Alabama health insurance marketplace gets more competition for second year

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MONTGOMERY, Alabama — Alabama consumers will see more competition when the health insurance marketplace opens next month for its second year.

United Healthcare took a cautious approach to the marketplaces the first year and chose not to participate in most states, including staying out of Alabama's federally operated exchange. It decided to jump into Alabama and other states for the second year, and it plans to offer policies in all 67 Alabama counties, regulators said.

While prices have not yet been released, United Healthcare spokeswoman Tracey Lempner said the company expects "to have a competitive product available for Alabama consumers that will be valuable in terms of quality, access, affordability, innovative design and service excellence."

In the first year, Alabama's largest health insurance provider, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, was the only company offering plans in all 67 counties. It will be back for the second year in all counties. Humana offered policies the first year in Jefferson, Shelby and Madison counties and will do the same for the second year, said Mark Fowler, spokesman for the state Insurance Department.

The state Insurance Department doesn't operate the exchange, but reviews the policies to make sure they comply with Alabama regulations.

The sign-up period for the second year opens Nov. 15 and closes Feb. 15. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said information about plans and estimated prices will be available in early November on the federal website.

In the first year of the program, Alabama had the least competition of any insurance marketplace in the nation because consumers in 64 counties had only one company offering plans. The increased competition "is definitely going to be to the consumers' advantage," said Jim Carnes, spokesman for Alabama Arise. The Montgomery-based group that advocates for low-income Alabamians.

Blue Cross spokeswoman Koko Mackin said, "We welcome competition, which is good for Alabamians."

The first year of the exchange started off slowly due to problems with the federal website, but picked up significantly toward the end of the enrollment period. The Department of Health and Human Services reported 97,870 selected a plan. The department did not report how many paid their premiums, but Blue Cross, which sold the bulk of the policies in Alabama, said 80 percent paid their first month's premium and 72 percent continue to pay their monthly premiums.

In addition to the nearly 98,000 who selected a plan, another 22,564 Alabamians who inquired about the insurance marketplace found out they or their children qualified for Medicaid or Alabama's Children's Health Insurance Program.

Carnes said he's hopeful enrollment will double in the second year.

"We've had a stretch of time where people have heard their friends and relatives talk about getting health insurance. That's the most powerful story of all," he said.

The federal government operates the health insurance marketplace in Alabama because Gov. Robert Bentley decided in 2012 not to start a state-run exchange and cited costs as the reason.


Online: http://www.healthcare.gov

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