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3 Ways to Keep Medical Debt from Ruining Your Credit

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

3 Ways to Keep Medical Debt from Ruining Your Credit

Turns out, your physical well-being isn’t the only thing at stake when you go to the hospital. So too is your financial well-being. That’s because no debt is more common than medical debt.

The numbers are staggering in their scope. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, more than half of all collection notices on consumer credit reports stem from outstanding medical debt, and roughly 43 million consumers – nearly 20% of all those in the nationwide credit reporting system – have at least one medical collection on their credit report.

Now, you might be inclined to think that because you’re young or have both a job and health insurance, medical debt poses you no risk. Think again. According to a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, roughly one-third of non-elderly adults report difficulty paying medical bills. Moreover, roughly 70% of people with medical debt are insured, mostly through employer-sponsored plans.

Not concerned yet? Consider that a medical collection notice on your credit report, even for a small bill, can lower your credit score 100 points or more. You can’t pay your way out of the mess after the fact, either. Medical debt notifications stay on your credit report for seven years after you’ve paid off the bill.

The good news (yes, there is good news here) is you can often prevent medical debt from ruining your credit simply by being attentive and proactive.

Pay close attention to your bills

Certainly, a considerable portion of unpaid medical debt exists on account of bills so large and overwhelming that patients don’t have the financial wherewithal to cover them. But many unpaid medical debts catch patients completely by surprise, according to Deanna Hathaway, a consumer and small business bankruptcy lawyer in Richmond, Va.

“In my experience, it’s often a surprise to people,” says Hathaway. “Most people don’t routinely check their credit reports, assume everything is fine, and then a mark on their credit shows up when they go to buy a car or home.”

The confusion often traces back to one of two common occurrences, according to Ron Sykstus, a consumer bankruptcy attorney in Birmingham, Ala.

“People usually get caught off guard either because they thought their insurance was supposed to pick something up and it didn’t, or because they paid the bill, but it got miscoded and applied to the wrong account,” says Sykstus. “It’s a hassle, but track your payments and make sure they get where they are supposed to get. I can’t stress that enough.”

Stay in your network

One of the major ways insured patients wind up with unmanageable medical bills is through services rendered – often unbeknown to the patient – by out-of-network providers, according to Kevin Haney, president of A.S.K. Benefit Solutions.

“You check into an in-network hospital and think you’re covered, but while you’re there, you’re treated by an out-of-network specialist such as an anesthesiologist, and then your coverage isn’t nearly as good,” Haney says. “The medical industry does a poor job of explaining this, and it’s where many people get hurt.”

According to Haney, if you were unknowingly treated by an out-of-network provider, it’s not unreasonable to contact the provider and ask them to bill you at their in-network rate.

“You can push back on lack of disclosure and negotiate,” Haney says. “They’re accepting much lower amounts for the same service with their in-network patients. They may do the same for you.”

Work it out with your provider BEFORE your bills are sent to collections

Even if you’re insured and are diligent about staying in-network, medical bills can still become untenable. Whether on account of a high deductible or an even higher out-of-pocket maximum, patients both insured and uninsured encounter medical bills they simply can’t afford to pay.

If you find yourself in this situation, it’s critical to understand that health care providers themselves usually do not report unpaid bills to the credit bureaus – collection agencies do. After a certain period of time, most health care providers turn unpaid debt over to a collection agency, and it’s the agency that in turn reports the debt to the credit bureaus should it remain unpaid.

“If you can keep it out of the hands of the collectors, you can usually keep it off your credit report,” says Hathaway.

The key then is to be proactive about working out an arrangement with your health care provider before the debt is ever sent to a collection agency. And make no mistake – most providers are more than happy to work with you, according to Howard Dvorkin, CPA and chairman of Debt.com.

“Trust me, no one involved with medical debt wants it to go nuclear,” says Dvorkin. “The health care providers you owe know very well how crushing medical debt is. They want to work with you, but they also need to get paid.”

If you receive a bill you can’t afford to pay in its entirety, you should immediately call your provider and negotiate, says Haney.

“Most providers, if the bill is large, will recognize there’s a good chance you don’t have the money to pay it off all at once, and most of the time, they’ll work with you,” he says. “But you have to be proactive about it. Don’t just hope it will go away. Call them immediately, explain your situation, and ask for a payment plan.”

If the bill you’re struggling with is from a hospital, you may also have the option to apply for financial aid, according to Thomas Nitzsche, a financial educator with Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solutions, a personal finance counseling firm.

“Most hospitals are required to offer financial aid,” says Nitzsche. “They’ll look at your financials to determine your need, and even if you’re denied, just the act of applying usually extends the window within which you have to pay that bill.”

If all else fails, negotiate with the collection agency

In the event that your debt is passed along to a collection agency, all is not immediately lost, says Sykstus.

“You can usually negotiate with the collection agency the same as you would with the provider,” he says. “Tell them you’ll work out a payment plan and that in return you’re asking them to not report it.”

Most collection agencies, according to Haney, actually have little interest in reporting debt to the credit bureaus.

