Essentials: The “Need-to-Knows” About the New Individual Health Insurance Marketplace

NeedToKnowWith the on-set of healthcare reform, the landscape in the individual health insurance marketplace has changed dramatically. In this article, we’ll describe what you need to know in order to navigate the new individual segment of the health insurance industry.

Before we get to the good stuff, let’s review a very short background about the differences between individual health insurance and group health insurance. Briefly: if you know anything about the health insurance industry at all, you’ll know that these are two completely different ballgames when it comes to plan design. There are different rules. There are different tax incentives. There are different eligibility criteria. The list goes on. That’s a whole different article.

As an individual or business owner, you’ll want to know the ins-and-outs of both the individual and group health insurance marketplaces… but let’s emphasize that we’re looking at the individual segment only in this article. For certain small business owners, that’ll be most important anyways.

Here are the “essentials” of the new individual health insurance marketplace. This is what you need to know:

Guaranteed Issue Mandate

This is probably the biggest “game-changer” of them all. For years-upon-years, if you were going to apply for an individual health insurance plan, you had to go through a series of health-related questions in order to apply for coverage. There were 50, 60, and sometimes 70 or more questions. If you’ve applied for individual health insurance coverage before 2014, you know what this all about.

Starting in 2014, these health-related questions are all gone. You heard that right: outta’ here. It’s still difficult for many to comprehend. There are no more health-related questions on individual health insurance applications anymore. This is what is called “guaranteed issue” in the insurance world (big insurance word). All “guaranteed issue” means, is that if you apply for coverage, you have got to be accepted.

Q: How does this change the ballgame? A: You don’t need to have access to a group health insurance plan (employer plan) anymore to apply for coverage. This is huge (especially for those with preexisting conditions).

It can’t be emphasized enough how much this has freed-up individual choice in health insurance plans. You can literally pick any individual insurance plan from any company, and apply for coverage now. And it gets better for some of you: if you’re eligible for subsides at the new health insurance marketplaces (exchanges), you could see some massive subsidies that will help you pay for your premiums.

This all sounds fine and dandy, right? It is. But there are some important rules that need to be understood, and that leads us into our next important topics.

Open Enrollment Periods

In the past (before 2014), you could apply for an individual health insurance plan at anytime during the year. You could go out, you could pick a plan, you could apply for coverage. But… you might be denied coverage because of a preexisting condition (which you now know is against the law). So these days (2014 and beyond)… there’s now an “individual plan open enrollment period.”

Q: What’s an open enrollment period? A: It’s a time-frame when you can apply for health insurance coverage. If you’ve ever worked for an employer that has a company health insurance plan, you’ll know that you’ve usually got to apply for coverage (and make changes) during yearly enrollment. This is that exact same concept in the new individual health insurance marketplace. Except it’s a BIG enrollment: it’s the entire United States.

So, that being said, you’ve now got to apply during individual insurance open enrollment each year. This can be very important, because if you miss this enrollment period, you don’t get an opportunity to apply until the next Fall (unless you qualify for “special enrollment”… which we’ll cover soon). Need an appendectomy in the middle of the year? It’s too late.

The moral of the story: you want to make sure you know exactly when you can enroll in an individual health insurance plan: that’s during open enrollment each year. It’s a much different concept. And it’s important to note that open enrollment dates are the same for individual health insurance plans both on and off the new exchanges.

Special Enrollment Period

Now that you know what open enrollment is all about, the next thing that needs to be looked at is what is called a “special enrollment period.” A “special enrollment” is a time to enroll in the middle of the year (outside of the regular open enrollment described above), under specific circumstances.

Q: What are these “special enrollment” circumstances? A: They’re described as “life events” that can take place throughout the middle of the year. If you incur one of these “life events,” you’ll then be eligible to enroll in an individual health insurance plan outside of the regular open enrollment period. This is called a special enrollment.

Here are some examples of these “life events”:

  • You get married.
  • You get divorced.
  • You have a child.
  • You lose your coverage (changing jobs, etc).
  • You move out of the state where you currently get your health insurance.
  • You become a legal citizen or national.
  • … plus others.

You’ll want to make sure that you understand these qualifying “life events” if you ever need to utilize the “special enrollment period.” Additionally important: most events give you 60 days to enroll in a new plan from the time the “life event” takes place. However, a few of these events only give you 30 days. Make sure you know which event applies to you, and how much time you have.

Now that we know all about guaranteed issue, open enrollment, and special open enrollment… we want to take a brief last look at a few of the basic important concepts of the new individual health insurance marketplace. They are:

  1. Shared Responsibility
  2. Minimum Essential Coverage
  3. Essential Health Benefits

Shared Responsibility

Shared responsibility” is a technical term that has been coined in the healthcare reform law. All it means is that everybody has got to be “in” in order to make these new reforms work: the federal government, state governments, employers, and individuals. The “shared responsibility” provision applies to most individuals (there are a few exceptions) of all ages, including children. Almost everybody has got to have a health insurance plan from somewhere.

Minimum Essential Coverage

Minimum essential coverage” is the type of coverage that you have got to have in place in order to satisfy the requirements of the Affordable Care Act (healthcare reform). In other words, there is a standard of coverage that has to be met in order to meet responsibilities required under the Act. If you don’t want to pay the tax penalties, you’ve got to have this “minimum essential coverage.” There are health plans that are called “limited benefit plans” that do not meet the criteria of “minimum essential coverage.” In an instance where you only have a “limited benefit plan” in place, you’d be paying premiums for this plan that doesn’t conform, and then would also end up having to pay the tax penalty.

