United Healthcare now selling Arizona policies on federal marketplace, joins 12 others


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PHOENIX — The next open enrollment period under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul begins Saturday in Arizona, where the nation's largest health insurance provider is jumping in to the marketplace and residents should see lower prices than during last year's glitch-ridden rollout.

United Healthcare is one of three new companies entering the Arizona market, bringing to 13 the number of companies offering individual insurance plans in the state through the federal marketplace healthcare.gov website. The other two new companies are Assurant Health and Phoenix Health Plans, formerly Abrazo Health Plans.

United was cautious about jumping into the individual marketplace in the first year, deciding to offer plans in only four states. Now, it will sell policies in 23 states, including Arizona, said Laura English, United Healthcare's vice president for exchange plans in Arizona.

"We waited, we watched, we learned somewhat what our customers needed and to be able to price the plans so that we could provide quality coverage at prices consumers could afford," English said. The company already runs Medicaid, Medicare, small business and group policies in the state, she added.

About 120,000 Arizonans signed up for plans during the first open enrollment period, although records collected by the state Department of Insurance from providers show about 100,000 actually paid premiums. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services says their numbers are the most up-to-date.

The rollout last year was marked by a series of website failures, but federal officials say changes to the website this time around will make it easier for people to check for plans and prices and navigate through the dozens of available options. The enrollment period is shorter this year, and people must enroll by Feb. 15 or be locked out until 2016.

In Arizona, a coalition known as Covered Arizona is overseeing outreach efforts to help consumer navigate the applications and choose a plan. Those needing assistance can go to the group's website, http://coveraz.org/, and make an appointment with a certified health care navigator. Calling 211 also connects people with someone who can make an appointment.

"One of the things that was a missing piece last year was the ability to get people directly connected with enrollment quickly," said Jon Ford, communications director with St. Luke's Health Initiatives. "Now, we can very quickly with a zip code figure out what the nearest location is for that person and literally schedule the appointment. And that triggers a follow-up email and a reminder text message to help those folks get to that appointment."

Consumers who are updating their coverage or buying it for the first time will also see less sticker-shock this year. A comparison of plans done by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that the price of a sample plan premium for a silver-level plan in Phoenix is going down by 10 percent this year. A 40-year-old non-smoker who chooses the lowest-cost silver plan will pay $177 a month for coverage in 2015, compared with $197 this year.

Those who bought plans during the last open enrollment period are being encouraged to update their applications before Dec. 15 and can change plans though Feb. 15. That's important because the plans on which subsidies are based have changed, and that may affect premiums in the seven Arizona rate categories.

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