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WASHINGTON - Individuals buying health insurance on their own in New York State next year will see their premiums cut by more than half, New York State said today as it unveiled that insurers will offer individual and small business plans in the state’s new Health Benefits Exchange.

With the federal health reform law set to require that individuals have health insurance or pay a penalty starting next year, state officials touted the dramatic cut in premiums as proof that the much-criticized “individual mandate” will work to the benefit of many state residents.

“New York’s Health Benefits Exchange will offer the type of real competition that helps drive down health insurance costs for consumers and businesses,” said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. “The opportunity to choose among affordable, quality health insurance options will mean improved health outcomes, stronger economic security, and better peace of mind for New York families.”

The state’s Health Benefits Exchange, created under “Obamacare,” is an organized marketplace where New Yorkers who do not get health insurance through their employers can comparison-shop for policies on their own. Businesses will also be able to use the exchanges to select policies for their employees.

Whereas insurance shoppers previously had to choose among 15,000 plans that were offered in the state, the exchange organizes the available plans into four categories-- bronze, silver, gold and platinum - based on the level of benefits offered. The plans within each category will have standardized contract terms and product offerings to make it easier for consumers and businesses to comparison-shop for policies, the state said.

The state Department of Financial Services approved the health insurance rates for the 17 insurers that will offer coverage through the exchange.

“In setting these rates, we worked hard to do right by consumers and small businesses so they have access to affordable, quality health insurance,” said Benjamin M. Lawsky, superintendent of financial services for the state. “Moreover, where New York previously had a dizzying array of thousands upon thousands of plans, small businesses will now be able to truly comparison shop for the best prices.”

As a result, the price of insurance for those buying it on their own in the state will fall 53 percent as the individual mandate takes effect - and the state said that doesn’t take into account the federal subsidies that will drive costs even lower for many individuals.

Rates are able to fall not only because of the competition created by the easy comparison shopping available through the exchange, but also because vast numbers of New Yorkers who did not have health insurance before are now expected to buy it, the state said.

“The state continues to be on target to begin enrolling consumers and small business owners and their employees in health insurance coverage on October 1, 2013,” said New York State Health Commissioner Nirav R. Shah. “Access to affordable, quality health care will mean better health, peace of mind and financial security for New Yorkers.”

Oct. 1 is the date when individuals and small businesses will be able to start enrolling in health plans through the exchanges for coverage that starts on Jan. 1, 2014.

HealthNow New York - the parent of BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York - is offering health plans through the New York exchange, as is Independent Health. Out-of-town insurers offering plans include Aetna, Excellus and United Health Care.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com