A funny thing happened on the way to health care reform: Insurance companies began to compete with each other, right out in the open.
A comparison of premiums that health insurers propose to begin charging next year went online last week. Not surprisingly, prices varied, even for identical plans.
More surprisingly, the differences were sometimes substantial. For example, one company listed a monthly premium of $169 for an individual policy to cover a 40-year-old nonsmoker in the Medford area. Another company's quote was $419 for the same plan.
You can see the proposed rates at www.oregonhealthrates.org/files/medford_individual.pdf. Keep in mind that these are only the first proposals. The rates have not been approved by the state, and won't be available for real comparison shopping until October.
What's more, depending on your income, you may be eligible for a tax credit to cover some of the cost. You can find out whether you are eligible by using the online calculator at /coveroregon.com/calculators.php.
Here's where the funny thing comes in. No sooner had the rates gone up on the Oregon Insurance Division website than two companies asked for a do-over.
Providence Health Plan asked to lower its rates by 15 percent. A spokesman for Family Care Health Plans, whose rates turned out to be the highest posted, said the company would ask to lower its rates even further, according to The Associated Press.
Does this sound like a government takeover of the private marketplace? Hardly. It sounds like competition.
Does it sound like "socialized medicine?" Not exactly. Private insurers are still providing coverage, and care will be delivered by the same doctors and hospitals who are providing it now, not by the government.
The state will approve proposed rates in July. In October, the full CoverOregon website will go live. Coverage begins in January 2014.
There are bound to be bumps in the road as the new system gets put together. Initially, some people will likely pay more for coverage, because companies are not allowed to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. In the long run, costs should come down because nearly everyone will be covered — and because companies will compete on price.
But one thing is clear: Real comparison shopping, which has been nearly impossible in the past because policies varied so widely, will become much easier, because companies are required to offer the same three basic plans, labeled bronze, silver and gold to reflect how much they pay — and how much they cost.
A great many details remain to be worked out between now and next January. But the fact that companies already are jockeying for position on the list of proposed premiums is a positive sign.