November 12, 2014 / 6:09 PM / 6 years ago may work better, but challenges loom for Obamacare customers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The technology glitches may be a thing of the past. But people shopping online for health insurance plans under U.S. President Barack Obama’s healthcare law may encounter a new set of problems early next year, one of them being unexpected new costs.

Julian Gomez (L) explains Obamacare to people at a health insurance enrolment event in Commerce, California March 31, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/Files, the federal website where people enroll for insurance under the Affordable Care Act, opens for sign-ups for policies covering 2015 this Saturday, the so-called open enrollment period.

The site launched for the first time a year ago but tech snafus made it virtually unuseable for weeks, giving plenty of ammunition for critics of the 2010 law that aimed to make healthcare more affordable for millions of Americans.

The website is now much improved, but many consumers may find themselves early in the new year beset by higher costs, unexpected demands for return of subsidies and double-billings.

Insurance industry officials, congressional aides and analysts say potential problems will mainly affect current Obamacare policyholders and could intensify public hostility toward the law, just as Republicans - long opposed to the law - take over as a majority in the U.S. Senate in January.

The Nov. 15-Feb. 15 open enrollment period allows qualified Americans to obtain private health coverage, often with federally subsidized premiums. Premiums overall appear stable, although some existing plans may rise in price and newer policies may offer consumers better terms.

But there is concern about how smoothly the administration will handle the some 5.9 million 2014 policyholders expected to re-enroll. Some experts say the challenge of re-enrolling millions while adding millions of newcomers could be behind this week’s sharp reduction in official enrollment forecasts for 2015.

An estimated 4.4 million people could opt simply to have their policies renewed automatically by Dec. 15, according to the consulting firm Avalere. But many of those could wind up with unexpectedly higher costs as insurers raise premiums on existing policies, experts say.

Even those who actively hunt for cheaper plans could still face issues. Some consumers who cancel existing coverage could initially be billed twice - once for each plan - because the government has no automated system for notifying insurers of such changes, said one insurance industry official, speaking on condition of anonymity.    

And policyholders who got subsidies to help pay for 2014 coverage could also be told to return some of that money, if their incomes rose later in the year and they did not notify the government.

Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Frances Kerry

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