Open enrollment for individual health insurance starts Tuesday — and local shoppers are already bracing for rate hikes.
Florida won't be immune from the increases that made national headlines this week. Premiums for plans offered on and off the Affordable Care Act exchanges will rise by an average of 19 percent statewide, according to the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.
Still, advocates insist the plans will be economical. A study released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found 84 percent of Florida consumers will be able to purchase a plan with monthly premiums of $100 or less.
"It is reasonable and manageable for most families," said Melanie Hall, executive director of the Family Healthcare Foundation, which will be working to enroll people across the Tampa Bay region.
Hall noted that local consumers will have dozens of choices, including some new offerings that may be less expensive than their current plans.
This year's open enrollment period — the fourth since the marketplace made its debut in 2013 — runs through Jan. 31. The deadline for coverage that starts Jan. 1 is Dec. 15.
Consumers who had coverage in 2016 and miss the deadline may be automatically re-enrolled in their plans. But health officials urge all individuals and families to shop around.
As in past years, the plans fall into four categories: bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Consumers who choose bronze plans will pay the lowest monthly premiums, but the most for care. Consumers with platinum plans will have the highest monthly premiums, but the lowest cost of care.
Like last year, individuals who can afford health insurance but choose not to buy it will face stiff penalties. This year, the fine starts at $695 for an adult and increases based on income.
Federal health officials expect 13.8 million individuals to enroll in marketplace plans — an increase from the 12.7 million consumers who selected plans at the end of last year's signup season.
Florida will likely be one of the top states for enrollment. As of March, more than 1.5 million Floridians had purchased marketplace coverage. Of that total, more than 1.4 million received subsidies to help offset the premiums, according to the Health Department.
Others still may be eligible. A recent report from the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that 614,000 uninsured Floridians could qualify for subsidies in 2017.
The rate hikes have drawn considerable attention, especially on the campaign trail. This week, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said President Obama's signature health law was "blowing up."
But experts say the increases were expected. They blame rising health care costs and the fact that more sick people signed up for coverage than expected.
Cynthia Cox, associate director at Kaiser, said some insurers had set their prices too low in previous years and had to make corrections. What's more, the federal government is phasing out payments to help insurance companies adjust to the marketplace in the early years of Obamacare.
This year's signup season will be key, Cox said.
"How consumers respond to these changes in premiums and insurer participation could determine whether this is a one-time market correction or whether this is a longer problem," she said. "If we see enrollment numbers fall, that could be a sign of challenges ahead for this market. If enrollment grows or holds steady, that will be a sign of stability."
Advocates hope the latter will hold true.
Starting next week, health care navigators will be seeking out new enrollees. They also will be assisting consumers who purchased marketplace plans in previous years.
Leah Barber-Heinz, the Florida spokeswoman for the nonprofit Enroll America, said consumers should not have to pay for assistance. "Free help is available," she said.
It should be plentiful in Tampa Bay.
On Thursday, the Obama administration identified Tampa as one of 15 "target markets," meaning federal health officials will help promote enrollment in the city. They plan to team up with Mayor Bob Buckhorn's office.
Additionally, the Family Healthcare Foundation is spearheading an effort called Covering Tampa Bay to connect consumers with navigators. The website coveringtampabay.org provides a map of navigators throughout the region, as well as instructions for setting up a private appointment.
Hall, the executive director, says local families should take advantage of the help.
"That one-on-one assistance can make sure people enroll in coverage that they can use and that meets their needs," she said.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.