Insurance exchange customers pick higher-premium plans

Premiums are up but deductibles are down in the early weeks of open enrollment for consumers using the federal exchange to shop for unsubsidized plans, according to survey data released by eHealth Inc.

The private online insurance exchange said the average monthly premium for eHealth shoppers is 16 percent higher for individual plans, and 14 percent higher for family plans, than it was during last year's open enrollment period. This trend aligns with a recent report from Avalere Health, which said insurers are raising 2015 premiums to make up for under-priced exchange plans last year, FierceHealthPayer previously reported.

"While we're reporting a double-digit increase in average premiums for plans selected by consumers so far, these average increases are not as high as the year-over-year premium increases many consumers saw last year," Gary Lauer, chairman and CEO of eHealth, said in a statement.

At the same time, eHealth reported, average deductibles are down 9 percent for individual plans and 4 percent for family plans when compared to last year. This could be a good sign for the industry--high deductibles could cost insurers more in the long run, as the high cost of obtaining care could force consumers to postpone care until it becomes even more complicated and costly.

While the average consumer tends to prefer a high-deductible health plan to one with high monthly premiums, as FierceHealthPayer previously reported, lower-income customers tend to prefer plans with higher premiums and lower deductibles, as this helps lower out-of-pocket healthcare costs. Given that the insurance exchanges target consumers who previously have not been able to afford insurance, the eHealth figures make sense.

Insurance exchange consumers are choosing plans with lower deductibles even though the average deductibles for all four types of plans sold on the exchanges have increased, Avalere noted in a separate report. For the silver plan, the most popular chosen in last year's open enrollment, the average deductible is 7 percent higher this year.

Nearly 1.4 million consumers selected insurance plans from Nov. 15 to Dec. 5, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Of that total, 52 percent were returning customers and 48 percent were new.

In the first three weeks of open enrollment, the average eHealth shopper was 40 years old. This suggests that younger shoppers delay their enrollment, the company said, and is consistent with last year's enrollment trends as well. Customers must enroll by Monday, Dec. 15 in order to have coverage on Jan. 1, 2015.

For more:
- check out the eHealth report
- read the Avalere Health report
- see the latest HHS figures