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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Phrases Made Easy: “Minimum Essential Coverage”

Welcome back to another edition of “Phrases Made Easy.” This series at our blog aims to help make all of those long, drawn-out insurance phrases easier to understand. One thing we notice when talking about health insurance (and health benefits in general) is that the concepts can be “wordy” and boring. We emphasize fixing that here!

Our biggest goal is to help you tune in, understand, and put this knowledge to work for yourself or your company. We’re firm believers that informed consumers can make a really, really big difference in our industry.

The phrase that we’re talking about today is minimum essential coverage. This one sounds difficult, but it’s really not too bad. We’ve selected this phrase for one primary reason:

  1. Under the healthcare reform law (Obamacare, ACA)… minimum essential coverage is: the type of health insurance coverage that is required to be held by most Americans (per the individual mandate), in order to avoid individual tax penalties

In other words… you need to find a place where you can find minimum essential coverage (or pay a tax penalty). It doesn’t matter how rich you are or poor you are, where you live, or what kind of job you have… the law states that nearly every single American citizen will need to find minimum essential coverage by January 1st, 2014. It’s just that simple.

There are a number of different places where you can find minimum essential coverage. Here are the majority of options available for most people:

  • Coverage under an “eligible employer-sponsored plan,” which the proposed Treasury rule defines generally to mean coverage under a group health plan, whether insured or self-insured, including coverage under a federal or non-federal governmental plan (keeping it simple: coverage through your employer).
  • Coverage under an employer-sponsored retiree health plan.
  • Coverage under certain government programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and TRICARE.
  • Coverage in the individual insurance market, including a plan offered by an Exchange** (if you’re in California, you’ll want to look at Covered California).
  • Other coverage recognized by HHS, including self-funded student health coverage and coverage under Medicare Advantage plans.

**Very important new concept to understand

Please note that coverage listed as “excepted benefits” (as defined by HIPAA) will not qualify as minimum essential coverage. IE: dental benefits, vision benefits, and FSAs will not qualify on their own.

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Benefits Chalk Talk: Individual Tax Penalties Starting in 2014

By now you’ve heard all about the “individual tax penalties” that apply to most Americans if they’re not carrying health insurance by January 1st, 2014. Back in June of 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the “individual mandate” based on the congressional power to regulate tax.

What does this mean? It means that nearly every American will need to be insured by 2014, or face a yearly tax penalty.

In this blog post, we’re going to briefly explain the basic structure of this individual tax penalty, and how it will be “phased in.” Keep in mind that we’re emphasizing individual tax penalties only in this blog post. There are different mandates for employers with +50 employees, but we’re not discussing those tax penalties here.


As mentioned above, we used the phrase “phased in.” The bulk of the tax penalties will not hit right away in 2014; this will allow people to familiarize themselves with the new system. Here is how it will work, starting in 2014 if you decide not to purchase health insurance:

Uninsured Individual Tax Penalty in 2014:

  • 1% of yearly income or $95/year (whichever is higher)

Uninsured Individual Tax Penalty in 2015:

  • 2% of yearly income or $325/year (whichever is higher)

Uninsured Individual Tax Penalty in 2016:

  • 2.5% of yearly income or $695/year (whichever is higher)

Uninsured Individual Tax Penalties after 2016:

  • Increased annually by the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA)

The penalty amounts are capped at the family level. The most that a family can pay in tax penalties is 3x the yearly individual amount listed above. In other words, if a family has five uninsured family members, only three of them will be subject to the yearly penalty.

