Small businesses can now see how much health insurance might cost them through the upcoming Affordable Care Act health insurance exchange.

The Maine Bureau of Insurance on Friday released its comparison of small group rates proposed for the exchange, or marketplace. “Small group” is defined as 50 or fewer people.

For smokers, Maine Community Health Options in Lewiston is the cheapest choice in all counties, across all age groups and across the three levels of plans — basic, mid-level and premium.

MCHO’s rates range from $247 a month for a basic plan insuring a 30-year-old smoker in southern Maine to $1,047 a month for premium-level plan insuring a 60-year-old smoker from northern Maine. The same rates for Anthem range from $279 a month to $1,487 a month.

MCHO doesn’t factor smoking into its rate calculation, but Anthem does.

For nonsmokers, the cheapest plan largely depends on location and level of insurance. 

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Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield is the cheapest choice for almost all nonsmokers who want a basic plan. MCHO’s basic plan is cheaper only for nonsmokers who live in Penobscot, Piscataquis or Somerset counties, and then the difference between Anthem and MCHO is $14 or less per month.

For nonsmokers who want a mid- or premium-level plan, Anthem is the cheaper choice in Cumberland, Sagadahoc and York counties. MCHO is cheaper in the rest of the state. 

Overall, for both smokers and nonsmokers, the cost difference between Anthem and MCHO ranges from a few dollars a month to more than $450 a month.

Benefits, including annual deductibles, co-insurance requirements, co-pays and prescription costs, vary by plan.

Last month, the Maine Bureau of Insurance approved exchange plans from two insurance companies: MCHO, a new nonprofit insurance co-op based in Lewiston, and Anthem, the state’s largest health insurer. Anthem has partnered with MaineHealth, the state’s largest health-care organization, for its plans. One of Anthem’s plans — the one offered in central and southern Maine — has caused some controversy because it is a narrow network plan that strictly limits the doctors and hospitals patients can use.

About 91,000 Mainers currently are covered under small group plans. Small group insurance will still be offered off the exchange, so it is unclear how many businesses will use it. However, some small businesses may receive tax benefits by buying through the exchange.

The federal government still must approve the plans. Mainers can begin to purchase insurance from the exchange Oct. 1. The insurance will become effective Jan. 1, 2014.

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