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Karla Fields helps customers at the BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina's Retail Center on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, in Mount Pleasant. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

A Columbia-based insurer will offer health plans on the state's Obamacare open marketplace this year, giving some South Carolina buyers a choice for the first time since 2016.

Absolute Total Care isn't planning to compete statewide with the much larger provider, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina. The newcomer to the Affordable Care Act market said it will sell its health plans only to Charleston County residents. 

Absolute Total Care has operated in every part of South Carolina since 2007, according to its website. The company sells managed care plans and is owned by health insurance giant Centene. 

Ray Farmer, director of the S.C. Department of Insurance, said he sees the entrance of another carrier as good news.

"Any time you have more competition in the marketplace our consumers will benefit," he said. 

Absolute Total Care could not be reached for comment Friday. It will sell five plans on the exchange, according to the Department of Insurance. BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina will sell 28 options.

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Open enrollment this year runs from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15. The plans take effect Jan. 1. About 200,000 South Carolinians buy insurance under the Affordable Care Act

New price increases were also announced Friday. Customers should expect more modest hikes this year compared to last, when the Department of Insurance approved a 31 percent increase. 

The premiums for individual plans will increase by as much as 11 percent, though some will drop by about 1 percent. The average will be about 5 percent higher.

BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina proposed somewhat higher rate hikes mid-summer. Its proposal will be reviewed by state regulators, who will ultimately decide.

Almost 90 percent of members who buy policies on the federal marketplace will see a premium increase of less than $10 per month, BlueCross BlueShield spokeswoman Patti Embry-Tautenhan said. One bronze-level plan won't increase at all.

A bronze plan with no premium will be available to some people who are eligible based on their income. More people may fall in that category this year. 

"We encourage everyone who will be shopping for ACA health insurance to get educated on what option best fits their needs," Embry-Tautenhan said.

BlueCross BlueShield customers can contact an agent, visit one of the insurer's SC Blue stores or find more information online, she said.

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Part of the increase is due to rising health care costs. In its proposal for a higher rate, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina said hospitals and physicians are charging more, and more people with coverage are seeking medical attention. Prescriptions are also getting more expensive.

The prices for plans sold on have generally increased every year since 2013, when the federal marketplace opened for business.

The customer's county of residence and tobacco-use status also affects rates, as do other important factors, Farmer said.

Last year, insurance companies were blindsided by a decision from President Donald Trump not to fund certain health insurance subsidies called cost-sharing reductions.

South Carolina insurers received more than $191 million in those payments in 2016, The Associated Press reported last year.

This year, insurance companies did expect not to receive those payments and factored that into the cost of this year's plans.

Farmer said the market is showing signs of stabilizing.

"The first year or two, we didn't have a baseline on which to compare," he said. "The market has matured."

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