By Ashley S. Westerman
WASHINGTON—Maryland officials this week announced they would stagger the opening of the enrollment period to purchase health insurance through Maryland Health Connection, the state's version of the Affordable Care Act marketplace.
The site will open Nov. 9 for consumers to browse. They won't be able to purchase insurance until Nov. 15.
But while browsing for plans, Marylanders may find an increase in premiums for next year. That's according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study released earlier this month that looked at premiums across 16 U.S. cities, including Baltimore.
Cynthia Cox, senior policy analyst and co-author of the study, said they found costs are projected to moderately increase in all 16 cities. In Baltimore, premiums for some of the most popular plans are expected to increase.
"The lowest-cost Silver Plan, and the second lowest-cost Silver Plan, which is the benchmark plan for subsidies, are actually going up a little bit," Cox said. "But the increase is very moderate, 3 percent for Baltimore."
This means a 40-year-old, non-smoker in Baltimore making $30,000 a year will see their monthly payment for the second lowest-cost Silver Plan increase from $228 to $235 a month in 2015, before tax credits. Additionally, the study found the lowest-cost Bronze plan in Baltimore is projected to increase from $146 per month to $165 per month in 2015 - up 13.1 percent.
Cox said since plans offered in other parts of the state are similar to those offered in Baltimore, a moderate increase in premiums is likely statewide. The increase could have to do with changes caused by the new health care law and even the economy, but she said premium rates rely on a number of variables and can vary from person to person.
Cox said it's difficult to know what premiums would be in the absence of the Affordable Care Act.
In Maryland, there are accounts of premiums both decreasing and increasing.
Tim Reyburn, 53, is the owner of Ticoscen, Inc., in Laurel, where he repairs lab equipment and other scientific instruments for pharmaceutical companies. His 20-year-old business is run by he and his wife, Angelika Reyburn, so they purchase health insurance out of their own pockets.
When Reyburn heard he could get coverage through the Affordable Care Act's health insurance marketplace, he signed up without hesitation.
"Because our plans were going up significantly with Blue Cross, Blue Shield - anywhere from 20 to 40 percent a year - and we kept having to get a lesser and lesser plan to keep it on budget," he said. "And we got up to almost $2,400 a month, $1,200 per person."
Reyburn said their premiums decreased about $7,000 a year when they switched, and now - even paying for the best plan at the full rate, with no subsidies - it's only about $1,300 a month for both he and his wife. He said it's nice to not have to worry about a lifetime cap or pre-existing conditions, especially since his wife has muscular dystrophy.
While he's not sure what his premiums will be for next year, Reyburn said even if they do go up, it won't be nearly as bad as it used to be before the Affordable Care Act.
A study published Thursday by The Commonwealth Fund found that 61 percent of adults who have purchased insurance through the Affordable Care Act's marketplaces think the premiums are affordable.
But Maryland Republican Party Executive Director Joe Cluster said everybody they've talked to has seen their health care premiums going up.
"It proves that people are having to get into plans where a lot of things are covered that they might not need so the cost is going up," he said. "And it's just more drain on the wallets of the average citizen."
Cluster is actually losing his current health insurance at the end of the year because the plan doesn't meet the new health care law's standards. The cheapest basic plan he can get is $117 a month, $25 more than what he said he's paying now.
While advocates acknowledge premiums have risen, they also say more people are becoming insured and with better coverage.
"We're all better off when people have health care coverage, rather than use emergency rooms in hospitals for care, which increases all of our insurance premiums through the uncompensated care system," said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Health Care Coalition.
The Maryland Health Connection has reported insuring almost 78,700 individuals through the exchanges, but does not yet have an estimate for the second open enrollment period beginning Nov. 15. There will, however, be more carriers to choose from this time around as there are now five on the exchange, one more than last year.