“Think about it,” Haney says. “The best leverage they have to get you to pay is to threaten to report the bill to the credit agencies. That means as soon as they report it, they’ve lost their leverage. So, they’re going to want to talk to you long before they ever report it to the bureau. Don’t duck their calls. Talk to them and offer to work something out. They’ll usually take what they can get.”

At the end of the day, according to Haney, most people can keep medical debt from ruining their credit by following one simple rule.

“Just be proactive,” he says.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

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How to Cope With Financial Anxiety

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

Man sitting at desk with laptop coping with financial anxiety
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Perhaps you’re filing your taxes late, or you’re having a hard time juggling your rent and other bills. You feel your whole body tense up and a sense of dread coming over you at the very thought of having to tackle financial tasks. Money worries come from many different sources, but that panicky feeling does have a name: financial anxiety.

As it happens, you’re far from the only one experiencing anxiety over money. In fact, in April 2019 we conducted a survey and found that 75% of participants responded “yes” when asked if they had ever felt anxious about their financial situation. The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey also shows that money remains one of the top stressors reported among Americans year over year, alongside work and health-related concerns.

Despite money being such a big trigger for anxiety, we don’t seem to talk about either money or anxiety enough. To help get the conversation started, let’s take a closer look at what financial anxiety is and how you can recognize it. And for those who are already dealing with money anxiety in one way or another, we’ve got some expert tips to help you cope and feel better about your financial situation.

What is financial anxiety?

Financial anxiety can look different from person to person. Your money worries may be different from your friend’s money worries. The way financial anxieties manifest themselves in feelings and behaviors may not be the same either.

“Financial anxiety can be described as a fear-based response or attitude towards one’s personal finances that is often connected to (or leads to) ineffective money management and suboptimal financial decision-making,” said Megan Ford, M.S., LMFT, a financial therapist at the University of Georgia and a member of the Financial Therapy Association (FTA).

As Ford noted, anxiety over money is not a diagnosable disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which helps classify various mental health diagnoses.

Ford emphasized that she likes to differentiate a disordered level of financial anxiety from general anxiety, which is a normal reaction to stressful and uncertain situations. Money anxiety becomes disordered when you find yourself worrying about the economy or your finances for hours on end, for example, which prevents you from sleeping or performing your usual tasks and responsibilities.

Is financial anxiety normal?

If you find yourself with intense money worries, know that you’re not alone. In the aforementioned MagnifyMoney survey, more than 1 in 3 respondents, or 34%, reported feeling anxious about money every single day in the last week. And it also seems as though money anxiety could be getting worse: 44% of respondents were more anxious about their finances today compared to one year ago.

“It’s also likely that as we begin to recognize this phenomenon and discuss it more openly, people might be more inclined to identify with it,” Ford added.

Both anxiety and money are largely taboo subjects in society, although discussion around both topics are opening up. Wider awareness and education of money anxiety can help bring more acceptance and help to those who need it.

What causes financial anxiety?

Turns out, having a lower income is a big source for Americans’ financial anxiety. It was the most common reason across all age groups surveyed, although notably Gen Z’ers — with 66% of its respondents, the youngest cohort surveyed — marked that reason more than Millennials and Gen X’ers did.

The second-most common source of money anxiety was living paycheck to paycheck, which more Gen X responders chose compared to their younger counterparts.

Tips for coping with financial anxiety

As mentioned above, the sources of your money anxiety and the things that trigger it may not be a cause or a trigger of the next person’s financial anxiety. Given this, your coping methods needs to be adjusted to your needs. Here are a few tips that can help you start getting money anxiety under control, courtesy of Ford:

Accept your anxieties and name your triggers

Being anxious but not knowing the root of your anxieties can instill a sense of panic or powerlessness. Finding the source of your anxiety and identifying what triggers it can help you regain some of that power and control over your situation.

“If anxiety can be relieved through education or clarification on a particular aspect of one’s finances, this can help to significantly reduce someone’s experience of financial anxiety,” Ford suggested. Once you understand the source of your money anxiety, you can take the necessary steps [to] address the root causes of your financial problems.

For example, perhaps you notice you feel anxious whenever you check the mailbox. Receiving mail is probably not what’s making you anxious; bigger and bigger credit card bills is the likely root problem. Recognize that your creeping credit card debt is affecting your daily life — you can’t look at the mailbox without feeling queasy. Use this moment of clarity to help reform your credit card use and switch to using your debit card instead.

Educate yourself about the financial problems causing your anxiety

Education and knowledge is the right place to start removing stress and fear from your financial life.

If you’re worried about passing your debts onto your loved ones when you die, for example, do some reading about the way debt is passed on after death. That can provide some clarity to the gray areas and help you create a plan with your loved ones. Afraid of unmanageable credit card debt? Research counseling that can help you come to grips with your problems and put a plan in place to resolve them.

Try slowing things down

Since a state of anxiety can make things seem like they’re speeding up and out of your control, Ford suggested slowing things down. Take deep breaths and try writing down the thoughts in your head and the sensations in your body.

Ford suggested taking notice of “whether you’re being driven to make a decision rooted in anxious or fearful feelings.”

