Oct. 31--COLUMBIA, S.C. -- When open enrollment begins Friday, South Carolinians shopping for health insurance in the Affordable Care Act's marketplace will see lower rates and more insurance providers to choose from.
Health insurance rates for those Palmetto State customers are dropping for the first time since the 2014 inception of the marketplace, according to the S.C. Department of Insurance.
And the addition of two more insurers -- Molina Healthcare and Bright Health Company -- means customers in 32 S.C. counties will have their choice of two insurance providers, while customers in three counties can pick from three.
"The consumers usually do benefit from competition," said former state Sen. Joel Lourie, a Columbia Democrat who unsuccessfully pushed for Medicaid expansion and now runs a life and health insurance company. "It does give consumers the opportunity to shop a little bit."
Health care coverage through the ACA marketplace is dropping nationwide after price increases at the end of the Obama administration and the start of President Donald Trump's term, when Republicans in Congress unsuccessfully tried to scrap the 2010 federal law.
The Trump administration maintains its disdain for the ACA -- more commonly known as Obamacare -- and is supporting an ongoing legal challenge to its constitutionality.
Still, nearly 200,000 South Carolinians buy their health insurance through the federal marketplace, and the number of carriers is doubling.
BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina's customers will see a roughly 3.87% decrease in their premiums next year, while customers of Absolute Total Care will pay 2.3% less, on average.
"It's a function of the marketplace," said Insurance Department Director Ray Farmer. "The exchange has been in existence since 2014. We have seen over that period of years, the market itself is becoming more stable. Companies have more history to look at. Insurance companies thrive on stability and certainty."
Only BlueCross BlueShield is available to customers in all 46 counties of South Carolina. But residents of 32 other counties will have at least one alternative with the arrival of Molina Health Care and Bright Health.
Absolute Total Care can be purchased in 12 counties, mostly along the S.C. coast: Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Chester, Colleton, Dorchester, Florence, Horry, Jasper, Lancaster, Marion and York.
Molina Healthcare will be available in 20 counties -- none of them in the Upstate. Those are Aiken, Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Calhoun, Charleston, Clarendon, Colleton, Dillon, Edgefield, Fairfield, Kershaw, Lee, Lexington, McCormick, Marion, Marlboro, Orangeburg, Saluda and Williamsburg.
Bright Health is offering plans in the Upstate counties of Anderson, Greenville and Pickens.
That means a 40-year-old with no tobacco use in South Carolina would have 37 plans to choose from next year, instead of the 23 this year.
Open enrollment in the plans begins Friday and runs through Dec. 15. The plans are generally for people who don't have health insurance through a job, Medicare, Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program or another source.
The average customer is 42 years old, Farmer said, and 91% of customers who purchase a plan in the ACA marketplace get federal subsidies that help pay their premiums.
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