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posted: 8/9/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: Start your health insurance 101

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  • Those who are uninsured will need to do their homework to find the best health coverage for themselves starting on Oct. 1.

    Those who are uninsured will need to do their homework to find the best health coverage for themselves starting on Oct. 1.

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Most people buying a new car or planning a vacation seek out the best deals. Common fiscal sense leads them to search websites, read reports and talk to people they trust about such a major purchase.

Thousands of suburban residents will face a major purchase of a new type beginning Oct. 1, when the state's health insurance exchange opens for business. The exchange is a way to save money on health coverage -- which will be required with the new year -- but our guess is that many don't even know what it is.

It's time to get educated.

The Illinois Health Insurance Marketplace, as it's called, is the vehicle for the uninsured to buy the coverage of their choice at government-subsidized rates. A key provision of the Affordable Care Act mandates health insurance for individuals and small businesses by Jan. 1.

For many who have lacked insurance for years, signing up will be a confusing venture stemming from a convoluted law. In fact, an April survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 42 percent of respondents didn't even know the ACA was a law. That's understandable, considering the political furor since it was adopted in 2010, including its surviving three dozen repeal attempts and a Supreme Court challenge. The Obama administration's recent one-year extension for larger businesses to comply with the law muddied the waters even more.

For all the uncertainty, the law continues to be praised by some, abhorred by others. Soaring health care costs demanded that some solution be found, and, barring the unlikely event of Congress scratching it off the books this fall, the ACA is what we have to work with. The state insurance exchanges are designed to increase transparency, competition and oversight among insurers, thus lowering costs. Time will tell whether that happens.

For now, though, the savviest consumers will benefit -- those who take the time and get the help they need to choose from among 165 plans offered in Illinois. To compare it to buying an airline ticket online, as some have done, would be to oversimplify the process.

Nationwide, states are rushing to meet the deadline for the official opening of the exchanges, and Illinois is no exception. Just last month it hired the marketing firm Fleishman-Hillard to advertise the exchange. Private industries like Deerfield-based Walgreen have jumped on the promotion bandwagon, too. The federal government's information sharing effort was punctuated here in Chicago by a visit from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius last month. And this week, Harper College hosted a summit on the topic for small-business owners.

The trickle of information is sure to become a flood as the deadline nears. Pay attention. Check information sources -- are they unbiased or is there an ulterior motive? A good place to start is the Illinois Department of Insurance website: The Daily Herald will contribute helpful information in the coming weeks as well.

This is uncharted territory, so expect bumps, bearing in mind that health insurance is a serious product that will require some serious study.

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