Obamacare Enrollees Are Surprisingly Smart Shoppers

HHS says it's encouraged by the number of consumers who switched plans.

More than 1 million Obamacare enrollees switched plans this year—a trend the Obama administration believes will help keep premiums low.

Before the 2015 open-enrollment period, which ended last month, it was an open question whether consumers who signed up in 2014 would come back to the exchanges and shop around for a better deal.

If they didn't, they were at risk for particularly large premium increases, because of quirks in the way the law's insurance subsidies are calculated. The Health and Human Services Department strongly encouraged returning consumers to shop around this year. Just reentering the system, with updated personal information, could shield some enrollees from premium hikes, even if they didn't decide to switch plans.

That message got through, apparently. HHS officials said Tuesday they're pleased with the number of people who shopped for a better deal this year.

Roughly 4.2 million people who were covered in 2014 reenrolled or automatically renewed their coverage for 2015, according to HHS. About half of them—2.2 million people—were "active reenrollees," meaning they went back into the system and compared their new options. And about half of those consumers—1.2 million—ended up switching plans.

Kevin Griffis, HHS's acting assistant secretary for public affairs, said the rate of plan-switching was better than HHS had expected and higher than the rates for Medicare Part D.

Consumers' engagement will also send a message to insurance companies, he said, that "it's critical to compete on price" on the law's insurance exchanges.

Just selling a product in the marketplaces won't be good enough, Griffis said, when consumers are actively attuned to the possibility of a better deal.