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This is It: Open Enrollment Starts Today

Today is October 1, a big day in the world of health care reform. That’s because today’s the day the online state health insurance exchanges launch. What are the health exchanges? They’re online marketplaces—one for each state—where consumers can shop for health coverage in a way that’s intended to make comparisons easier than before.

Health reform: what to do?

Of course, no one has to use the online marketplaces. All the traditional ways of buying health coverage remain in place, so you can think of the online exchanges as just another option, although there’s an important caveat: Whatever coverage you buy, and however you buy it, your coverage must be a plan available on your state exchange (and a few other rules apply) for you to receive premium credits, which are a form of assistance to help you cover your costs if you meet income guidelines.

So, bottom line, if you’re eligible for premium credits (you earn 400 percent of the poverty rate or less), you can get those credits to help you offset your health insurance costs if you buy on your state exchange or if you buy outside the exchange and certain conditions are met. More details on this and other aspects of the health reform law are in a REALTOR® Magazine article, “Health Care Reform: A Guide to Your Coverage Options.”

Do you have to buy your coverage today, now that the online exchanges are launching? No, you don’t. In fact, the individual mandate, which is the part of the law that requires everyone to have health insurance or pay a penalty if they don’t qualify for an exception, doesn’t actually take effect until 2014. What you have between now and 2014 is a three-month period in which you can shop for coverage, whether you do your shopping online or in a more traditional way.

The health care law has a lot of moving parts to it, including several provisions that have already taken effect, such as the allowance that children up to age 26 can remain on parents’ insurance and a provision that prohibits insurers from denying you coverage because of a preexisting condition. So, today’s launch of the online exchanges is just one piece, albeit a high-profile one.

To help you learn a bit more about the law, and what an appropriate course is for you based on your situation (such as being an independent contractor who has typically purchased one’s own coverage in the individual market), we’ve compiled information you might find helpful.

First, there’s the REALTOR® Magazine article, “Health Care Reform: A Guide to Your Coverage Options,” that walks you through the different issues you might think about. (And see the accompanying graphic on the right, which spells out your options in a quick-glance format.)

Second, you’ll want to spend some time on the federal government’s main health reform portal, Healthcare.gov, to get the definitive word on the law. You can also use that portal to go to your state’s online exchange. To access your state exchange, go to Healthcare.gov/marketplace/individual and enter your state in the drop-down menu.

Third, you can get lots of information from the Kaiser Family Foundation, including a video that walks you through the changes.

Lastly, NAR has resources you’ll want to be familiar with. These include background on the law and FAQs on key aspects of it, among other things.

Robert Freedman

Robert Freedman is manager of multimedia communications for the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. He can be reached at rfreedman@realtors.org.

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