“Evaluate whether those are fully, 100% true,” she continued, “or if there are exceptions or untruths.” Slowing down and reflecting can give you the opportunity to navigate any impulsivity and potentially find more productive ways to think about the issue at hand.

Visit a financial therapist

Sometimes you need extra, outside help to overcome a hurdle like money anxiety. If you can afford to do so, you can pay a visit to a financial therapist who can help guide you through your anxieties and proposed solutions.

According to the FTA, financial therapists use a “combined approach informed by both therapeutic and financial competencies [to] help people reach their financial goals and attend to the emotional, psychological, behavioral and relational hurdles that are intertwined.”

The FTA website can help you find a financial therapist in your area. While therapists can work on a sliding scale to accommodate your situation, seeing a financial therapist without properly budgeting for those costs can result in even more money anxiety.

Note: MagnifyMoney commissioned Qualtrics to conduct an online survey of 819 Americans ages 18-53. The survey was fielded from April 14-23, 2019, and the margin of error for all respondents is +/- 3%.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Lauren Perez
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Lauren Perez is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Lauren here

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The Ultimate Guide to Obamacare (Updated for 2018)

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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Since Obamacare (or, as it’s officially known, ACA, the Affordable Care Act) created the first federal health insurance marketplace in 2013, some 20 million Americans have become newly insured.

Consumers who don’t qualify for Medicaid or Medicare or who don’t have private insurance through their employer can shop for health coverage either through the federal marketplace — HealthCare.gov — or by way of their state’s exchange.

This year, ACA applicants will have to wade through an average of 30 plans from two or three different insurers to make their insurance choice. The open enrollment period for Obamacare coverage begins Nov. 1 and ends Dec. 15, with coverage due to begin Jan. 1, 2018.

That’s where this guide will come in handy. We will explain exactly what it’s like to enroll, what documents you should have on hand, and, of course, how to sort through all the health insurance options you may find.

Have any burning Obamacare questions? Send us a note at [email protected].

Part I: What is Obamacare?

Most people use the blanket term “Obamacare” when they talk about President Barack Obama’s signature health care legislation, 2010’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). The ACA touched almost every aspect of the health insurance industry. It had implications for employer-run health insurance plans. For government health plans, too.

One of the most visible features of the ACA was the creation of federal and state health care exchanges that sell health insurance to people who don’t have affordable coverage through other means. Many people who buy health insurance through the exchanges say they purchased Obamacare plans.

Some of the important features of these plans include:

  • Accessibility: All Americans may purchase health insurance through a federal or state-run health exchange even if they have a pre-existing condition.
  • Standardization: All health insurance plans must cover preventive care at 100 percent, and they must cover the costs associated with most medical procedures.
  • Affordability: The ACA offers tax credits and cost-reduction subsidies to limit the monthly premium costs for people earning less than 400 percent of the federal poverty line. Insurers may use age and smoking status to set monthly premium costs, but no other factors may be considered.

It’s also important to note that the ACA has a requirement called the individual mandate. You must get health insurance coverage, or you will most likely pay a penalty at tax time. You can get qualified health insurance through your employer or a government program. However, if you don’t get it there or through some other source, you will need to purchase an Obamacare plan or pay that penalty.

Who can buy insurance through a health care exchange?

Most Americans can purchase health insurance through a health care exchange. If you do not receive insurance through your employer and you don’t qualify for Medicaid or Medicare, then you are likely eligible.

Most long-term, legal immigrants to the United States may purchase insurance. HealthCare.gov maintains a comprehensive list of qualified immigration statuses for purchasing insurance through the marketplace.

Most large employers and some midsize or small companies offer health insurance benefits to their employees. If your employer offers affordable health insurance to you (costing less than 9.56 percent of your total income), you will not qualify for health insurance subsidies through the exchanges.

Incarcerated people and those living outside the United States cannot purchase insurance through the marketplace.

Part II: Obamacare costs and tax subsidies

One major factor to consider when weighing the options is your expected tax subsidy. Most people buying insurance through the health care exchanges will qualify for a health insurance subsidy. This subsidy is applied in the form a credit that immediately reduces the cost of your Obamacare plan coverage.

According to a study from the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services, 84 percent of people who purchased insurance through a health care exchange qualified for a health insurance subsidy in 2017. The average subsidy was about $371 in 2017.

With the subsidy applied, nearly eight out of 10 (77 percent) health insurance purchasers paid less than $100 a month for their health insurance premiums in 2016.

To qualify for a subsidy, you must meet three standards:

  1. You must not have access to affordable insurance through an employer (including a spouse’s boss).
    1. Affordable insurance for 2018 is defined as individual coverage through an employer that costs less than 9.56 percent of your household’s income.
    2. You can check that your insurance offers minimum-value coverage by having your human resources representative fill out this form.
  2. You must have a household modified adjusted gross income between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty line.
    1. You can calculate modified adjusted gross income using this formula:
      1. Adjusted gross income (Form 1040 Line 37) +
        Nontaxable Social Security benefits (Form 1040 Line 20a minus 20b) +
        Tax-exempt interest (Form 1040 Line 8b) +
        Foreign earned income and housing expenses for Americans living abroad (Form 2555)
  3. You’re not eligible for coverage through Medicaid, Medicare, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) or other types of public assistance. Some states have expanded Medicaid to anyone who earns up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line.

