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Window-shopping for Obamacare 2016 starts soon

The prices for insurance coverage available next year from the federal Obamacare exchange will be posted online starting Sunday, federal officials said, as they unveiled consumer-friendly upgrades to the digital marketplace for its third open-enrollment season.

An Obamacare enrollment informational pamphlet sits on display at a Community Clinic Inc. health center in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
An Obamacare enrollment informational pamphlet sits on display at a Community Clinic Inc. health center in Silver Spring, Maryland.

The announced improvements include simplifying re-enrollment in current Obamacare plans, encouraging enrollment in plans that are best financially suited to a given person, and reducing the number of cases of people failing to provide information about their Social Security numbers or other data required to prove eligibility.

Those changes may help the federal marketplace HealthCare.gov enroll more uninsured people for next year, and retain them as customers throughout the year.

"As of today, we're 10 days from the start of open enrollment," said Andy Slavitt, acting administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which operates HealthCare.gov. "I can say with certainty that we're not the only people anticipating November 1."

"In fact, we're already beginning to see interest increase. This past week, incoming calls at our call center increased by about 25 percent and we've seen an uptick in traffic of around 10 percent," Slavitt said. "Americans realize that open enrollment is around the corner, and we're ready to welcome them back to HealthCare.gov."

Returning and prospective Obamamacare customers in 38 states served by HealthCare.gov can begin window-shopping for plans in their geographic area as of Sunday. Some of the other states that are served by their own individual Obamacare exchanges already have window-shopping for 2016 plans available for residents.

Information such as the plans' monthly premiums, deductibles and co-payment amounts will be viewable on HealthCare.gov, as well as what a given person would actually pay for the coverage after their eligibility for any federal subsidies to offset insurance cost is factored in. Those subsidies are available to people with low or moderate incomes.

People have to wait until Nov. 1 to actually select plans to enroll in coverage that begins on Jan. 1.

It will be at least several days after that for officials to release a comprehensive database of the prices of all 2016 plans nationwide. Such a data set will give health-care observers and journalists a clearer picture of how much Obamacare prices are rising nationally next year compared to 2016.

Those prices will be closely watched. If they are significantly higher than 2015, there will be greater concern about the ability of officials to significantly boost enrollment next year.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said last week she expects about 10 million people to be enrolled in Obamacare plans nationally by the end of 2016. That is just 900,000 people more than what HHS has said it expects to be covered by such plans by the end of this year.

Burwell's modest prediction reflects the belief that signing up remaining uninsured people in coverage on the exchanges will be more difficult than in the first two years of Obamacare enrollment. Burwell noted that the price of insurance — or the perceived price — remains a big concern for many uninsured people, and many of them are also either unfamiliar with Obamacare subsidies that could benefit them, or are unsure of how they work.

The improvements in HealthCare.gov announced Friday reflect ongoing efforts by HHS to reduce the overall uninsured rate among Americans by making the site easier to use, and to encourage sign-ups in plans that are most affordable, in the long run, to customers, so that they are less likely to drop out of coverage.

Among the improvements are the addition of screens on HealthCare that will make it easier for returning customers to find their existing plan and compare it with other available plans.

A new, "Out of Pocket" cost feature has also been added to the site, which "will help consumers better estimate the cost of their health insurance based on their own personal situation."