Even if you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve no doubt heard the news. The federal government has shut down due to a three-and-a-half year fight over the Affordable Care Act (also known as ACA or ObamaCare). The irony of the situation is this: Even though Washington D.C. is shuttered, the new health insurance marketplaces the GOP seem so eager to stop still opened for their first day of business today.
That means you, as an American, can begin shopping for a new health insurance plan right this very moment if you don’t already have one. Here’s how to get started.
Know the law
If you don’t currently have health insurance, you’ll need to obtain it by January 1, 2014 or face a tax penalty. The ACA was ideally supposed to create 50 state-run health insurance exchanges to help you compare and buy an affordable plan to comply with this mandate. Republican governors and legislatures blocked some of these exchanges, meaning some Americans will need to buy their insurance through a federal exchange instead.
Confused? There’s no reason to be – the law is complex, but the government has opened up a website to help make obtaining health insurance easier. It’s called healthcare.gov, and it’s the place you should start your journey. It’s like shopping on Amazon, but for healthcare.
Shop for plans
Click the green “Apply Now” button on the site, and you’ll be asked to enter your state of residence. If your state has its own health insurance exchange, you’ll be redirected to that website to continue the process. If you live in a state that’s trying to block ObamaCare, you’ll be asked to continue the process on the federal site.
You’ll need to supply a few basic pieces of information to browse the plans. Namely, the exchange will need to know your age and where you live. You’ll also need to provide your yearly income to see if you qualify for a discounted plan.
Plans are separated into three basic tiers of coverage: bronze, silver and gold. You’ll be able to compare emergency room deductibles, maximum out-of-pocket costs, physician co-pays and other aspects of the plans. Most sites make it easy to compare plans side-by-side. You can even check to see if your current doctor is in-network before you purchase a plan.
A rough launch
Many people have reported opening day jitters at the healthcare.gov website, with high traffic causing attempts to create new accounts to fail. (President Obama likened this to the launch of iOS 7.) It’s unclear how quick these problems will be ironed out – there is a government shutdown, after all. But if the website fails you, there’s a decidedly low-tech solution: Make a phone call. You can reach someone at the federal exchange to answer questions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at (800) 318 – 2596. You’ll also find a live chat option on the federal site if you prefer that, instead. Individual state exchanges have phone hotlines too; those may be your best bet in the early few days of implementation.
There’s no reason to panic if you have difficulty in completing the process today (or indeed any time before the federal government gets back to work). Plans don’t take effect until Jan. 1, and the open enrollment period lasts through March 31, 2014. Take your time, shop smart, and find the plan that’s best for you.