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North Bay insurers join state's health exchange

Four of the North Bay's largest health insurance players will offer coverage through the state's new health exchange marketplace, Covered California, the agency announced Wednesday.

The four are Anthem Blue Cross of California, Blue Shield of California, Kaiser Permanente and Health Net. Western Health Advantage, a smaller regional plan that recently entered the North Bay market, has also inked a contract with the exchange.

"You've got the four carriers with the largest member penetration in Sonoma County on the list," said Jordan Shields, president of SSM Group, a benefits consulting and brokerage firm with offices in Santa Rosa and Novato.

Covered California, and similar exchanges in other states, is a key element of Obamacare. The state agency is charged with creating a marketplace where consumers, employers and brokers can shop for health insurance, comparing plans side by side based on cost and other features. Enrollment begins Oct. 1.

The government hopes exchanges will drive down the cost of health coverage by making insurers compete for business in a transparent marketplace.

Two large insurance companies chose not to participate in the exchange this year: United Healthcare and Aetna. Neither company has managed to grab a large presence in the North Bay, Shields said.

Covered California also announced Wednesday that it had signed contracts with six insurance companies that will participate in its Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP.

Of the six, Blue Shield of California, Health Net, Kaiser and Western Health Advantage will offer plans through SHOP.

Open enrollment for coverage in 2014 for individuals, families and small businesses begins in the first week of October and lasts until March 31, 2014.

The exchange said Wednesday the signed contracts resulted from months of competitive bidding and negotiations in the state's effort to put together a strong delivery system at affordable rates.

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