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When it comes to health insurance, what a difference a year makes

HIn 2014, substantial policies were adopted, major litigation was resolved (at least for now), and citizens voted for new political leadership in Arizona and across the nation.

Perhaps of particular significance to many Arizonans in the last year is the transformation of health insurance. Over 350,000 Arizonans enrolled in health insurance through the Health Insurance Marketplace or AHCCCS.  Of those Arizonans receiving coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace, eight out of 10 received financial assistance. The average monthly premium: $94. Hundreds of trained, certified assisters located across our state held appointments with individuals and families to help walk them through the health insurance enrollment process.

While enrollment was often the feature health insurance story, it is worth noting that 69,000 Arizonans up to age 26 were able to stay on their parents’ plan. In addition, the Arizona Deptartment of Insurance increased transparency and opportunities for public comment on proposed double-digit health insurance rate increases for both the individual and small group markets.

Fast forward to today. The Affordable Care Act is still not perfect; however, the above milestones coupled with other policy changes — such as an individual can no longer be denied coverage for having a pre-existing condition – are providing many Arizonans not only better peace of mind but also better financial security. And Arizonans are not alone. According to HHS, in the first week of Open Enrollment – from Nov. 15 to Nov. 21, 462,125 people across the country selected plans for coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace. More than one million individuals spoke with call center representatives, and 3,741,725 users visited HealthCare.gov (95,730 users visited CuidadodeSalud.gov).

While some individuals were ready to choose a new plan or renew existing coverage when the Health Insurance Marketplace opened, many others are weighing their options. To better understand health insurance options and rights, the Arizona PIRG Education Fund developed a guide “So You Need Health Insurance. Now What?” Our resource “So You Have Health Insurance. Now What?” provides tips for consumers deciding whether to keep their individual health insurance plan or switch to a new plan. Both can be found at arizonapirgedfund.org

Just like any other major expense, our advice is to shop around — take the time to find out if you can pay less, or get more for your money. And like any other contract, it is important to know what you are getting into — make sure you understand the costs, what’s covered and what’s excluded, and what providers are included in the plan’s network. Enroll America has developed a tool that can help individuals estimate their household cost for health insurance. The Health Insurance Calculator can be found at coveraz.org/calculator.

In addition to insurance agents and brokers, specially trained enrollment assisters are available to help at no cost to you. Individuals in Arizona can sign up for a free in-person appointment with a certified health insurance enrollment assister through coveraz.org/connector. Cover Arizona is a coalition of more than 600 organizations statewide, spearheaded by St. Luke’s Health Initiatives, which is committed to increasing health coverage. Individuals can also call 211 to schedule an appointment.

Once you have the complete picture of the premium, potential out-of-pocket costs, provider network, and what’s covered under each plan, it is easier to choose a plan that meets your needs and that of your family. But don’t wait too long. You need to sign up for health insurance by Dec. 15 if you want to be covered heading into the New Year.

– Diane E. Brown is the executive director of the Arizona PIRG Education Fund, which conducts research and education on issues in the public interest.

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