Additionally, if you’re one of those people that saw your rates go up in your individual health insurance plan over the past year (or even saw it cancelled), this is one of the reasons why. They’ve “raised the bar” on the required benefits in health plans (for additional info, read about the “metallic levels of coverage“). For this reason, rates have gone up. If you’re a higher earner that is not receiving a subsidy at a health insurance exchange, this can be burdensome.

Essential Health Benefits

These are certain new benefits “essential health benefits” that are mandated in the new “minimum essential coverage” plans described above. There is a series of them 10 of them. Count ‘em:

  1. Outpatient Care.
  2. Trips to the emergency room.
  3. Treatment for inpatient care in a hospital.
  4. Care before and after your baby is born.
  5. Mental health and substance abuse services.
  6. Prescription drug coverage.
  7. Services to help you recover if you’re injured or disabled: physical therapy, etc.
  8. Lab testing.
  9. Preventive services like counseling, vaccines, and screenings.
  10. Pediatric services which includes dental care.

Even though you may or may-not need some of these services, these benefits are now still required in all plans marketed in the individual health insurance marketplace. This is another reason that individual insurance premiums have gotten more expensive, and in certain cases, cancelled altogether. If you’re not getting any help with subsidies at the exchange, this can again be a “problem area.”

That’s it. Those are the basics of the new individual insurance marketplace. These are all of the “need-to-knows” so that you can begin to navigate this segment of the health insurance industry.

Additionally, you can coordinate various strategies within the new individual marketplace, so that you can put together a health benefits program for your small business that is affordable, and that your employees will appreciate.

Thanks for stopping by, we hope you found our information to be valuable. Check back at our blog to get further information about funding healthcare. Also, please share with your friends, clients, colleagues, and family. Here are a few of our other information outlets:

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Tip Sheet: Exchange Open Enrollment

The first half of 2013 open enrollment is complete. It’s official: the new state and federal health insurance exchanges have opened up across the country. We’re now in the very beginning of the implementation of healthcare reform’s major provisions.

Over the past two and a half months, a lot has taken place. Some things not so good (you might even say bad). And some things good (in certain cases, really-really good).

For example, maybe you’re one of those people that found very affordable coverage at the exchange, and you’re thrilled. Or… maybe you’re someone who isn’t getting much financial help via the subsidies, and now you’re looking for a way to find coverage for yourself or your family that won’t break the bank. You could also be a person with a preexisting condition that finally got their much-needed coverage. Or… maybe you found out that you can’t keep that health insurance plan you liked.

Every person’s case is different, and we’ve made it through the first-half with you. We’ve helped people enroll in the new exchange. We’ve also helped people navigate plans outside of the exchange.

With the second half of exchange open-enrollment coming up, we’ve put together a tip sheet for you, based on what we’ve seen so far. No politics. No opinions. Just facts. Here’s the latest:

  1. There really are some outstanding options at the new exchange for certain people. For example, if you make between ~$16,000 and ~$28,000 per year individually, there is a good chance you might really like your plan and premium at the exchange. People in this range also qualify for what are called cost-sharing reductions (in addition to premium subsidies). If you’re making between ~$16,000 to ~$28,000 per year, take a good look at the exchange. Additionally, those people making up to ~$44,000 per year may also qualify for subsidies.
  2. It’s true: you can’t be denied coverage for having a preexisting condition. Some people are still having a difficult time coming to terms with this concept. If you have a preexisting condition, apply for a plan inside or outside of the exchange: you cannot be denied at either place.
  3. Dependent coverage is too expensive at my spouse’s employer. Some of you who are needing to get insured are finding out that access to your spouse’s coverage through his/her employer is very expensive. If your spouse has access to what is called “affordable” coverage via their employer (affordable defined here), unfortunately, you and any dependent children are no longer eligible for subsidies at the exchange (even if the coverage in the exchange is considerably more affordable). This has been an area where we have had difficulty helping people find coverage. Our advice: shop for a more affordable plan on the individual market until the employer can make adjustments (they may need to offer a more affordable plan, or not offer employer coverage at all).
  4. My individual (or family) health insurance plan was cancelled. Your health insurance plan may have been cancelled because it did not conform to new healthcare reform standards. The bad news: you may not be able to get that plan back (so the best you can do right now is shop for another plan). The good news: recently, there was a tax penalty exception granted to people who lost their coverage. In other words, if your plan was cancelled, you won’t have to pay the individual tax penalty in 2014.
  5. My premiums got more expensive. Many plans in the individual market have seen premium increases. This is especially true for individuals that do not qualify for health insurance subsidies at the exchange (ie: individuals making more than $44,000 per year). One of the reasons you’re seeing these increases is because of the newly mandated 10 essential health benefits. Our advice: have a broker shop with you for a more affordable plan.
  6. Check your physician and hospital networks. This is especially true if you’re participating in a plan from a public state exchange. If you’re looking for access to a specific doctor or hospital, make sure to check and see what plans they are accepting. Some doctors and hospitals are not accepting plans from the public exchange at all.

The above listed are some of the things we’ve run into while helping people enroll during the first half of exchange open enrollment. If you’ve participated at the exchange, you may be familiar with what we’ve discussed. If you’ve not yet enrolled, our biggest goal with this post is to get you some tips about what to expect.

The entire second half of 2013 open enrollment has just begun. Don’t forget you have until March 31st, 2014 to enroll this year. If you have any questions about enrolling in Covered California, please contact us. Policy Advantage Insurance Services is Covered California Certified.

Thanks for stopping by, we hope you found our information to be valuable. Check back at our blog to get further information about funding healthcare. Also, please share with your friends, clients, colleagues, and family. Here are a few of our other information outlets:

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