As Obamacare enrollment rolls into year two on Saturday, tens of thousands of South Carolinians are expected to pick a health insurance plan sometime soon.
Experts anticipate a smoother launch this time around. The 2014 open enrollment window, which ran from Oct. 1, 2013 through mid-April, will be best remembered for its flaws. It was virtually impossible to sign onto HealthCare.gov last October, let alone actually enroll in a plan.
Despite early setbacks, though, nearly 100,000 residents in this state eventually purchased private insurance through the federal marketplace.
"We certainly hope enrollment goes smoother than last year and it probably will," said Ray Farmer, director of the South Carolina Department of Insurance.
The federal government believes even more people will purchase an Affordable Care Act policy this year. For one reason, failure to sign up for some type of plan is getting more expensive. With few exceptions, adults who don't enroll in health insurance will be fined $325 or 2 percent of their annual household income next year (whichever amount is higher) - up from $95 or 1 percent of their income this year. The very poor will not be fined.
For many shoppers, though, the question isn't whether or not to buy insurance, but rather, which insurance plan to choose.
Farmer stressed that shoppers should devote enough time selecting a policy that best suits their budget and their needs, especially because there are more companies selling more plans on the marketplace to South Carolina customers this year.
"They need to shop, just like you do for everything else," he said.
In a press release on Friday, Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, echoed Farmer's advice. "Consumers should shop around, with new options available this year they're likely to find a better deal," she said.
The vast majority of HealthCare.gov customers will qualify for a tax credit to lower the amount they pay every month. Last year, 84 percent of those 100,000 beneficiaries in South Carolina received a subsidy.
With this in mind, the health care industry is paying close attention to the Supreme Court. A ruling next year will determine if those subsidies can be distributed to residents in states that did not set up their own insurance exchanges. South Carolina, and more than half of all other states, opted into the federal exchange.
"The news that Obamacare is facing additional legal challenges is hardly surprising," said Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley, who is traveling in India this week on a trade mission.
Mayer called the case "just one more example of what is possible when a president attempts to force a one-size-fits-all health care program on every state in the country. This law has been a disaster from the start and why Governor Haley has fought against it at every turn."
Depending on the Supreme Court's decision next year, customers in South Carolina could lose their subsidies, forcing them to pay the full price for their coverage, or drop their plans.
"I think everybody is just waiting for the court to decide," Farmer said. "No one is going to try to second-guess what the decision is going to be."
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.