How can I calculate my subsidy?

The easiest way to calculate the subsidy you will receive is to use a subsidy estimator from HealthCare.gov or the Kaiser Family Foundation. Both calculators estimate your subsidy based on the information you provide. They also help you understand what factors affect your subsidy estimations.

Your income, household size and the cost of premiums in your state factor into your subsidy. Premium tax credits can help reduce the amount that you will spend on monthly premiums to a set percentage of your income. You will receive the same subsidy, no matter which plan you ultimately choose.

Below you can see the maximum amount you will spend on insurance premiums (for a silver plan) based on your income.

Income (based on 2017 federal poverty line)

Max monthly Silver Plan premium cost after subsidies

Special notes


Lower 48 states:
$12,060-$16,702



Alaska:
$15,060-$20,857



Hawaii:
$13,860-$19,195


Lower 48 states:
$20.20-$46.21



Alaska:
$25.23-$57.70



Hawaii:
$23.22-$53.11

Check if you qualify for expanded Medicaid.


Lower 48 states:
$16,703-$30,209



Alaska:
$20,858-$37,724



Hawaii:
$19,196-$34,718


Lower 48 states:
$47.05-$203.91



Alaska:
$58.75-$254.64



Hawaii:
$54.07-$234.35

You will qualify for cost-reduction subsidies if you purchase a silver plan.


Lower 48 states:
$30,210-$48240



Alaska:
$37,725-$60,240



Hawaii:
$34,719-$55,440


Lower 48 states:
$203.92-$384.31



Alaska
$254.65-$479.91



Hawaii:
$234.36-$441.67

If you earn more than 400% of the poverty line, you will not qualify for subsidies.

Income (Based on 2017 federal poverty line)

Max monthly Silver Plan premium cost after subsidies

Special notes


Lower 48 states:
$24,600-$34,069



Alaska:
$30,750-$42,587



Hawaii:
$28,290-$39,179


Lower 48 states:
$41.21-$94.26



Alaska:
$51.51-$117.82



Hawaii:
$47.39-$108.39

Children will qualify for CHIP. Check if you qualify for expanded Medicaid.


Lower 48 states:
$34,070-$49,200



Alaska:
$42,588-$61,500



Hawaii:
$39,180-$56,580


Lower 48 states:
$95.97-$259.94



Alaska:
$119.96-$324.93



Hawaii:
$110.36-$298.93

Children in 46 states will qualify for CHIP. You may qualify for extra savings if you purchase a silver plan.


Lower 48 states:
$49,201-$61,621



Alaska:
$61,501-$77,027



Hawaii:
$56,581-$70,864


Lower 48 states:
$259.95-$415.94



Alaska:
$324.93-$519.92



Hawaii:
$298.94-$478.33

In some states, children will qualify for CHIP. You may qualify for extra savings if you purchase a silver plan.


Lower 48 states:
$61,622-$98,400



Alaska:
$77,028-$123,000



Hawaii:
$70,865-$113,160


Lower 48 states:
$415.96-$783.92



Alaska:
$519.94-$979.90



Hawaii:
$478.35-$901.51

In a limited number of states, children qualify for CHIP up to 375% of the poverty line. If you earn more than 400% of the poverty line, you will not qualify for subsidies.

What circumstances might affect my eligibility for a subsidy?

Your subsidy can change if your circumstances change. It’s important to plan for such circumstances.

(Read ahead: “What happens if I don’t qualify for a subsidy?”)

Families with children:

Instead, they will receive free or low-cost insurance through CHIP. You can enroll your children in CHIP through the health insurance marketplace, or by calling 1-800-318-2596. You may need to speak with a Medicaid agent in your state to see if you qualify. You can also learn more about CHIP through InsureKidsNow.gov.

Your children may qualify for CHIP even if you and your spouse qualify for an employer-sponsored health insurance plan, though this rule varies by state. In some states, families that have children and employer-based coverage may receive financial assistance to purchase the coverage.

CHIP does not have enrollment deadlines, so you can apply at any time.

Families where one spouse has work coverage:

Some employers only offer health insurance to their employees. Spouses and children cannot get covered. In that case, you can buy insurance with a subsidy through the marketplace.

Families with expensive employer coverage:

If you can purchase family coverage through your or your spouse’s employer, then you will not qualify for subsidies. If an employee can gain individual coverage for himself or herself for less than 9.56 percent of total household income, the insurance is considered affordable. Coverage for the family isn’t factored into the affordability calculation.

This so-called “family glitch” affects two million to four million people and requires them to pay high prices for premiums. If you are caught in this situation, your children may qualify for CHIP. However, uncovered spouses and children must purchase insurance or pay the individual mandate penalty unless coverage for the family costs more than 8.05 percent of your household income. Even in those cases, you will still not qualify for premium assistance.

