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Some of the people facing the largest price increases for health insurance in Pennsylvania have a new online tool to compare plans for next year.

The nonprofit Consumers' Checkbook, in a partnership with the Pennsylvania Insurance Department, launched a website Monday afternoon that for the first time lets people compare plans sold on healthcare.gov to the plans insurers sell directly to consumers.

Subsidies are available on healthcare.gov for people who qualify based on income and other factors. The subsidies lower insurance costs, and when premiums grow, the subsidies grow, blunting rate increases that will average about 32 percent for next year's plans sold on the site in Pennsylvania.

People who don't qualify for the subsidies face the full increases, which can amount to hundreds of dollars more per month. Those people should fully explore their options for buying plans directly from insurers, which often offer different benefit designs than plans sold on the site, said Robert Krughoff, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Consumers' Checkbook.

The organization is trying to help people do that by letting them estimate their expenses for the year under any plan based on projected health needs.

“We're boiling this all down to a single dollar amount figure so it's easy for people to compare, ” Krughoff said.

The tool, at healthplanratings.org, lets people enter doctors, prescriptions and other details, and estimates costs for a normal year and for a “bad year, ” with unexpected health bills. It includes quality ratings for the plans. The site uses publicly available data from a federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality survey and other public sources. The data are not region-specific, and the tool's estimated costs could differ considerably from what people in any given area would pay, Krughoff said.

The site launched just 10 days before the Dec. 15 end of the annual open enrollment period for the plans. Krughoff said the complicated nature of the product resulted in the late launch.

Consumers' Checkbook has created similar tools for insurance exchanges in Illinois, Minnesota, Vermont and Washington, D.C., he said. Krughoff said the organization started providing a similar service to help federal employees select health plans more than 30 years ago.

The organization is providing the tool without funding from the Pennsylvania Insurance Department, in part because the state's mix of on-exchange and off-exchange plans makes it a good testing group for the service, he said. The department confirmed in an email that Consumers' Checkbook isn't charging the state anything.

Even if major changes come to the federal Affordable Care Act, Krughoff expects the tool to be useful.



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