UPDATE: HHS unveiled a newly redesigned healthcare.gov today, which lets users learn more about enrolling in health insurance plans through online insurance marketplaces beginning October 1st. I tried it out. The web site leads you through a series of questions and presents you with your likely options for coverage and whatever financial assistance might be available to help you pay for that coverage. It also creates a customized "checklist" to help you prepare for enrollment, which includes a list of documents you'll need to gather.
Rhode Island's health benefits exchange
In less than 100 days, Rhode Island's online marketplace for health insurance will go live. And, by the way, I expect announcements about its new name and plans to promote it sometime very soon. If you don't currently have health insurance, you'll want to head for the exchange beginning October 1st to shop for a plan. The "individual mandate" requirement of the Affordable Care Act goes into effect January 2014. That means you have to prove you have health insurance - by sending documentation to the IRS when you pay your taxes - or pay a penalty. That penalty doesn't seem like much now, but it will grow over the next few years.
If you already have health insurance, that's great. But depending on when your coverage renews and who provides it, you might want to get familiar with the exchange, too. People in the following groups will want to pay close attention to the exchange:
There's a budget proposal making its way through the General Assembly now that would send about 6500 Rhode Islanders who currently receive health insurance through RIte Care, Rhode Island's managed Medicaid program, to the exchange. Some advocacy organizations are worried about this proposal because it would mean that people (most of whom are very low income) who pay nothing for their health care right now would suddenly be responsible for up to $2000 dollars a year in out-of-pocket medical costs, as well as higher monthly premiums.
Some small employers may opt to send employees to the exchange to buy their own plans, rather than offering a few plans chosen by the employer. In Rhode Island, small businesses will have their own suite of choices on the exchange, by the way.
I'm not hearing lots of noise about small employers planning on dropping health care benefits altogether (for full time employees), but if that happens to you and you make a certain amount of the federal poverty line, you could be eligible for some federal assistance to buy your own plan on the exchange. For example, a family of four earning less than about $98,000 a year could be eligible for some help paying health insurance premiums.
The coming PR Blitz
Whatever your health insurance situation now, you'll probably be hearing lots about the exchange in the coming weeks as the federal government, state, and nonprofit organizations launch publicity campaigns targeting the uninsured (the primary audience, right now, for the exchanges). And behind the scenes, I know the state employees and consultants and nonprofits involved in readying the exchange will be working long hours to meet the deadline. I plan to cover some of those preparations. And I'd love to hear from you - questions about what the exchange will mean for you, or about the Affordable Care Act and its impact on you and Rhode Island? Post them in the comments section here, or email questions to our newsroom.