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Get excited, nerds: Healthcare.gov 2018 data is out

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Earlier today, the Trump administration opened Healthcare.gov up for window shopping — letting Obamacare enrollees get their first peek at how much insurance will cost in 2018.

This is pretty much like Christmas for health wonks. I'm not kidding.

Healthcare.gov can now preview insurance options and prices for the 34 states that rely on the federal marketplace. (The other 16 states and the District of Columbia run their own marketplaces and are making this data available on slightly different timelines.)

I called up David Anderson at Duke University, who spent his morning combing through the data, to get his early take.

The first thing that stood out to him was that this data was actually public a week before the open enrollment period starts. That wasn't a given. The federal government is not required to post this data in advance — and given this administration's stance toward the Affordable Care Act, it seemed possible that these prices might not come out until the day open enrollment began. So it's notable that the data ended up coming out a week in advance.

The second thing that jumped out at Anderson is how Healthcare.gov displays the data. Plans are organized by price — not by their metal tier of bronze, silver, gold, and so on.

This might sound like a wonky, small difference but it actually is pretty significant. Usually, the higher metal tier plans are more expensive than the lower-tier plans (which offer less robust coverage). Bronze is typically cheaper than silver, silver is cheaper than gold, and so on.

At least, this is how things usually work — but this year is different. After the Trump administration cut off key Obamacare subsidies, many health insurers made up the difference by jacking up premiums just on their silver plans. (They did this for good but detailed reasons that you can learn more about here.)

This means that, in 2018, the gold plans will often be cheaper than the silver ones. So Anderson was reassured when he saw that the plans are listed by price, meaning that the cheaper options (this year, sometimes gold plans) won't get buried.

"This is how I was hoping to see it displayed," Anderson says. "It should help a lot of people who are in those places and buying coverage."

Obamacare advocates even noticed this decision — and applauded it. This includes Lori Lodes, who helped implement the Affordable Care Act under President Barack Obama.

In other words, Healthcare.gov seems to be doing things right: releasing data early and putting the most affordable plans where shoppers are likely to see them. It's an encouraging sign from an administration that, so far, hasn't taken kindly to the Affordable Care Act.

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