Thousands of Californians are discovering what Obamacare will cost them — and many don't like what they see.
These middle-class consumers are staring at hefty increases on their insurance bills as the overhaul remakes the healthcare market. Their rates are rising in large part to help offset the higher costs of covering sicker, poorer people who have been shut out of the system for years.
Although recent criticism of the healthcare law has focused on website glitches and early enrollment snags, experts say sharp price increases for individual policies have the greatest potential to erode public support for President Obama's signature legislation.
"This is when the actual sticker shock comes into play for people," said Gerald Kominski, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. "There are winners and losers under the Affordable Care Act."
Fullerton resident Jennifer Harris thought she had a great deal, paying $98 a month for an individual plan through Health Net Inc. She got a rude surprise this month when the company said it would cancel her policy at the end of this year. Her current plan does not conform with the new federal rules, which require more generous levels of coverage.
Now Harris, a self-employed lawyer, must shop for replacement insurance. The cheapest plan she has found will cost her $238 a month. She and her husband don't qualify for federal premium subsidies because they earn too much money, about $80,000 a year combined.
"It doesn't seem right to make the middle class pay so much more in order to give health insurance to everybody else," said Harris, who is three months pregnant. "This increase is simply not affordable."
On balance, many Americans will benefit from the healthcare expansion. They are guaranteed coverage regardless of their medical history. And lower-income families will gain access to comprehensive coverage at little or no cost.
The federal government picks up much of the tab through an expansion of Medicaid and subsidies to people earning up to four times the federal poverty level. That's up to $46,000 for an individual or $94,000 for a family of four.
But middle-income consumers face an estimated 30% rate increase, on average, in California due to several factors tied to the healthcare law.
Some may elect to go without coverage if they feel prices are too high. Penalties for opting out are very small initially. Defections could cause rates to skyrocket if a diverse mix of people don't sign up for health insurance.
Pam Kehaly, president of Anthem Blue Cross in California, said she received a recent letter from a young woman complaining about a 50% rate hike related to the healthcare law.
"She said, 'I was all for Obamacare until I found out I was paying for it,'" Kehaly said.
Nearly 2 million Californians have individual insurance, and several hundred thousand of them are losing their health plans in a matter of weeks.
Blue Shield of California sent termination letters to 119,000 customers last month whose plans don't meet the new federal requirements. About two-thirds of those people will experience a rate increase from switching to a new health plan, according to the company.
HMO giant Kaiser Permanente is canceling coverage for about half of its individual customers, or 160,000 people, and offering to automatically enroll them in the most comparable health plan available.
The 16 million Californians who get health insurance through their employers aren't affected. Neither are individuals who have "grandfathered" policies bought before March 2010, when the healthcare law was enacted. It's estimated that about half of policyholders in the individual market have those older plans.
All these cancellations were prompted by a requirement from Covered California, the state's new insurance exchange. The state didn't want to give insurance companies the opportunity to hold on to the healthiest patients for up to a year, keeping them out of the larger risk pool that will influence future rates.
Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, said the state and insurers agreed that clearing the decks by Jan. 1 was best for consumers in the long run despite the initial disruption. Lee has heard the complaints — even from his sister-in-law, who recently groused about her 50% rate increase.
"People could have kept their cheaper, bad coverage, and those people wouldn't have been part of the common risk pool," Lee said. "We are better off all being in this together. We are transforming the individual market and making it better."
Lee said consumers need to consider all their options. They don't have to stick with their current company, and higher premiums are only part of the cost equation. Lee said some of these rate hikes will be partially offset by smaller deductibles and lower limits on out-of-pocket medical expenses in the new plans.
Still, many are frustrated at being forced to give up the plans they have now. They frequently cite assurances given by Obama that Americans could hold on to their health insurance despite the massive overhaul.
"All we've been hearing the last three years is if you like your policy you can keep it," said Deborah Cavallaro, a real estate agent in Westchester. "I'm infuriated because I was lied to."
Supporters of the healthcare law say Obama was referring to people who are insured through their employers or through government programs such as Medicare. Still, they acknowledge the confusion and anger from individual policyholders who are being forced to change.
Cavallaro received her cancellation notice from Anthem Blue Cross this month. The company said a comparable Bronze plan would cost her 65% more, or $484 a month. She doubts she'll qualify for much in premium subsidies, if any. Regardless, she resents losing the ability to pick and choose the benefits she wants to pay for.
"I just won't have health insurance because I can't pay this increase," she said.
Most Americans are required to have health coverage starting next year or pay a fine of $95 per adult or 1% of their income, whichever is greater. The fines increase over time.
A number of factors are driving up rates. In a report this year, consultants hired by the state said the influx of sicker patients as a result of guaranteed coverage was the biggest single reason for higher premiums. Bob Cosway, a principal and consulting actuary at Milliman Inc. in San Diego, estimated that the average individual premium in 2014 will rise 27% because of that difference alone.
Individual policies must also cover a higher percentage of overall medical costs and include 10 "essential health benefits," such as prescription drugs and mental health services. The aim is to fill gaps in coverage and provide consumers more peace of mind. But those expanded benefits have to be paid for with higher premiums.
The federal law also adjusts how rates are set by age, a change that gives older consumers a break and shifts more costs to younger people. Rates by age can vary by only 3 to 1 starting next year as opposed to 6 to 1 in some cases now in California. People in their 20s just starting their careers may earn so little they qualify for subsidies. But that might not be the case for consumers who are slightly older and earning more.
"It has the effect of benefiting people in their 50s and 60s and shifting costs to people in their 20s and 30s," said Patrick Johnston, president of the California Assn. of Health Plans. "Benefits are being increased for all, but it's not government subsidies for all. Some will pay more."
Rates would be going up regardless of changes from the healthcare expansion. The average individual premium will climb 9% next year because of rising healthcare costs and increases in medical provider reimbursement, according to Milliman's estimates.
Some consumer groups have questioned whether insurers are inflating their rates under the guise of the healthcare law changes.
"We believe the prices are higher than they should be," said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica advocacy group. "This is giving a bad name to the Affordable Care Act."
State regulators checked the insurance companies' math and underlying cost projections for next year, but they don't have the authority to deny increases. Under federal rules, insurers can be ordered to issue rebates if they don't spend a minimum amount of every premium dollar on customers' medical care.
"The rates aren't going up because insurance companies are pocketing more money," Lee said. "That is what it takes to pay the claims and deliver the healthcare."
Javier Lopez, 38 and a self-employed aerospace engineer in Huntington Beach, pays about $750 a month for an Anthem Blue Cross plan for his family of four. His premiums may rise nearly 20% next year for a new policy because his current plan is being phased out.
Lopez says he's willing to absorb that one-year jump if it means the government can rein in future rate hikes.
"I'm hoping with this reform," Lopez said, "we won't see big increases year after year."