People looking for the best deals on the new Illinois health insurance marketplace should consider moving to cities along the northwestern state border, if they don't live there already.
Illinois counties in the Quad Cities area have the lowest prices for mid-level plans expected to be the most popular under President Barack Obama's new health initiative. In general, the highest prices are in the northern Illinois counties of Lake, McHenry, Kane and DuPage. That's according to price information released by the federal government and analyzed by The Associated Press.
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Over the course of a year, the regional differences in price could add up to the cost of a microwave oven or a plane ticket.
For example, the lowest cost silver plan for a 50-year-old in Mercer County is $268 a month. For a 50-year-old in Kane County the lowest cost silver plan is $293 a month. Over one year of payments, that difference in monthly premiums adds up to the Kane County 50-year-old paying $300 more than the Mercer County 50-year-old.
All the policies in the new marketplace cover a broad range of medical services, prescription drugs, emergency care, hospitalization, mental health care and lab services. Comparing the prices of these comprehensive plans to what was previously available is difficult, like comparing apples and oranges. What's clear is that Illinois residents will have a broad array of prices and plans to choose from.
Federal tax subsidies will bring down the cost for many people. The prices in this article reflect costs before tax subsidies.
"There are really good options for folks throughout the state," said Illinois Department of Insurance Director Andrew Boron. "We're seeing some really robust choices."
An initial look at the prices shows Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, the largest Illinois provider based on number of customers on the individual market, offering the lowest monthly rates for bronze and silver plans in many parts of the state. All insurers in the market are offering plans with a range of pricing.
"We're trying to offer plans that meet consumer need and expand access to cost-effective health care," said Kurt Kossen, vice president of retail markets for Health Care Service Corporation, the operator of Blue Cross plans in Illinois and four other states.
The insurer kept prices down for some of its policies by contracting with narrower networks of hospitals and doctors than is currently the standard, Kossen said. Consumers should make sure their preferred doctors and hospitals are covered as they shop for insurance, he said.
So far, it's been nearly impossible to compare prices on the federal HealthCare.gov website. For days, glitches and delays prevented many people in Illinois and more than 30 other states from shopping for the coverage that's required by the nation's health care law.
The health plans on the marketplace are categorized by four tiers: bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Bronze plans have the lowest premiums and the highest out-of-pocket costs. Platinum plans have the highest premiums and the lowest out-of-pocket costs.
Premiums are the monthly fees policyholders pay to the insurance company to keep their coverage. If a consumer stops paying the premium, the coverage stops too. Out-of-pocket costs include copays and deductibles -- all the various payments policyholders must contribute when they see a doctor or go to the hospital.
The price information released by the federal government is for specific ages and family situations: a 27-year-old adult, a 50-year-old adult, a family of two adults and two children and several other scenarios.
A few examples from the data:
• A Kankakee family of four in which the parents are both 30 years old has 19 choices of silver plans ranging from a Blue Cross plan priced at $586 a month to an Aetna plan priced at $1,128 a month. Tax subsidies could bring down those costs depending on family income.
• A 27-year-old in Champaign can choose from 14 silver plans ranging from a $218 a month Blue Cross plan to a $312 a month Land of Lincoln Health plan.
• A 50-year-old in Edwardsville has a choice of 11 silver plans ranging from a $316 a month Coventry Health Care plan to a $467 a month Land of Lincoln Health plan.
Regional variation in insurance prices is nothing new. It's caused in part by regional differences in health care spending, which in turn is driven by the supply of hospital beds and medical specialists, and by patient health.
Costs also vary because of the prices that hospitals and other providers can negotiate with insurance companies, Boron said.