Consumers have till Dec. 15 to sign up for health care markets


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Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2013, 12:10 am
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Having health insurance used to hinge on where you worked and what your medical history said. Now, that doesn't matter, since open-access markets for subsidized coverage started Oct. 1 under President Barack Obama's overhaul.

But there's a new wild card, something that didn't seem so critical when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act back in 2010: where you live.

Entrenched political divisions over "Obamacare," have driven most Republican-led states to turn their backs on the biggest expansion of the social safety net in a half century. If you're uninsured in a state that's opposed, you may not get much help picking the right private health plan for your budget and your family's needs.

The differences is more glaring if you're poor and your state rejected the law's Medicaid expansion. Unless leaders reverse course, odds are you'll remain uninsured. That's because people below the poverty line do not qualify for subsidies to buy coverage in the markets.

"We are going to have a new environment where consumers may be victims of geography," said Sam Karp of the California HealthCare Foundation, a nonprofit helping states tackle practical problems of implementation. "If I'm a low-wage earner in California, I may qualify for Medicaid. With the exact same income in Texas, I may not qualify."

The health care law is finally leaving the drawing boards to become a real program with citizens participating. But in many parts of the country, the decisions of Republicans opposed to the law will trump the plans of Democrats who wrote it.

Still, there is a new bottom line. Health insurance marketplaces in every state will provide options for millions of people who don't have job-based coverage, who can't afford their own plan or have a health problem that would get them turned down. The feds will run the markets in states that refused to do so.

The coverage won't be free, even after sliding-scale subsidies keyed to your income.

That's significant because starting next year most Americans also will have a legal obligation to get covered or face fines. Some people who now purchase bare-bones individual plans will complain the new ones cost too much. Others, in good health, may resent the government telling them to purchase insurance they don't think they need.

Nonetheless, the number of uninsured people is expected to drop markedly, bringing the United States closer to other economically advanced countries that guarantee coverage.

The combination of subsidized private insurance through the new markets, plus expanded Medicaid in states accepting it, could reduce the number of uninsured by one-fourth or more next year. Current estimates of the uninsured range from around 49 million to well over 50 million.

As Americans get more familiar with the law — and if more states accept the Medicaid expansion — millions more should gain coverage. Many of the remaining uninsured will be people living in the country illegally. They are not entitled to benefits.

In Texas, Republican Gov. Rick Perry has vowed not to facilitate "Obamacare." But Cecilia Fontenot of Houston is looking forward to the opening of that state's federally run insurance market.

A part-time accountant in her early 60s, Fontenot is uninsured and trying to stay healthy while coping with diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. She walks twice a day, early in the morning before it gets hot, and in the evenings.

Also on her mind is a breast lump detected about a year ago. Her doctor recommended a digital mammogram, but she has not been able to afford the more involved test.

"I try not to worry and just pray on it," said Fontenot.

Because of her pre-existing conditions, Fontenot would have a tough time finding affordable individual coverage today. But starting Jan. 1, insurers will no longer be able to turn away people with health problems or charge them more.

And the government will provide sliding-scale tax credits that can make premiums more affordable for households earning between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty line. That's $11,490 to $45,960 for an individual, $23,550 to $94,200 for a family of four.

People on the low end of the income scale get more help, as will older people, whose premiums are higher.

Like Fontenot, many of the people who began accessing the markets Oct. 1 have health problems. It's where the greatest need is.

But two other groups are critical to the program's success: Healthy uninsured people, many of them in their 20s and 30s, and insured people who will switch over from existing individual policies.

Healthy individuals are needed to help pay for the sick.

And with instant feedback via social media, reviews by people switching from existing individual plans could define early consumer sentiment.

Some of those transitioning will be looking for better deals. Others will be there because their insurers canceled policies that didn't meet the law's minimum standards, and they may be upset.

Consumers have until Dec. 15 to sign up if they want coverage by Jan. 1. And they have until March 31 if they want to avoid penalties for 2014. Fines start as low as $95 the first year but escalate thereafter.

Procrastinate beyond March 31, and they have to wait until the next open enrollment period in Oct. 2014, unless there is a life-changing event like job loss, divorce or the birth of a child.

Three key things to watch for are premiums, choice and the consumer shopping experience.

Premiums so far are averaging lower than what government experts estimated when Congress was debating the law. That's important for policy types, but it may not mean much to consumers. Current low-cost individual market policies are difficult to compare with the new plans, which offer better financial protection and broader benefits.

Plan choices seem adequate, but networks of hospitals and doctors may be tightly restricted to keep premiums low.

The biggest unknown is how consumers will feel about the whole experience. Many will be unfamiliar with health insurance basics, and applying for subsidies may feel like plodding through tax forms.

Still, after years of polemic debate and a Supreme Court decision — and even as congressional Republicans keep trying to repeal it — "Obamacare" will finally be in the hands of American consumers.















 




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