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Changes in health insurance market may be more affordable for business and individuals

There appears to be some welcomed changes in the health insurance industry that may help to lower costs for businesses and individuals. It will be about a year before we know.

Employers, employees, and individuals buying health insurance have suffered from sticker shock and government mandates. They may be easing as new ideas are tried.

The mandate to purchase insurance was overturned by Congress, and is effective for next year's coverage. In addition, for individuals purchasing insurance on the federal exchanges, a new carrier announced this week that it plans to offer silver and gold plans in all 77 Oklahoma counties.

For several years, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma was the only firm offering plans on the exchange. Medica, a nonprofit firm which expanded into Nebraska, Kansas an Iowa in 2016, announced Monday it will be offering plans here, too. The Minnesota-based firm said plans and rates for the Sooner State's 140,000 exchange customers will be announced in August. Open enrollment will be for 45 days, Nov. 1 to Dec. 15.

Who buys health insurance on the federal exchanges? Individuals who do not have employer- or government- program provided plans. Some people get subsidies, others don't. Nationwide, an estimated 400,000 people have no health insurance.

Certainly, the competition is welcomed. However, after reading the headlines, consumers will have to read the small type, too, and analyze the products, costs and benefits.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration's Department of Labor has announced new rules that could make health care coverage more affordable for small businesses, too. ObamaCare and other laws made health insurance more expensive and unaffordable.

The new rules expand association health plans, AHP, and are touted as a way to create efficiencies that are realized by larger businesses and help to drive down prices. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta said companies with 50 or fewer employees are subject to ObamaCare's benefit mandates and rating restrictions, while larger companies are not.

"This is backward. Small businesses should face the same regulatory burden as large companies, if not a lighter one. AHP's will help level the playing field," Acosta wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

Big companies enjoy economies of scale, which give them increased bargaining power and the ability to spread the risk among larger base, he said. 

"By contrast, small businesses are buyers in a seller's market. As costs have increased, the number of small business offering health insurance has dropped."

AHPs offer small businesses, including nonprofits and the self-employed, the chance to band together by geography or industry to buy health insurance as if they were a larger firm. More health care options and better prices are the anticipated benefit of AHPs for millions of Americans, Acosta said.

That, of course, is important in Oklahoma, where the creation and success of small business drives our community and state economies, creating jobs.

A year from now, perhaps, the addition of competition in Oklahoma for the federal exchange system and in the association health plans will have six months of experience. They could save consumers and businesses millions in health insurance premiums. 

Let's hope it works.

— The Lawton Constitution

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