Senator Al Franken, D-Minn., has proposed a Family Coverage Act that may rectify the tax code, but it has not been passed.

Individuals getting married in 2018:

If you’re getting married next year, your subsidy depends on your combined income. In the months preceding your marriage, your income is one-half of your and your spouse’s combined income. Once you get married, your subsidy is based on your joint income and your qualifying family.

You need to report a marriage to be eligible for a special enrollment period on HealthCare.gov or through your state’s insurance exchange.

Individuals getting divorced in 2018:

If you get divorced or legally separated in 2018, you must sign up for a new health insurance plan after you separate. Your subsidy will be based on your income and household size at the end of the year. However, you will need to count subsidies received during your marriage differently than subsidies received when you’re legally separated.

For the months you are married, each spouse divides advanced subsidies received to each new household. If spouses cannot agree on a percentage, the default is 50 percent. If the plan only covered one taxpayer and his or her dependents, then the advanced tax credits apply 100 percent to that spouse.

Divorce reduces your income, but it also reduces your household size. These factors change your estimated subsidy. How much will depend on the magnitude of each change.

Reporting a divorce makes you eligible for a special enrollment period. When you enroll in a new plan, the exchange website will help you estimate your new subsidy for the remainder of the year.

Giving birth or adopting a child:

You have 60 days from the birth or adoption of your child to enroll him/her in a health care plan. If you miss this window, your child will not have health coverage, and you will pay a penalty. However, if you enroll your child in a timely manner, you can expect your subsidy to increase.

Report the birth or adoption of a child to be eligible for a special enrollment period on HealthCare.gov or via your state’s insurance exchange.

A newborn or adopted child may be eligible for CHIP rather than subsidized health insurance.

Turning 26:

If you’re on your parents’ insurance, generally you can stay until you have turned 26, but you should check your plan to be sure. You will have a 60-day special enrollment period to get your own plan from the health care exchange when you turn 26.

You may also be eligible for a special enrollment period from an employer-sponsored health plan. If you fail to have health insurance for more than three months, you will pay a penalty.

Losing employer coverage:

If you lose employer-based health coverage, you can either enroll in COBRA or purchase a plan through the health care exchange. Once you enroll in COBRA, you become ineligible to purchase subsidized coverage through the exchange.

You need to report job status changes to be eligible for a special enrollment period on HealthCare.gov or your state’s insurance exchange.

Changes in income:

Premium tax credits are based on your annual income. If you increase your income, you will be expected to pay back some or all of the advance premium you received. If you earn more than 401 percent of the federal poverty line, all premiums need to be repaid. If you earn less than 400 percent of the federal poverty line, you may have to pay back $2,500 of advanced premiums per family or $1,250 for individuals.

You need to report income changes to avoid under- or overpaying on your premiums throughout the year.

Moving states or counties:

Most insurance plans that you purchase through the marketplace are state- and county-specific. If you move, you need to report the relocation through the insurance exchange. You may have to change insurance plans after moving. Moving to Alaska or Hawaii will allow you to claim a greater subsidy amount than you can claim in the lower 48 states. If you move from Alaska or Hawaii, you can continue to claim the higher subsidy amount for the whole year.

Part III: Bronze, silver, gold, platinum: Choosing the right Obamacare plan for your needs

The health care exchanges — both federal- and state-run — classify health insurance plans into four categories: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. Metal categories are based on how you and your plan split the costs of your health care.

According to a 2016 study by the Department of Health and Human Services, 76 percent of consumers who bought a silver plan in 2016 stood to save an average of $58 a month by switching to the lowest-premium plan in 2017.

But that doesn’t meant the cheapest plans are necessarily best for you. They often come with higher out-of-pocket expenses, like deductibles, which can make them very expensive if you end up needing lots of medical care through the year.

Think of this way — the higher the premium, the more comprehensive the coverage will be and the lower your out-of-pocket costs. If you expect that you’ll need fairly frequent medical care or treatment, you might be better off choosing a more comprehensive plan despite the higher monthly premium.

Obamacare ‘Metal’ Plans: Explained

Bronze Plan

Cheapest premium, 60% coverage

Bronze health plans offer the least amount of estimated coverage. Insurers expect to cover 60 percent of the health care costs of the typical population. These plans feature the lowest monthly premiums, the highest deductibles and high out-of-pocket maximum expenses. Just under one-quarter (23 percent) of health insurance enrollees opted for a Bronze plan in 2017.

Silver Plan

Moderate premium, 70% coverage

Silver health plans offer moderate estimated coverage. Insurers expect to cover 70 percent of health care costs, and plan members cover the remaining 30 percent. If you qualify for cost-reduction subsidies (also called “extra savings”), you must purchase a silver plan. In 2017, 71 percent of all participants in the health care exchanges opted for a silver plan.

Gold Plan

High premium, 80% coverage

Gold health plans offer high levels of estimated coverage. Insurers expect to cover 80 percent of health care costs, while plan members cover the remaining 20 percent. These plans feature high monthly premiums, but lower deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums. Only 4 percent of all health insurance consumers on the health care exchanged opted for a gold plan in 2017.

