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The Affordable Care Act (ACA) popularly dubbed “Obamacare,” has left most consumers concerned about how to enroll, especially since the roll-out of the ACA website was fraught with technical glitches. When I logged on to the site for the first time on a Saturday in mid-November, I expected frustrating problems and delays. To my surprise the opposite happened. For me it was smooth sailing, despite the fact that I chose to log onto the ACA site on a weekend – which is supposed to be one of the busiest times for enrollment traffic on the website. Less than an hour later I was completely enrolled – after spending as much time as I needed using the site’s shopping and comparison tools to narrow down the best policy at the most attractive price.
One thing that helped in my case was that before venturing online I attended a free seminar about ACA enrollment that was sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). That federal agency is providing unbiased education and help for those who want it – through reputable nonpolitical organizations such as the well-respected Council on Aging. For me, that opportunity to ask questions and get some concrete information about the whole process was a big time saver and also helped me get a much better understanding of my consumer choices.
Let’s say, for example, that you want help figuring out what your options are under the new health care law. What companies now offer health insurance in your particular state? Who qualifies for subsidies from the federal government that can help directly pay for your health insurance so that you don’t have to shoulder the entire expense yourself? If you run a business of 50 or more employees, what are your choices? What about smaller businesses? Those are the kinds of important questions you can ask of persons trained and authorized to answer them on behalf of the DHHS. To me, and I suspect for tens of millions of other Americans who need to enroll over the next few weeks, that kind of guidance was extremely valuable.
Whoever you are and regardless of whether you support the ACA or consider yourself its most vocal and passionate critic, you may benefit from having someone walk you through the process. Knowledge is power, after all, particularly when you’re talking about knowledge of something as financially important as health insurance.
Authorized ACA Navigators
The good news is that there are people available to empower you in that way. Every state in the USA has people who have been specially trained and certified per government guidelines to help you understand your health coverage options and enroll in a plan.
Those include people in these key roles:
- ACA Navigators
- Application Assisters
- Certified Application Counselors
- Government agencies, such as State Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) Offices
To find help in your area, go to LocalHelp.HealthCare.gov where you can search by city and state or zip code to see a list of local organizations. You’ll find contact information, office hours, and a description of what types of help are offered, such as non-English language support, Medicaid or CHIP, and Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP). These organizations can assist you in finding the kind of help that works for you.
You can also do as I did and attend free seminars at places like your local public library, and if you want to you can make an appointment to receive counseling and help face-to-face and one-on-one from an authorized Health and Human Services sponsored ACA Navigator. Your own health insurance agent or broker can also help you with your application and explain your choices (but do keep in mind that they may have a vested interest in selling you particular products that their own company offers).
Warning: Don’t Type in the Wrong Web Address
Some consumers have complained that immediately after going to the health care website and providing basic information that they were inundated by annoying sales calls from insurance companies. What they didn’t realize is that they didn’t actually go to the government’s official ACA site. They typed in the wrong address and were misled and misdirected. If you make that mistake you may wind up on one of the dozens of sites with similar names that are operated by for-profit entities.
Just as there is one authorized site for checking your credit score, there is one and only one authorized and official ACA website. It is located at HealthCare.gov(not .com, .net, or some other variation). If you need help or additional resources, contact one of the followingcontact numbers and resources.
- If you have a question about enrollment you may call the National Healthcare Hotline at 800-318-2596. That connects you to the government’s health insurance marketplace where you can enroll as required by the ACA.
- If you do not want to do your enrollment online over the Internet, you can do it over the phone by calling that same toll-free number.
- If you want help scheduling an appointment with an ACA Navigator or a Certified Application Counselor, call your local chapter of the Council on Aging or contact the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
- To learn about the ACA Navigator program, you can read the description at the DHHS website.
Mark Your Calendar
If you want to change your existing insurance, you must not only make your decision and enroll by December 15th, but you must also make your first monthly premium payment by that date. The reason being for an up-front payment is because all health insurance policies are paid a month in advance. They’ve been structured that way for decades, long before anyone every talked about the Affordable Care Act.
Those who miss the initial December 15th deadline can still buy their insurance, but it won’t go in effect until the next monthly cycle. If you want to be prompt about getting started with your new insurance policy, mark down the December 15th deadline.
Be sure to allow enough time for your payment to reach the insurance company. Such prior planning is especially important if you are not paying online by credit card but are instead sending a check through the postal service. Payments made by mail can take longer to process. Plus delivery is almost always slower during the month of December because the holidays are the busiest time of year for the post office.
Under the Affordable Care Act program there are financial subsidies for individuals as well as families who meet certain income guidelines. There are also ways for businesses to reduce the health care costs that they pay for to insure employees.
When it comes to individual taxpayers and their families, there are many ways to be eligible for subsidies to pay for your health insurance premiums every month. You may also be able to receive subsidies to help pay your co-pay and deductible.
- The savings for self-employed people who are not covered through their employer can be especially significant if they are within the tax brackets that are eligible for federal subsidies.
- One of my neighbors, for example, falls into that tax bracket. He was able to keep the same insurance company (Blue Cross/Blue Shield) he has had for 30 years and also keep the same deductible and an essentially identical coverage plan while reducing his monthly payments by exactly 400%.
- Instead of paying $3,900 per year he will pay $780 per year. On top of that, he will receive an IRS tax deduction worth approximately $1,200.
That does not necessarily mean you’ll be so lucky, but it is certainly worth looking into by checking out the ACA marketplace options. Those who qualify for subsidies, incidentally, also have the choice to apply them directly to reducing their monthly insurance premiums or they can elect to take them as IRS tax credits. A third popular option is to do a combination of the two by reducing your insurance premiums and also getting a tax break. In the end, the choice of how to apply those subsidies is up to the consumer/taxpayer.
*The content in this article is accurate at the publishing date, and may be subject to changes per the card issuer.