Obamacare website's confusing prices

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Click on the map to see sample Obamacare premiums by state.

Browsing the Obamacare website to see how much health insurance coverage will cost in your area?

The prices you see won't tell you the whole story.

The plan browser on healthcare.gov was added a few weeks after the launch of the federal exchange, and was meant to help Americans shop after technical problems made it tough to log in. But the feature that allows visitors to see insurance plans without creating an account provides only limited information, and may lead users to think they will pay less than they actually will.

The browser is only meant to be a "preview" of plans and prices, according to Joanne Peters, spokeswoman with the Department of Health and Human Services.

"For consumers to see the actual premium they will pay, including potential tax credits, they must complete an application," she said.

This browser, however, may be the best consumers in the 36 states serviced by healthcare.gov have to go on. Multiple attempts to log into healthcare.gov were unsuccessful.

Here's what the browser won't tell you:

Your age-based premiums: One problem is that the plan browser is based on only two ages. And since premiums rise with age, it's likely many people will find pricier plans when they actually apply.

If a visitor is looking for coverage for himself, the browser feature only asks if he is younger than 50 or age 50 and older. For younger folks, it spits back prices for a 27-year-old. For older people, it provides premiums for someone age 50.

Unless you happen to be one of those ages, you're likely getting a lowball estimate of the actual rates, said Judy Solomon, vice president for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The difference in the rates from someone who is 27 versus someone who is 49, could amount to a hundred dollars a month or more.

In Montana, for instance, a 27-year-old Billings resident would pay $215 a month for a silver plan through Montana Health Co-Op, but a 49-year-old would have to fork over $357. Meanwhile, a 50-year-old would pay $374 a month for that plan, but a 64-year-old would have to shell out $629, according to the insurer's website.

"This is not what you should use to pick a plan," said Solomon. "Anyone who really want to know needs to get into the website and create an account."

Until this week, the site did not warn visitors of the age variance. It now has an initial information page that indicates prices vary by age.

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Why Obamacare insurance may cost more
Why Obamacare insurance may cost more

Your out-of-pocket costs: The healthcare.gov plan browser also provides very little information on the plans themselves, including information on deductibles, co-pays, covered services and doctor networks.

For example, users searching for bronze level plans in Atlanta see a list of 22 options that range from a Humana (HUM)plan for $166 a month to an Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield policy for $243.

Some plan names give hints about their coverage -- the Anthem (WLP) plan offers pediatric dental services, which may account for part of the price differential. And the Humana Connect Bronze 6300/6300 Plan likely has a $6,300 deductible.

Healthcare.gov suggests on the initial page that consumers call the insurance company to learn more about the plans.

Also, if visitors don't click on a link on the initial page to learn more about the five plan categories, they may not realize that catastrophic plans are only available to those under age 30 or have hardship exemptions.

Your subsidies: The plan browser makes it clear on every web page that consumers may be eligible for federal subsidies that will lower prices, but they must create an account to know whether they qualify.

The subsidies apply to people making less than 400% of the poverty line, and could reduce costs to zero for some consumers who pick bronze plans. Those eligible for government assistance will not pay more than 9.5% of their income for the second-lowest cost silver plan in their area.

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