(Reuters) - For Americans who are able to check out new insurance plans launched under President Barack Obama's healthcare reform, the price differences from state to state may be surprising.
Residents of Minnesota, a Democratic-led state, are likely to pay the lowest monthly premiums in the country. Just two states away, some residents of Republican-dominated Wyoming might be surprised to find they will pay among the highest.
But the ideological debate between Obamacare's supporters and opponents seems to have had little relevance when it comes to the affordability of care, the main goal of the Democratic president's signature program, health economists and actuaries say.
Instead, they point to regional differences in medical costs, the relative health and age of local populations and competition among insurers as having greater influence over the monthly premiums. Those differences lead to a wide variance in prices between states, and even within states.
Of the 24 states that fall below a national average of $328 in monthly premiums, laid out in a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services analysis last month, at least half are dominated by Republican state governments.
The affordability of the plans will likely determine whether enough uninsured Americans, particularly young and healthy ones, sign up to make the program successful.
The new insurance plans became available for enrollment nationwide on October 1. But technical problems with the federal government's Healthcare.gov website serving 36 states have blocked millions of people from accessing the information.
In Wyoming, the cheapest mid-tier plan, or "silver" plan, costs $307 for a 27-year old in Laramie County, one of the state's only two counties considered "urban" and where the state capital Cheyenne is located. It has 60,000 residents with an average age of 37 years old. Venture outside those two counties and prices rise by $25. Change to the one other insurer offering a plan, and prices climb $100.
In Minnesota, a 27-year old in Minneapolis could pay $126 for a silver plan. Its population is 393,000, and the median age is 34. Go out to Traverse County, with the oldest population in the state, and that starting price rises to $153. In Minnesota, residents can choose from four insurers.
"It seems that basically the eligible populations in those areas, and the relative negotiating power of providers and insurance plans seem to really be the driver" of prices, said Matthew Buettgens, a mathematician at the Urban Institute, a social and economic research, "not necessarily politics."
Maryland, a staunchly Democratic state with an active insurance department, emphasized its ability to reduce premium rates by about 30 percent overall on the new products. But the average price on its mid-tier "silver" insurance plan is $299, only $6 less than in Republican-led Texas, whose leaders have been at the forefront of an effort to kill the healthcare law, culminating in a federal government shutdown.
Even within a state, there are variations. In Georgia, a 100-mile difference can mean hundreds of dollars in the monthly cost. Monthly premiums in rural regions cost much more than in more populated areas.
According to the data on the federal Healthcare.gov website, the cheapest "silver" plans in the state are in the counties surrounding Atlanta - about $185 a month - where five insurers sell plans. The most expensive are in Georgia's southwest corner, where only Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield (part of WellPoint Inc) sells Obamacare plans at a minimum of $200 a month higher for a comparable plan.