TRENTON -- New Jersey consumers seeking health care coverage through the Affordable Care Act can choose from more plans now than they could a year ago, possibly resulting in less expensive options, an Obama administration official told a state Senate panel Monday.
"We're optimistic that with more plans there will be more competition and therefore more affordable options," Jackie Cornell-Bechelli, a regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told the panel.
Her testimony to a Senate task force on the federal health insurance marketplace came as the second round of enrollment for the health law continues.
Consumers have until Feb. 15 to gain coverage or renew their plans for 2015.
About 160,000 New Jersey residents signed up for coverage through the marketplace, also known as an exchange, between October 2013 and April 2014, Cornell-Bechelli said. (More have also gained coverage through Medicaid, which New Jersey expanded under the law.)
During that first round of enrollment, New Jersey residents had access to some 30 plans offered by three issuers, Cornell-Bechelli said.
Now consumers can choose from 50 plans provided by five issuers, she said. Some plans offered last year have been cancelled, she said, so consumers should log on to HealthCare.gov to see what's available.
An Inquirer analysis last month showed that some plans in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania have become more expensive. However, the premium hikes are smaller than in years past.
State Sen. Fred Madden (D., Gloucester) said an owner of a furniture store in his district had decided a couple months ago to drop coverage obtained through the marketplace after his family's monthly premium increased by $400 to $1,500.
Their deductible was higher too, Madden said. "What do I say to someone like that?" he asked Cornell-Bechelli.
She said the new plans being offered in the current enrollment period, which began in mid-November, may be cheaper.
Daryn Iwicki, state director of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, said after the hearing that the "Affordable Care Act is becoming more and more unaffordable."
A new wrinkle to the health law could come next year, when the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to review a lawsuit that says consumers in states that didn't set up their own exchanges shouldn't be eligible for federal subsidies.
The Obama administration says those tax subsidies are key to the law's success by making health-care more affordable.
Gov. Christie, a Republican, vetoed a bill in 2012 that would have set up a state-run exchange, saying he couldn't be assured the federal government would provide money for the subsidies, among other reasons.
Should the Supreme Court side with the plaintiffs, State Sen. Nia Gill (D., Essex) said she would introduce legislation to set up a state-based exchange so "we are not exposing hundreds of thousands of people in our community to being denied subsidies."