Rate hikes for 2017 might make you think that Obamacare has sent health insurance rates through the roof. But if that's what you thought, you would be wrong.

Individual health insurance actually came down in price when Obamacare took effect. While premiums are rising, they are still a bargain compared to what they would have been without the law.

You might wonder how that can be. Premiums for a benchmark policy on the federal exchange will rise by an average of 25% next year. And that's on top of increases in 2015 and 2016. Doesn't that mean Obamacare costs are spinning out of control?

Coverage under Obamacare is unquestionably more expensive today than it was last year or the year before. But a more accurate comparison would be to the cost of insurance before the law took effect. When it did in 2014, premiums went down by an average of between 10% and 21%, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Brookings Institution. In the months leading up to Obamacare implementation, the New York Times reported that premiums in New York State were expected to fall by an average of at least 50%.

The Brookings analysis concluded that even after three years of rate hikes, individual coverage is cheaper today than it would be if the pre-Obamacare market were still in effect.

And the new policies are substantially more generous. Brookings calculated that they cover about 17% more of a typical enrollee's health costs than policies issued prior to the law.

That's assuming a consumer could even find coverage before Obamacare took effect. Insurance companies were allowed to turn down anyone who had a current or prior health problem, a practice that the law has outlawed.

The law also gives consumers several other important new guarantees. Insurance companies may not rescind a policy once the first claim is filed, there are no annual or lifetime caps on benefits, all policies must include a number of essential benefits such as preventive care with no cost-sharing, annual out-of-pocket costs are capped, and premium hikes for older enrollees are limited.

For those who bought these skimpier policies at higher prices, there were no subsidies to help with the cost. Obamacare provides financial assistance to most of those who buy policies on the exchanges, which brings down the actual cost of coverage even more.

And it was no easy task finding coverage. There were no online exchanges with one-stop shopping. Consumers had to survey each insurance company separately, compare polices with widely different benefit structures, submit an application with detailed questions about health history, and hope it would be approved.

Often, it wasn't. An analysis by AARP in 2012 found that for those age 50 to 64, more than one in five applications were rejected.

Forbes magazine in 2012 called the process of looking for individual health insurance a "maze" and a "crapshoot" that posed a "roadblock" for people hoping to go out on their own and start a new business.

Recent Obamacare price hikes do not pose the real threat to affordable health insurance for individuals. The more serious threat comes from efforts of the law's opponents to repeal the law or substantially scale it back.

That would bring us back to the pre-Obamacare days, when individual coverage was more expensive and limited, even for those who were lucky enough to find it.


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