HHS touts consumer education amid insurers' ACA concerns

During the Affordable Care Act's third open enrollment period, one major focus of the Obama administration has been to help consumers understand their overall healthcare costs--which it hopes will stem some of the customer churn that's worrying insurers, Bloomberg reports.

In a recent interview with the news outlet, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said many people focus on premiums only when picking health insurance plans rather than their total out-of-pocket costs. In fact, HHS itself touted the availability of low-premium plans, particularly for those who qualify for subsidies, during its recent signup push.

But Healthcare.gov's new cost-estimating tools, Burwell said, could prevent consumers from dropping policies prematurely by helping them better understand the overall costs they will face.

The exchanges' volatility factored prominently into UnitedHealth's recent announcement that it is losing money on the exchanges and may even exit the marketplace in 2017. The nation's largest insurer said one of its major concerns was the cost of covering individuals who signed up during special enrollment periods, with its CEO saying "we cannot sustain these losses." Other insurers, too, have noted challenges in the individual market. 

Burwell declined to specifically discuss UnitedHealth with Bloomberg, instead noting other insurers' statements of confidence in the exchanges. Yet Joseph Antos, a healthcare policy expert at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, told the news outlet that insurers are "absolutely right" that the ACA exchanges need to become a place where people buy insurance long-term.

Burwell also told Bloomberg that the federal government's modest goal of enrolling 10 million in ACA coverage was mainly due to the fact that more people were keeping employer-sponsored coverage as the economy improves. Further, while many ACA plans offer more narrow networks, "narrow isn't bad if it's what you want and need," Burwell said.

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