Platinum Plan

Highest premium, 90% coverage

Platinum health plans offer the highest level of protection against unexpected medical costs. Insurers expect to cover 90 percent of medical costs, and plan members cover the remaining 10 percent. These plans have the highest monthly premiums and the lowest deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums. Just 1 percent of all health insurance exchange participants purchased a platinum plan in 2017.

Catastrophic Plans

Cheapest premium, lowest coverage

Catastrophic health plans: People under age 30 or with hardship exemptions may purchase individual catastrophic health insurance plans. These plans are not available for families. Catastrophic plans do not have a cost-sharing component. Your out-of-pocket maximum will be $7,350. Once you reach $7,350 in medical expenses, your insurance company will pay the remaining costs.

Catastrophic plans cover most preventive services. Catastrophic plans generally offer the lowest monthly premiums, but you can’t use a premium tax credit to reduce your monthly cost.

Now that you know all the types of plans offered, it’s time to choose the one that fits your needs.

What to consider before choosing a plan

Choosing a health plan can seem like a daunting task, but you can get all the help and information you need to make an informed decision. Your health and your pocketbook matter, and we want to help you protect both.

Your tax subsidy: Before you choose a plan, you’ll decide whether to receive advanced or deferred subsidies.

If you take your subsidy upfront, it will reduce your premiums right away. If you defer it, then it will be given to you as a tax credit when you file your taxes. If you over- or underpay your premiums throughout the year, the will have to reconcile the amount owed at tax time.

Most people with predictable income and household size should take most or all of the subsidy upfront. However, if you expect to undergo a major life change (such as an increase in income, a marriage or a divorce), consider taking less of your subsidy in advance.

Time to shop. For people shopping for 2018 coverage, the average number of plans available is 30. Rather than comparing every plan, we recommend creating criteria around the following variables:

  1. Monthly cost: Consider how the monthly premium will affect your budget. This does not mean you should choose the plan with the lowest premiums, but you should consider the price. People without chronic conditions who have adequate emergency savings may want to at least consider opting for an option with low monthly premiums.
  2. Deductible and co-insurance: Do you have the emergency fund or income you need to cover a small medical emergency? A broken arm, stitches or an unexpected infection can result in hundreds of dollars in medical costs. If you have a high-deductible plan, you’ll need to cover these costs without help from the insurance company. If possible, choose a plan with a deductible that you could comfortably cover out of your savings or income.
  3. Maximum yearly cost: Add the annual cost of your premiums and your out-of-pocket maximum to determine your maximum yearly cost. In a worst-case scenario, this is the amount you will pay out of pocket. People with chronic conditions that require heavy out-of-pocket fees should try to limit their maximum yearly cost. A plan with a higher maximum yearly cost may represent a higher risk.
  4. Services and amenities: All insurance plans from the marketplace cover the same essential health benefits, but some offer more unique services such as medical management programs, vision and dental coverage.
  5. Health savings accounts: If you choose a high-deductible plan, you may want to opt for one lets you contribute to a tax-advantaged health savings account. Any money you contribute to this account (up to annual established limits) reduces your taxable income, and will not be taxed upon withdrawal when it used for medical expenses.
  6. Network of providers. It’s important to be sure that your preferred medical providers contract with the plan you choose. Not every doctor is “in network” with every insurance plan. You can check each plan’s provider directory before making a selection.

Once you have a firm grasp of your particular criteria, look for plans that fit your needs and ignore the rest.

Using the exchange website, you can filter and sort plans based on these factors. Most people need to balance cost and coverage to find a plan that works for them.

If you are part of the minority that need to buy their own health insurance plans, you should know that not every state uses HealthCare.gov to host their state’s health insurance exchange. Residents in the following states should use their specific state exchange to look for health insurance:

California; Colorado; Connecticut; Washington, D.C.; Idaho; Maryland; Massachusetts; Minnesota; New York; Rhode Island; Vermont; Washington.

Part IV: How to enroll in Obamacare

Applying for insurance takes 30-60 minutes if you have all the necessary information in hand.

Your Obamacare enrollment checklist:

  • Names, birthdates and Social Security numbers for all members of the household
  • Document numbers for anyone with legal immigration status
  • Income information for all coverage-holders
  • Information about employer-sponsored health plans
  • Tax return from previous year (to help predict income)
  • Student loan documents
  • Alimony documents
  • Retirement plan documents
  • Health Savings Account documents

State or federal marketplace?

If your state does not offer its own health care exchange, you should use HealthCare.gov. As mentioned in the previous section, each state has the right to choose whether to run its own or use the federally run exchange and some do use their own.

The state-run exchanges perform the same functions as the federally run exchange. They allow you to estimate your tax credit and purchase insurance. As a consumer, you must provide the same information to your state as you would on the federal exchange.

While the online user experience will vary when states adopt their own online marketplace, the Affordable Care Act is a federal law and program. This means that the requirements and benefits do not change from state to state, even if the exchange platform changes.

The website interface for the federal exchange is simple, but answering the questions may be confusing. It’s important to fill out the application as accurately as possible so you can enroll in the best health insurance plan for you.

