Obamacare Exchanges Explained

New federal health insurance exchanges, the main component of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare,) are planned to launch tomorrow, Tuesday Oct. 1. While the policy has been a hot topic since its passage in 2010, how much do you know about the exchanges and how to enroll?

“On Tuesday, about 40 million more Americans will be able to finally buy quality, affordable health care, just like anybody else,” Obama said on Friday. The new health insurance exchanges, he said, “will be open for business on Tuesday no matter what — even if there’s a government shutdown. That’s a done deal.”

These healthcare exchanges are the first big step in Obamacare’s efforts. They are, in effect, online marketplaces where Americans can enter their information to search and compare health care options in their states. Also, by opting into the system, some consumers can become eligible for subsidies to help pay for the cost of  health insurance – depending on their income. The idea behind is that care becomes more affordable when more Americans are in the marketplace and can shop fairly. So, like Expedia.com for travel or Hotels.com for lodging, the exchanges are designed to be a one-stop shop to apply for health coverage, compare options, and enroll in a plan.

Again, the enrollment period begins October 1 and runs through March 31 but plans bought through the exchanges won’t start until January 1. Now, according to the law, by 2014 every American will have to have some form of health insurance or be fined. Those covered by their employers, Medicare or Medicaid aren’t obligated to do anything. But, for everyone else, Obamacare’s exchanges are the first step to getting covered.

While Obamacare is a pretty complicated law, it’s fairly simple to enroll. Here are the four steps:

1. Create an account – Begin by visiting Healthcare.gov to set up an account. You’ll be asked to provide some pretty basic information for the site. Then, choose a user name, password and set security questions. Your account will be ready to go.

2. Apply for Marketplace coverage – Next, you’ll begin applying for coverage by entering some information about you and your family (those you want covered.) To determine the plans that fits you and  your eligibility for a subsidy, you’ll  need to provide  your income, household size, and other information.

3. Pick a plan – Using that, the exchange will pull up all the health insurance plans and programs you’re eligible for and compare them side-by-side. You’ll also find out if you ‘re eligible for a subsidy and exactly how much.

4. Enroll – Finally, you enroll when you have a plan that best fits your needs. Coverage will start as soon as January 1, 2014.

If you need help with your application, you can visit LocalHelp.HealthCare.gov to find a trained specialist in your area. The government has also put together an informational site that’s pretty easy to navigate at healthcare.gov. It lists some of the most common questions about the process and has tons of graphics, calculators and other tools to show how it all works.

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