Tennessee insurance exchange premiums well below national average

Narrow networks drop prices

Some of the nation's cheapest health insurance exchange premiums can be found in Tennessee, according to data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

At $180 per month for a mid-range silver plan selected by a 40-year-old, the greater Knoxville and Chattanooga areas made it on Kaiser Health News's "Ten Least Expensive Health Insurance Markets" list, as compared with the nationwide average of $259 per month. Comparatively, premiums in the country's most expensive regions came in above the $450 mark. And it's not just East Tennessee that scores well for affordability: Cheaper-than-average monthly premiums seem to be the norm across the state, coming in at $181 for the greater Nashville area and $186 in the Memphis region. Only three regions in the state have premiums topping $200.

According to Kaiser Health News, narrow networks could be behind the low prices.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Tennessee was able to offer the lowest silver premiums in the Knoxville and Chattanooga regions by cutting deals with just one hospital system and their doctors in each region, said Henry Smith, the insurer's chief marketing officer. "There are competing systems within those two regions to price against," Smith said. These lowest premium plans are the "narrowest network we have by far."

Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville and Memphis have access to the same lowest-cost silver plan, said Cynthia Cox, senior policy analyst with Kaiser Family Foundation, while consumers in other regions of the state are offered slightly more expensive plans, but wider networks.

"The two plans closely resemble each other except for their provider networks," Cox said. "Network E is the insurer's narrowest network with access to the fewest providers, whereas Network S is their mid-level network with access to more providers — though not their broadest network."

Kaiser Health compares the cheaper — and narrower — Tennessee networks to southwest Georgia, the second-most expensive region in the country, following only the mountain resort region of Colorado.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia had no choice but to include in its network the Phoebe Putney Health System, which controls 86 percent of the market. The lowest premium in southwest Georgia is $461, two and a half times the rate in Chattanooga.