Regardless of any political stance on Obamacare, one thing is certain: If you don't have health insurance by March 2014 you will face a tax penalty. Problems with Healthcare.gov, the website that was supposed to allow Americans to compare and select a health plan, have cut off some from enrolling, but there are other ways you can get coverage.
You can call representatives for the health insurance marketplace or mail in a paper application, sign up in person at locations around your state or use private health insurance websites or brokers. Some states have created their own online exchanges, and if you live in one of them, you do not need to go through Healthcare.gov, the website the federal government created.
If you prefer, however, there is still time to assess what the best plan is for you and your family. Americans must sign up by the 15th of any given month for health insurance to start on the first day of the following month. Someone who signs up by Dec. 15, for instance, would have health insurance on the first day in January. Americans must sign up by the end of March 2014 to avoid a tax penalty, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (also known as CMS).
The latest data from the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency responsible for carrying out the details of the health law, show that Healthcare.gov has received 700,000 applications – 5 percent of the 14 million Americans that the government hopes to add to insurance rolls in 2014. U.S. News turned to CMS, experts and news reports to help consumers understand what options they have to gain coverage no later than April 2014.
1. Use the telephone or snail mail: President Barack Obama announced that states were increasing the number of call center representatives to make up for the glitches with Healthcare.gov. The phone service for signing up for a health plan is toll-free, open 24/7, and available in 150 languages. When you dial 1-800-318-2596, a representative will help you fill out the application. Expect the process to take about 25 to 45 minutes, depending on whether you are signing up only yourself or your family.
You can also download, print and mail your application. Some consumers have reported problems with both of these methods as well, however, because the representative still has to enter the information you submit into Healthcare.gov. Be aware that you may have to follow up to ensure your information is processed.
2. Show up in person: Every state has counselors that can assist you in navigating through the health insurance process, helping you compare what will be covered once you enroll in a health plan. People who would rather avoid submitting their information over the Internet might want to consider this option. They can sit with a representative who will guide them through the process, whether on paper or online. To find the location that is closest to you, visit LocalHelp.HealthCare.gov.
If your income is 133 percent or lower of the federal poverty level – or $29,700 for a family of four – then you will qualify for Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the health insurance program for low-income Americans. If you fit this criteria, you should go directly to the offices of those government agencies, whose locations you can find on Medicaid.gov or on your state government's website.
3. Use private health insurance websites or brokers: The only mandate of Obamacare is that you have health insurance, not that you purchase it through a government marketplace. That means you can choose to purchase it directly from a private health insurance company, whether online, in person or through the phone. The only downside is that may be more time consuming to compare one insurance company against another, but the sign-up process may be smoother. "These companies have been doing direct enrollment for years," says Sumit Nijhawan, CEO of Infogix, a software consulting company based in Naperville, Ill. "They have worked out all the kinks." You can also consider searching and hiring a health insurance broker, who will outline the differences of each plan for you.
If you think your income would qualify you for government subsidies to help you pay for a health plan, however, you might want to wait until Healthcare.gov is working again. "If you require a subsidy, the only way you can determine exactly what you're eligible is through the marketplace," Nijhawan says.
4. Use a state exchange: If you are a citizen one of sixteen states – including California, New York, Vermont and Rhode Island – and the District of Columbia, you will not need to sign up through Healthcare.gov because your state government has opted to create its own website. California reported that 179,562 applications were received through Oct. 26 via Covered California, and Minnesota reported that 5,569 applications were received through MnSure. Obama praised Kentucky and Arkansas on Oct. 30 for their exemplary exchanges.
5. Wait it out – and prepare: If you would prefer to wait for Healthcare.gov, you can take some time to make sure you have all the documents you need to sign up, including you and your family members' Social Security numbers and your income information. Call your doctors and local hospitals to find out what health insurance plans they accept.
You also can use the Kaiser Family Foundation's calculator, which pulls in factors such as location, income, family size and health to estimate how much health insurance will cost you next year.
Remember that you will incur a tax penalty beginning in April 2014 if you do not have health insurance. You will pay a penalty for each month you are uninsured, and the penalty will increase every year until 2016. The fee in 2014 is 1 percent of a person's yearly income or $95 per person, whichever is higher, according to HHS.
Said Obama during a recent press conference: "If one thing is worth the wait, it's the safety and security of health care that you can afford, or the amount of money that you can save by buying health insurance through the marketplaces."
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