Much work is left to demystify the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act and how the massive new health care initiative will affect Americans. A key part of the new program launches Tuesday when a new insurance marketplace goes online. Here are answers to questions Illinoisans may have:
Q. Why is Tuesday important?
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A. It's the first day of the open enrollment period for new health insurance options under the health law. Consumers have until Dec. 15 to sign up if they want coverage to start Jan. 1. After that, you can still enroll through the end of March to avoid penalties for 2014. The law requires almost everyone to have health insurance. Fines start as low as $95 the first year but go up after that.
Tuesday is the first day people can start shopping for health insurance on a new marketplace where they can get financial help with the cost. To get started on Tuesday, go to GetCoveredIllinois.gov.
Q. How is Illinois spreading word about the initiative?
A. The state will launch a $33 million ad campaign Tuesday in newspapers in 50 cities, to be followed by radio and TV ads later. A new survey shows that six of 10 Illinois adults don't know about the marketplace.
Q. Where can I get information and help?
A. State officials on Monday released the telephone number for a call center that will field questions. The number is 1-866-311-1119. Starting Tuesday, the service will be available seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The federal government also has a call center taking questions at 1-800-318-2596.
County health departments, community health centers and libraries can answer questions and help you get started. Many community organizations have trained outreach counselors who can walk you through the enrollment process. Insurance agents and brokers also can help.
To find live help in your neighborhood, enter your ZIP code under "Find local help" at this link: https://www.healthcare.gov/contact-us/
Q. How many people are uninsured in Illinois?
A. About 1.8 million Illinois residents are uninsured, about 15 percent of the population.
Q. Who should shop for health insurance on the new online marketplace?
A. The marketplace is meant for people who can't afford health insurance right now and for people who want to comparison shop for insurance. The website will tell you whether you qualify for new federal tax credits to help pay the cost of coverage. It also will tell you whether you're eligible for free care through Medicaid or if your children are eligible for the Children's Health Insurance Program.
Q. Who is not eligible?
A. About 281,000 people in Illinois who are in the United States illegally aren't eligible for help under the new health law.
Q. If I already have affordable health insurance through my job, why should I care?
A. If more people get insurance, fewer medical costs will be shifted onto people with good health insurance by hospitals and other providers that end up providing free care to the uninsured.
Q. Will insurance coverage cost more or less than what's available today?
A. The law requires certain benefits, so health plans will be more comprehensive and probably more expensive than the ones some people buy currently. But the tax credits will help bring down costs for most low- and middle-income people. People who have pre-existing medical conditions won't have to pay higher premiums than healthy people. Insurers will be prohibited from charging women higher prices.
Q. Do I have to buy health insurance on the new marketplace?
A. About half of Illinois residents already have coverage through their jobs, and their employers pay a portion of their premiums. They don't have to buy new insurance. In fact, if your insurance is affordable and meets certain federal criteria, you won't qualify for tax credits on the marketplace.
People already insured under Medicare or Medicaid don't have to do anything new. Veterans who are enrolled in Veterans Affairs health care don't have to buy additional insurance. U.S. citizens living abroad aren't required to get coverage.