Uninsured have until March 31 to sign up for Obamacare

by W. Winston Skinner

Cowetans who have signed up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act may want to check with their insurer to be certain their coverage is in place.

Online signup for the coverage - which is offered by private insurance companies through a government-run website - began Oct. 1. The signup process has been plagued with major problems - most related to moving through the steps within the website.

According to the Associated Press, experts are recommending people who have signed up call their insurance companies to make sure the company has received the initial payment and that the individual is actually insured.

The historic changes made by the Affordable Care Act take full effect today. People with chronic health conditions can no longer be denied health insurance. Those who get sick and start piling up medical bills will no longer lose their coverage. Out-of-pocket limits designed to protect patients from going bankrupt are also part of the ACA.

'But unless the one million Americans who have so far enrolled for coverage via the new marketplaces make sure their applications have arrived at their new insurance companies without errors, some may find they're still uninsured when they try to refill a prescription or make a doctor's appointment,' according to Carla K. Johnson, a medical writer with the Associated Press.

People who missed the Dec. 24 deadline to sign up for coverage starting today may still use the website - www.healthcare. gov - to sign up. 'You may be without health insurance for a month, but you can still sign up for coverage that will start in February,' Johnson advised.

The website offers information on plans and a link to help applicants determine if they are eligible for a subsidy. Applicants may use the website, or they can call 1-800-318-2596.

There are experts - called navigators - who can help an applicant, too. In Coweta County, Nykita Scott is an exchange navigator assigned to the county by the University of Georgia Extension Service. Scott's office at the Coweta County Extension Office, 255 Pine Rd. south of Newnan. She can be reached at 770-254-2620.

'The enrollment files have been getting better and more accurate, but there is still work that needs to be done,' Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, a trade group that represents the private insurance industry, told AP. 'The health plans are still having to go back and fix some of data errors coming through in these files.'

If everything went smoothly, consumers can expect to see a welcome packet arrive in the mail from their insurance company, Zirkelbach said. If not, a phone call to the insurer might clear things up.

'If a consumer signed up yesterday, they shouldn't expect the health plan to have their enrollment application today,' Zirkelbach said. 'Allow a couple of days to receive and process those enrollments.'

Paying the first premium is crucial. Because of the changing deadlines for enrollment, most insurers have agreed to allow payments through Jan. 10 and will make coverage retroactive to Jan. 1, he told the wire service.

Unless an individual qualifies for Medicaid, there will be a monthly 'premium' fee to an insurance company for coverage. Before the company covers actual medical costs, the person may have to pay a certain amount - a deductible - in addition to a possible set fee for a doctor visit - copay - or a percentage of the cost of a medical service - coinsurance.

Federal tax credits are aimed at helping 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.

'The next significant deadl ine isn't for a few more months,' according to Johnson. 'If you don't have coverage by March 31, you'll pay a tax penalty next year of $95 or 1 percent of your income, whichever is higher.'

Ron Pollack, president of Families USA, a liberal advocacy group that has led efforts to get uninsured people signed up for coverage next year, said that's the deadline that matters most.

'The real significant deadline is March 31,' Pollack told AP. 'The enrollment period extends for another three months.'



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