Despite expectations, local Affordable Care Act navigator reports cheaper premiums

Zach Vance • Updated Nov 4, 2017 at 11:56 PM

Nearly all experts, pundits and even the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance have projected premiums will increase in the federal health insurance marketplace for 2018.

But that’s not the trend Tracy Pate, lead navigator and outreach coordinator for Johnson City’s Project Access, has seen since enrollment began Nov. 1.

Working directly with enrollees during the application process, Pate and another navigator have already enrolled about 40 people, and most are seeing a decrease in premiums ranging from 30 to 60 percent.

“Every year, since the first open enrollment, we’ve seen the premiums gradually increase. But what we’ve seen so far, since Wednesday, is that this year the premiums have actually gone down,” said Pate, who said her insurance plan even increased every year except for 2018.

“It’s not across-the-board. There are nine plans available on the marketplace this year, but there’s at least two affordable plans, one for Cigna and one for Blue Cross Blue Shield, that are very good and affordable.”

In most of Northeast Tennessee, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Cigna offer plans, but the Department of Commerce and Insurance said just one carrier option is available in 79 of the state’s 95 counties.

When President Donald Trump issued an executive order in October ending cost-sharing subsidies for lower-income enrollees, Pate and Project Access’ other navigators had no idea what the ramifications would be once Open Enrollment began.

“Before Wednesday, we didn’t know what to prepare for because we had not seen the plans. When we (enrolled) the first few plans, (the premiums) had gone down and we were like, ‘Well, their household dynamics have changed a little bit. Maybe that’s it,’” Pate said.

“Then almost every one, there’s been an exception of a couple which is a difference in household structure, but almost every application that we have seen, the plans have gone down from at least 30 to 60 percent in premiums. To me, that’s a great positive that we want to get out there.”

Pate believes the decrease stems from the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance anticipating Trump’s executive order and asking insurance providers to structure their plans accordingly.

Unfortunately, those decreases are not being felt by Johnson City resident Tim McKinney, who recently received a letter from Blue Cross Blue Shield notifying him that his Silver plan premium would increase from $222 a month in 2017 to $504 in 2018.

At 59, McKinney is a diabetic with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and chronic back pain, all requiring regular doctor visits and costly medication.

Unable to afford that premium increase, McKinney was left with few options other than call U.S. Rep. Phil Roe’s office and voice his frustration.

“They’re not doing their job up there in Washington, D.C. All they’re doing is bickering and carrying on. They need to pass a repeal or do something about health care. Believe me, I’m not the only one who received those letters,” McKinney said.

A graphic distributed by the state showed 2017 had approved premium rate increases ranging between 44 and 62 percent, and 2018 had proposed premium rate increases ranging between 21 and 42 percent.

The state also noted that Tennessee’s premiums were ranked second-lowest nationally in 2014. In the three years since, Tennessee has dropped to the 35th state based on premium rates.

“Tennessee’s individual insurance market remains challenged,” said TDCI Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak.

“However, it is important to remember that health insurance coverage is available everywhere in the state. We continue to encourage consumers to shop for the best available plan for their individual situations and preferences.”

The Open Enrollment period for 2018 was reduced from its normal three months to just six weeks, ending on Dec. 15.

Additionally, the Trump administration cut the budget for advertising the Open Enrollment period by more than 90 percent and cut the Navigator program, which provides grants to organizations like Project Access that provide free in-person assistance for consumer enrollment, by 41 percent.

Consumers needing help with enrollment can receive assistance by setting up an appointment with Project Access by calling 423-232-6700 or visiting http://projectaccesseasttn.org/.

Email Zach Vance at [email protected] Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP.


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