We’ve done our best to clarify the confusing portions in our step-by-step process below.

Filling out your Obamacare application

Family and household info

Start the application by filling out contact information and basic information about members of your household. Even if a member of your family will not need coverage, include that relative in your application.

The website will help you determine if a member of your household has insurance options outside the health care exchange. It will also help you determine if a person is a dependent. For the purpose of the health care exchange, your family includes all the people included on your income tax filing.

You need to know Social Security numbers, birthdates, immigration and disability status, and whether each household member can purchase health insurance through an employer plan.

Income and deductions

Next you’ll estimate your income for the coming year. Include all the following forms of income:

  • Jobs
  • Self-employment income (net)
  • Social Security benefits
  • Unemployment income
  • Retirement income
  • Pensions
  • Capital gains
  • Investment income
  • Rental/royalty income
  • Farming and fishing income
  • Alimony received

Afterward you’ll enter deductions. The application calls out student loan interest and alimony paid, but you should estimate all “above-the-line deductions” that should be included. These include:

  • Retirement plan contributions: 401(k), 403(b), 457, TSP, SEP-IRA, simple IRA, traditional IRA
  • Contributions to a Health Savings Account
  • Self-employed health insurance premiums
  • Tuition and fees paid
  • Educator expenses (up to $250 per teacher)
  • Half self-employment tax
  • Moving expenses
  • Early-withdrawal penalties from a 1099-INT

Do not double-count income or deductions since you’ll fill out these forms for each person. If you make a mistake, you can edit it when you review your household summary.

Additional information

Finally, you’ll fill out a few other miscellaneous details that will allow the application to confirm that you are eligible for subsidies or marketplace insurance.

It’s especially important that you have accurate information about job-related coverage for you and your family. This information will determine your eligibility for subsidies and other government programs.

Completing Obamacare enrollment

After you complete the application, you can review and submit it. At this point, the system will suggest which members of your household should complete CHIP or Medicaid applications. The remaining family members can enroll in a health insurance plan.

Part V: Where to get help enrolling In Obamacare coverage

Because of the complex nature of the marketplace exchange, there are marketplace navigators. These professionals provide free, unbiased help to consumers who want a hand filling out eligibility forms and choosing plans.

Marketplace navigators. You can find local marketplace navigators through the health care exchange website.

Be advised: The Trump administration has slashed budgets for health care navigators, leading some states to close down the programs altogether. As a result, it may make it difficult to find help locally from a navigator in some states.

Nonprofit organizations. Outside the exchange, nonprofit organizations are working to help people gain coverage by teaching them about their insurance options. Enroll America offers free expert assistance to anyone who makes an appointment. You can use the connector below to make an appointment with one of their experts.

Insurance brokers. Brokers can offer another form of help. Brokers aim to make it easier for consumers to compare insurance plans and apply for coverage. Insurance brokers have relationships with some or all of the insurance companies on the marketplace. Using a broker will not increase the price you pay for a plan, and it will not affect your subsidies. However, here’s another important note: Online brokers may not have 100 percent accuracy regarding a plan’s details. It’s important to visit a plan’s website before you enroll in a plan.

If you want to work with a broker, consider some of these top online brokers. PolicyGenius compares all the plans that meet criteria that you establish, and they serve up the top two plans that meet those criteria. HealthInsurance.com makes applications quick and easy, and the site specializes in special enrollment help.

Medicare plan finder. If you’re over age 65, use Medicare Plan Finder to find a Medicare plan that works for you.

CHIP: Likewise, if you think your children qualify for CHIP, use Insure Kids Now to enroll them in your state’s plan.

PART VI: Frequently asked questions

What happens if I don’t apply for insurance?

In most cases, you must enroll in health insurance or you’ll have to pay a penalty.

The penalty for 2018 hasn’t yet been released, but the 2017 penalty was calculated as the greater of 2.5 percent of your income (up to the national average cost of a bronze plan) or $695 per adult and $347.50 per child (up to $2,085).

This steep penalty means that most people are better off purchasing some health insurance.

However, under certain circumstances you can avoid buying insurance and avoid paying the penalty. These are a few of the most common exemptions:

  • Health care cost-sharing ministry members: Must show evidence of membership
  • Low income, no filing requirement: If you do not earn enough income to file taxes, then you are automatically exempt from paying a noncoverage penalty.
  • Coverage is unaffordable: For 2017, if you, your spouse, or your dependents cannot obtain employer coverage or a bronze plan for less than 8.05 percent of your income (after applicable subsidies), you may opt out of coverage. (However, if your individual coverage from an employer costs less than 9.56 percent of your income, and your employer offers family coverage, nobody in the family will qualify for subsidies).
  • Short coverage gap: You went without insurance for less than three months.
  • Living abroad: No coverage is required if you live abroad for at least 330 days.
  • General hardships:These include homelessness, eviction, foreclosure, unpaid medical bills, domestic violence and more.  (You must get a marketplace exemption.)
  • Unable to obtain Medicaid: If you earn less than 138 percent of the federal poverty line, and your state didn’t expand Medicaid, you don’t have to purchase health insurance.
  • AmeriCorps coverage
  • Members of qualified religious sects: Must be granted exemption through HealthCare.gov.

