3 companies selling health insurance coverage on federal website in Miss., up from 2 last year

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JACKSON, Mississippi — Three companies are now selling health insurance in Mississippi through a federal website created under the health overhaul that President Barack Obama signed into law.

That's up from two in the state last year.

A three-month annual enrollment period started Saturday for consumers seeking coverage through the online marketplace, or health exchange. It's an option for those who don't have health insurance that comes with a job, or who don't receive Medicare or Medicaid coverage.

People shopping on the federal website, http://www.healthcare.gov , can choose from more than one company in 77 of Mississippi's 82 counties, according to the state Department of Insurance.

About 61,500 Mississippi residents bought coverage on the federal website during the first open-enrollment period a year ago. That was about 21 percent of the potential market.

Therese Hanna, director of the nonprofit Center for Mississippi Health Policy, said she would be surprised to see a surge of people buying health coverage through the federal website this year, even though the state has a significant number of uninsured residents. She said uninsured people who were most intensely interested in buying coverage likely did so last year. That left people who might not think about insurance until they get sick or an unexpected event happens and they suddenly find themselves needing medical care.

"So many of them are basically low-wage workers, and they're busy trying to make a living," Hanna said.

Some people will qualify for federal subsidies that will decrease their cost of coverage. The nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, which tracks health care expenses and trends, has a calculator on its website (http://bit.ly/1uuCprm ) that allows people to type in their city, income level, family size and other information to figure out how much a health plan on the federal health exchange might cost.

The Kaiser foundation this past week released its new analysis of the cost of health-exchange coverage for 48 cities, including Jackson (http://bit.ly/1uuDTlq ). A chart shows examples of coverage costs for a 40-year-old nonsmoker who earns $30,000 a year. In Jackson, the 2015 premium for a midlevel coverage plan would be $305 a month before a federal tax credit. That is down from the 2014 premium of $410 a month for the same coverage — a 25.5 percent decrease. After a tax credit, the policyholder would pay $208 a month, down slightly from $209 this year.

The only places in Mississippi with a single company offering coverage on the federal website now are along or near the Gulf Coast. In Hancock County, Humana is the only insurer selling coverage through the federal site. In Harrison, Jackson, George and Stone counties, the only seller is Magnolia Health Plan.

In 32 counties, mostly in the Delta and in a line of counties across the south-central part of the state, coverage is sold through Humana and UnitedHealthcare.

In 30 counties, mostly in the northern and eastern parts of the state, coverage is sold through Magnolia and United.

In 15 counties, including the Jackson metro area and the suburbs south of Memphis, Tennessee, all three companies are selling plans.

An estimated 138,000 Mississippi residents fall in a "coverage gap" because they earn too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little qualify for tax credits that would reduce their cost of buying coverage on the federal health exchange. Many of those in the gap are people who work in grocery stores, at dry cleaners, as day-care assistants or in other lower-paid jobs that don't provide insurance, said Kim Robinson, a program manager for the Children's Defense Fund in Jackson.

"These people are completely left out in the cold," said Robinson, who is among the advocates trying to persuade members of the Republican-led Legislature to consider expanding Medicaid.

Expansion is an option under the federal health overhaul, but Gov. Phil Bryant and other GOP leaders say they oppose expansion because they worry federal officials won't fulfill promises to pay most of the expenses.

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