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Make Sense? Competition, Not Higher Premiums, May Turn Out to Be the Biggest Threat to Obamacare Buyers

flying cadeuciiThere have been lots of news reports, including some from me, about insurers raising premiums 10 percent or more on the Obamacare exchanges next year.

But for most people who bought health coverage in the Obamacare exchanges, that’s not really a concern.

That’s because the vast majority of Obamacare buyers so far have received tax credits to reduce the cost of that coverage.

Those subsidies, rather than being flat dollar amounts, fluctuate so customers never pay more than a certain percentage of their incomes on insurance.

In other words, if premiums rise next year like WellPoint Inc. has predicted, subsidies also will rise to keep the net cost to consumers at the same percentage of their income.

So rising premiums aren’t a problem for consumers, unless their income rises so much that it reduces the size of their subsidy.

“If all insurers increase their rates by 10 percent, that might not have a dramatic shift in the market,” said Paul Houchens, a consulting actuary at the Indianapolis health practice of Milliman Inc. “Most of that premium increase is going to be absorbed by the federal government.”

(Rising federal spending could also be a problem for Obamacare–not to mention taxpayers–but that’s not my focus today. Also, Houchens noted, Obamacare’s premiums are not scheduled to rise in line with premiums forever, but will be indexed to income growth and inflation.)

But for 2015, what could cause the biggest problem for Obamacare consumers, Houchens pointed out to me last week, is if an insurer reduces its premiums. Or if a new compeitor enters the market in 2015 with lower premiums than insurers were offering in 2014.

If that idea makes your head spin, welcome to Obamacare, where up is down and down is up—at least compared to how health insurance used to work. It’s what I’ve taken to calling the weightlessness of Obamacare.

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