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'Obamacare' starts soon: Choices will increase, but will premiums?

Most of 'Obamacare' starts Jan. 1, 2014, but people without access to insurance through their jobs can start shopping a widening range of insurance choices on Oct. 1, 2013.

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President Barack Obama answers questions in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. The 2010 Affordable Care Act, better known as 'Obamacare,' starts offering most of its benefits Jan. 1, but some provisions have already taken effect, while others start Oct. 1.

Charles Dharapak / AP / File

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Insurance companies are showing interest in providing coverage under "Obamacare," a development likely to increase market competition and give uninsured people more choices than they now have, the White House said Thursday. Many of the 14 million people who currently buy their own insurance plans could also benefit.

Eager to counter Republican criticism of the law, the White House's upbeat assessment of the effect of the law comes four months before consumers can begin shopping for subsidized private insurance in new state markets. Widespread enrollment in those plans is crucial to the successful implementation of President Barack Obama's 2010 Affordable Care Act, widely known as "Obamacare."

On its website, the White House posted a memo that concluded that most of the consumers who seek insurance from federal- or state-run insurance markets will be able to choose from five or more different insurance companies. The finding is based on data provided by 19 states where the federal government will run the markets and from other state-run markets. Those states account for about 80 percent of the 7 million people that the Congressional Budget Office estimates will obtain insurance through the new markets in 2014.

Currently the insurance market in most states is dominated by one or two insurance carriers; in 45 states and the District of Columbia two insurers cover more than half of all enrollees.

The administration's findings about increased competition generally match up with private sector assessments of early indicators. The market research firm Avalere Health found strong insurer interest in participating in about a dozen states that have released details of their new insurance markets.

Whether the competition will result in lower premiums, however, remains an open question.

Administration officials point to a report by the Democratic staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week that determined that in Oregon and Washington the competition is lowering premium rates even before income-based tax credits are taken into account. But two other states whose filings were examined by the committee, Rhode Island and Maryland, signaled premium rate increases.

An earlier report by the committee's Republican staff surveyed insurers who estimated that premiums would increase in most cases.

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