You’ll want to discuss with your broker/insurance professional where you can find affordable health insurance by 2014, or face a new tax penalty. Again, as mentioned in this article, the tax penalties will increase over time. Our advice is to be proactive about it, and have a plan that makes the most sense for you and your personal situation. Your decisions will be most likely based on the Federal Poverty Level (or FPL). Contact us any time with questions. You can find an infographic on our Pinterest page here: PAIS Individual Tax Penalty Info

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Healthcare Reform: The Major Players

Note: **this is the first (1) of a series of four (4) blog posts that are related to healthcare reform. We recommend that you read them in order. Here is the suggested order of reading:

  1. Healthcare Reform: The Major Players
  2. Phrases Made Easy: “Defined Benefit” and “Defined Contribution”
  3. The Great Transition: Healthcare Benefits & Defined Contribution
  4. Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs): The Employee Benefits Home Run


Now that healthcare reform has made it through Congress, been signed by the President, was upheld by the Supreme Court, and survived an additional presidential election… we’re assuming the law is here to stay.

So with that… we need to introduce to our clients, potential clients, and colleagues the “cast of characters” that are important as this legislation sets in. ie: some of the major players. Here’s the scouting report:

#1) State Health Insurance Exchanges: In California, the exchange is called “Covered California” ( There is still much to be announced (because these exchanges have not yet completely taken shape). As information becomes available, we’ll roll it out. Begin to understand State Health Insurance Exchanges: they’re set to start January 1st, 2014.

#2) “Guaranteed Issue” Mandate: The phrase “Guaranteed Issue” is an insurance term. It means a policy must be offered to any eligible applicant without regard to health status. In other words, if you apply for coverage, you must be accepted. Starting on January 1st, 2014… all health insurance policies must be guaranteed issue.

#3) Health Insurance Mandate: The law imposes a health insurance mandate (for nearly all Americans) to take effect starting in 2014, based on the Congressional power to regulate tax. Know where (and how) you can obtain affordable coverage.

#4) Individual & Family Plans (IFP): Currently there are only two segments of health insurance: A) Individual and Family Plans and B) Group Health Insurance.

The Individual and Family Plan (or IFP) segment is set to expand considerably starting in 2014. The reason: preexisting conditions must be covered at that time.

#5) Large Employer Mandate (+50 employees): Starting in 2014, the Act requires employers with 50 or more equivalent full-time employees to offer health insurance that is “affordable, minimum essential coverage” (and if not, face tax penalties). Specific questions about tax penalties should be directed to your tax advisor.

 #6) Account-Based & Defined Contribution Health Planning: Health Savings Accounts (or HSAs), and Health Reimbursement Arrangements (or HRAs) will be an important tool for employers in the post healthcare reform environment. Look for health benefits planning strategies to continue to move in this direction. “Equity-based” health planning involves pairing-up health insurance policies with tax-advantaged reimbursement accounts.

#7) Medicare & Medicaid: There were significant portions of the law that were relevant to Medicare and Medicaid. You’ll want to stay up-to-date on those topics. If you have questions, we’re currently referring them to our Medicare and Medicaid affiliates.

#8) Changes: This was large and far-reaching legislation… over time, legislation of this magnitude has a tendency to go through changes. Know and understand this may occur (most likely if/when things don’t go as planned). Some of these changes may be as important as the above mentioned topics. In the years to come, there may be additions and subtractions to portions of the law. Simply: you’ll want to stay up-to-date with changes.


That concludes our introduction of healthcare reform’s major players. The above “cast of characters” will give our clients, potential clients, and colleagues a good place to start when trying to understand this large (and sometimes complicated) piece of legislation.

Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll continue to roll out information that is pertinent to these subjects. We invite you to follow along as we continue to move forward. We like sharing great information. We’ll be your resource in one place.

Thanks for stopping by, we hope our information was valuable to you. 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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Important Editor’s Note 11/22/2013: Since posting these original blog posts, federal guidance regarding “Stand-Alone HRAs” (which are addressed in some places throughout these articles) has undergone significant changes. In order to stay in full IRS/ERISA compliance, please be advised that there are now many additional considerations when adopting this type of benefits planning strategy. Consult with a proper broker or insurance professional before utilizing employer dollars to purchase individual health insurance policies.