UnitedHealthcare returning to Illinois Obamacare exchange, with open enrollment starting Monday

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When Illinois consumers start shopping for health insurance on the Affordable Care Act exchange next week, they’ll see at least three new options for next year, including plans from UnitedHealthcare, which pulled out of the state’s marketplace five years ago.

UnitedHealthcare, which is the second largest health insurer in Illinois, Oscar Health and Molina Healthcare of Illinois plan to offer health insurance coverage on the Illinois ACA exchange, also known as the Obamacare exchange, for 2022, the companies said. Open enrollment for exchange plans starts Monday at healthcare.gov.

UnitedHealthcare will offer plans to consumers in Cook, Lake, DuPage, Kane, Kankakee, and Will counties. Oscar will offer plans in Cook, DuPage and Lake counties. Molina will offer plans in Cook, DuPage, Kane and Will counties.

Many of the people who purchase exchange plans are those who don’t get health insurance through employers or government programs such as Medicare or Medicaid.

The addition of the three insurance companies is a change that could help address years of criticism that the exchange hasn’t offered consumers enough options. And it comes after federal legislation, passed earlier this year, expanded subsidies meant to help consumers afford exchange plans, which have also been criticized as too expensive.

Experts encourage people to shop around to see what new options may be available for next year and to see how prices may be changing.

“It’s always the case that you want to really check your options during open enrollment, but I think that’s especially true in places where there are multiple new carriers coming in,” said Louise Norris, a licensed broker and health policy analyst for healthinsurance.org, an insurance agency-operated website. “If you don’t do anything your plan will renew, but your rate could change and even your benefits could change.”

Oscar is offering plans in 11 states, including Illinois for the first time, for next year. UnitedHealthcare plans to offer coverage options on the exchanges of 18 states next year.

UnitedHealthcare decided in 2016 to exit the exchange in Illinois and many other states, following losses that stemmed from covering a population that was sicker than expected.

It was a common problem for many insurers in the early years of the exchange. That year, UnitedHealthcare was one of at least five insurers that decided to flee the exchange in Illinois, reducing options for consumers.

Insurers that remained on the exchanges then spent the following years raising monthly prices, called premiums, often dramatically.

“They sort of right-sized the premiums,” Norris said. “In hindsight, the premiums had been set too low, and once they did that and everything kind of shook out, it became a profitable market again. Now we’re seeing, for last three years, and now 2022, the carriers returning to the market because it is a profitable market for them.”

It was not immediately clear Thursday afternoon how much plans from UnitedHealthcare, Oscar and Molina might cost in Illinois. Each year, the Illinois Department of Insurance releases an analysis of exchange plans and their costs, but that analysis was not yet available on Thursday afternoon.

For years, most of the people who’ve signed up for exchange plans have qualified, based on their incomes, for subsidies to help offset the plans’ monthly costs. But in years past, a portion of people did not qualify for those subsidies, leaving them to pay often high monthly premiums and deductibles.

Earlier this year, President Joe Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan, which expanded who could get those subsidies and the amounts of the subsidies. Many people with lower incomes may now be eligible for subsidies so large that they’ll be able to get certain plans at no monthly cost to them. And the legislation expands who can get those subsidies, to people making more than 400% of the federal poverty level.

The subsidies are growing as the costs of health insurance on the exchange, in some cases, are rising.

The state’s largest health insurer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, said in rate filings that it plans to raise prices, on average, for its exchange plans by about 5% next year. Health Alliance Medical Plans, which offered plans mostly outside of the Chicago area this year, has said it plans to raise rates by an average of 10%.

Other insurers’ rates are changing only slightly, on average, for next year, with Bright Health Insurance Company of Illinois projecting about a 1.3% increase, Celtic Insurance Company a 3.2% decrease and Cigna a 1.6% increase.