less than 1 percent from the first rollout, but the swings in individual policies vary from a 39 percent increase to a 35 percent decrease, according to the state Department of Insurance.

Consumers' Choice accounts for both ends of that spectrum. Spokeswoman Adrian Grimes said that's because the company implemented a tobacco surcharge, something most carriers did initially.

The health care law requires insurers to accept all applicants regardless of pre-existing medical problems. But it also allows them to charge smokers premiums that are up to 50 percent higher than those offered non-smokers — a way for insurers to ward off bad risks.

"We did not do that out of the gate," Grimes said. "We have updated that and now are more on board with other carriers."

More than 118,000 people in South Carolina signed up for plans during the previous enrollment period. Grimes said Consumers' Choice plans insured about 50,000 South Carolinians.

According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, nearly 214,000 South Carolinians filled out applications for health care during the last enrollment period, but about 45 percent of them didn't complete the process and pick a plan.

Nearly 90 percent of the people who enrolled here were eligible for government subsidies for the private insurance.

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