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Understanding the Affordable Care Act: Obamacare 101

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a law implemented in 2014 aimed at encouraging more Americans to have health insurance. Being insured is more than just an added monthly expense. In addition to protecting you from massive medical bills in the case of an unexpected emergency or illness, a lack of health insurance coverage has been linked to 18,000 deaths per year among uninsured adults according to research by the Institute of Medicine. 

Under the ACA, many Americans will be able to purchase subsidized—or discounted—coverage through private insurance companies. In order to get covered for next year and avoid paying a penalty, you need to sign up between November 1 and January 31.

Where To Start 

1. Visit your health insurance marketplace (a.k.a. exchange). You can access your ACA marketplace plans in person, by phone, or by mail, but most people will sign up online. Some states run their own marketplace, while others rely on a federal marketplace. Visit HealthCare.gov and enter your zip code to see your options based on where you live. 

2. Claim your premium assistance. If your income is within a certain range, you qualify for premium assistance, which means a discounted monthly payment. When you sign up for insurance, you’ll be notified if you are eligible. 

3. Take advantage of your essential health benefits. All marketplace plans include basic coverage for what have been defined as essential health benefits. Another important stipulation of the ACA states that you can no longer be turned down for having a pre-existing condition. 

Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Catastrophic Plans 

ACA plans are divided by metal tier, from the most basic with the lowest premiums (Bronze) to the most comprehensive and pricier plans (Platinum). All plans offer the same essential health benefits, but the lower your monthly premium, the higher your out-of-pocket costs when you access care. 

Some people are also eligible for Catastrophic plans, which carry the least expensive monthly payments, but only cover worst-case scenarios such as accidents and extreme illness. These plans are available only to people under 30 years old or who qualify for hardship exemptions

Consider Other Options 

The ACA allows you to stay on your parents' plan until age 26, whether you are in school or not. Also, many colleges and universities offer insurance plans, though coverage sometimes is limited to on-campus medical care. Find out more at your admissions office or student resources center.

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