On the Money Insurance Enrollment Finding Help (copy)

Open enrollment on the HealthCare.gov website starts Nov. 1, as it has in past years. File/AP

Thousands of South Carolina residents will have a new choice of health insurance for next year with the announcement that a third company is joining the state-run marketplace.

Molina Healthcare said Tuesday it will offer coverage in 20 counties on the Affordable Care Act exchanges. Charleston County will be among them, bringing the number of rival plans to three for the first time since 2016. 

“We are excited for the opportunity to provide South Carolina residents with additional health care options,” Dora Wilson, president of Molina Healthcare of South Carolina, said in a statement. “We look forward to providing more members with high quality and affordable health care coverage through these new plans.”

Since 2014 and the passage of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, South Carolina residents who don't have other insurance have been able to purchase plans on these exchanges, usually with the help of a financial subsidy. But the insurers participating, which in 2015 numbered five in some areas, tumbled to just one in 2017.

Ray Farmer, director the S.C. Department of Insurance, said having more options is always positive.

"They are additional competition in the state, and competition benefits all of our consumers," Farmer said. 

Full details on Molina's plans have not been released, though customers should expect "free preventive care, including screenings, family planning and preventive drugs, as well as easy access to a comprehensive network of doctors and hospitals," according to Tuesday's announcement.

Rates for this year have not been announced. Customers will be able to select health insurance plans on HealthCare.gov beginning Nov. 1. Open enrollment closes Dec. 15 for coverage that would begin Jan. 1. 

Absolute Total Care, based in Columbia and owned Centene Corp., also joined the marketplaces last year, offering coverage only in Charleston County.

Centene expanded into three other new states last year, and plans to expand into even more counties for the upcoming year, Kevin Counihan, the company's vice president of products, said on a recent call with investors. Absolute Total Care's has yet to announce what geographic area it will cover for its 2020 plans.

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Counihan said enrollment in plans through the Affordable Care Act exchanges has grown 300 percent since 2016 for Centene.

In South Carolina, enrollment in marketplace plans increased 3 percent between 2018 and 2019, up to about 188,000 enrollees as of June. Across the country, enrollment has decreased. 

But this year, customers buying on the exchanges may see their premiums hold steady or decline a bit.

BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina is still the only health insurance company selling plans in all 46 South Carolina counties. The company requested a modest rate increase of less than 1 percent from Farmer's office, which is tasked with approving those requests.

Absolute Total Care said it would reduce the rates for its plans by 2 percent. 

Molina Healthcare is best-known for providing Medicaid plans, including in South Carolina. Tuesday's announcement also came with news that it will add certain Medicare plans to its offerings for the first time in most of the state. 

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.