Calif. To Announce Health Insurance Plans, Prices

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    Californians will get their first look Thursday at the health plans to be offered through the state's new insurance exchange and how much that coverage will cost them.

    Covered California, the state agency running California's health insurance marketplace, is scheduled to announce the plans and prices that will be offered by private insurers when the exchange begins enrolling customers in October. Coverage begins Jan. 1, the same time virtually everyone in the country will be required to have health insurance or pay a penalty.

    The goal of the exchange is to offer individuals and small businesses a choice of private insurance plans similar to what workers at large companies already receive. While low-income people will be referred to public safety-net programs, the federal government will offer subsidies to help some middle-income households pay their insurance premiums.

    An estimated 5.3 million Californians will be able purchase insurance through Covered California. Of that, some 2.6 million will qualify for federal assistance.

    Thursday's announcement marks the first time Californians will get a clear picture of the health plans and prices offered under the new health care rules in President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.

    People will be able to enroll through the website
    , but counselors also will be available at call centers to help them find a health plan or determine their eligibility for subsidies and tax credits.

    The state is offering translation to Spanish and other languages to help people compare and choose a health plan that works best for their health needs and budget. Covered California announced recently that dozens of community groups have been awarded a total of $37 million in grants to help educate and reach out to residents.

    State officials said there was high interest from insurance companies because of the number of uninsured residents in California. Some plans submitted bids to provide coverage statewide while others proposed to sell insurance only in certain regions of the state.

    Officials running the state's exchange divided California into 19 regions for rate-setting purposes, meaning geography will play a key role in how rates vary throughout the state. Aside from where a person lives, insurers are limited in their ability to charge consumers different prices for health care.

    That is in part because California rejected an option under the federal law that allows companies to charge smokers up to 50 percent more for their premiums. Additionally, insurance companies are required to accept all applicants regardless of their medical histories and cannot charge older customers more than three times what younger customers pay.

    Under the federal law, insurers are required to offer comprehensive benefits such as emergency services and maternity care. California was one of the few states that required participating insurers to follow a uniform benefits structure so consumers would have an easier time choosing between plans.

    Earlier this year, Covered California announced standard benefits that people can expect to receive under the Affordable Care Act. It was designed to help consumers comparison shop between insurance plans by letting them see their out-of-pocket costs on common medical services such as doctor's office visits, hospital stays and prescription drugs.