Expanded Medicaid eligibility may be the largest way the Affordable Care Act helps Illinois residents who can't afford health insurance, according to a panel of experts who spoke in St. Charles Thursday night.
The panel was comprised of enthusiastic supporters of the controversial new health care law, which is commonly known as Obamacare.
Illinois Department of Public Health Assistant Director David Gill was one of those supporters. He is an emergency room doctor in Normal, who also actively advocates for the creation of a single-payer form of health care in the United States.
He told audience members the state expects about 500,000 more Illinois residents to qualify and enroll in Medicaid by 2017.
"We're very excited about it," Gill said.
Indeed, panel experts said several times that Medicare and Medicaid recipients don't need to do a thing under the new law.
Those will still be the best health care options for those recipients, the experts said.
Gill said he is also excited about new government subsidies that will help families purchase insurance for the first time.
For instance, under the new guidelines, a family of four making up to about $94,000 a year will still qualify for a subsidy, Gill said.
"I know many families of four with incomes less than $94,000 that have been shut out of the marketplace for too long," Gill said. "Now they will have ready access to it.
Overall, this represents a historic opportunity to improve the overall health of people in this state. And no longer will people in this country have to go bankrupt because they get sick."
But the law won't solve everyone's problems.
A man in the audience told the panel his biggest fear is not being able to pay the penalty for not having insurance once the part of the law goes active in 2014.
In the first year, the penalty will be either 1 percent of taxable income or $95 per adult, whichever is greater. The fines increase every year after that.
The man, who did not give his name, said he makes more than $15,000 a year as a single adult, so he won't qualify for Medicaid.
However, he said he also won't be able to afford the $95 fine.
The panel had no answers for him other than to make sure none of the plans available in the open market would work for him.
If that doesn't turn up any attractive options, the experts told him the federal government may automatically take the fine out of any tax return he may receive in the future.
That said, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon told the audience the best part of the Affordable Care Act is the ability to keep children on parents' insurance plans until they are 26, and the ability for people who don't quality for insurance through their employers to find coverage for the first time.
Experts said they expect insurance premium costs to be about 25 percent lower through Illinois' insurance exchange.
For example, the average 25-year-old man, with no spouse or dependents, will pay about $120 per month for "outstanding coverage," experts said.
Illinois' exchanges open Oct. 1.
Open enrollment will run until March 31, 2014.
However, people who enroll in a plan by Dec. 15 can expect coverage to begin Jan. 1.