Although you will not pay a penalty, you may still want to seek out catastrophe insurance or some other coverage to help with high potential health costs.

What happens if my plan was canceled?

For 2018, some insurers dropped their insurance plans from the health care exchange. In some states, major insurers Aetna and Humana are exiting the exchange. As a consumer, you cannot assume that the plan you chose in the past will be around next year.

If you used HealthCare.gov in the past, and your insurance plan remains in place, you’ll automatically be enrolled in the same plan again this year. This is true even if important variables like the deductible and premiums changed from last year.

If your plan was canceled, HealthCare.gov will automatically enroll you into a new health insurance plan with a price and coverage quality comparable to your previous plan’s.

Although the federal exchange will help you opt into a new plan (ensuring that you have some health insurance coverage), it’s far better to select a new plan on your own. You can enroll in a new plan Nov. 1 through Dec. 15. If you do not enroll in a new plan during this time, you will be stuck with the automatic enrollment option.

Whether you’re shopping for a new plan or reviewing an old plan, take these steps before open enrollment ends.

  • Update personal information on your application. Your income, household size, where you live and more will affect plan and subsidy eligibility. It’s important to keep your application up to date. The plan that fit you last year may no longer be appropriate, but you won’t know unless you keep the information current.
  • Review your plan before you re-enroll. You should receive a notification in the mail if your plan has been changed or canceled. Take the time to understand if the changes affect you.
  • Compare plans that fit your needs. Consider enlisting free help from a health care navigator, a nonprofit or a broker to help you decide.
  • Choose the plan that best fits your needs and your budget.

What options do students (and their dependents) have for health insurance?

University students who are enrolled full time have multiple options for health insurance.

Under age 26: All student under age 26 may continue to receive coverage from their parents’ insurance plan even if living in another state. Of course, it may make more sense to gain coverage in the state where you’re living, so review the coverage network with your parents. Many coverage networks only include doctors in a few ZIP codes.

If you visit an out-of-network doctor, you will face higher deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums. As an alternative to staying on your parents’ plan, you can purchase your own health insurance plan through the health care exchanges even if you are a dependent.

Students who are dependents and over age 26 may be required to purchase their own health insurance plans.

University coverage: Many students will opt for a student health plan from their university. In general, student health plans meet minimum qualifying coverage criteria, and are affordable options. However, student health plans are not treated as employer coverage. Because of that, students may still qualify for Medicaid or insurance premiums. Students (especially independent students) should look into these alternatives when reviewing their insurance options.

The spouses and dependents of students must take time to understand their options. These are a few common scenarios:

If a student or spouse has an affordable employer-sponsored plan that covers family members: Student and spouse do not qualify for insurance subsidies or Medicaid. Children may qualify for CHIP. Student and spouse should seek coverage through either the student health plan or the employer-sponsored plan in most cases. All members of the family must have qualified health coverage, or they will pay the individual mandate penalty.

Student health plan doesn’t offer coverage for spouse or dependents, and neither spouse has an employer-sponsored health plan: Spouse and dependents can apply for Medicaid, CHIP or subsidized insurance through the health care exchanges (provided they meet income criteria). Student may choose any coverage option (including Medicaid or subsidized insurance) without paying a penalty.

Student health plan offers coverage of spouse or dependents, and neither spouse has an employer-sponsored health plan: Student, spouse and dependents may purchase the student health plan. They can also apply for Medicaid, CHIP or subsidized insurance through the exchanges (provided they meet income criteria). All family members may choose any coverage option without paying a penalty.

Where if I don’t qualify for a subsidy?

If you don’t qualify for a health insurance subsidy, you can still apply for health insurance through HealthCare.gov or your state’s health insurance exchange. However, some insurers offer more or different options outside the exchange. Anyone who doesn’t qualify for a health insurance subsidy should consider using an online broker instead to look for plans.

People who don’t qualify for a health insurance subsidy should reconsider their health insurance options in 2018. An analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation said that a number of insurers have requested double-digit premium increases for 2018. Based on initial filings, the change in benchmark silver premiums will likely range from -5 to 49 percent across 21 major cities. (These rates are still being reviewed by regulators and may change, the analysis said.)

With rapidly rising costs, enrollees without subsidies may want to consider the lower-cost bronze plans to see if they meet their health insurance needs.

Part VII: The ultimate Obamacare glossary

Understanding basic health insurance terminology can help you make a more informed decision about your options. Here are common terms you should know.

This credit can be taken in advance to offset your monthly premium costs. The subsidy is based on your estimated income and can be taken directly from your insurer when you apply for coverage. You must repay credits if you qualify for a smaller subsidy once taxes have been filed. You can learn more about repayment limitations here.

This program was designed to provide coverage to uninsured children who are low-income but above the cutoff for Medicaid eligibility. The federal government has established basic guidelines, but eligibility and the scope of care and services are determined at the state level. Your children may qualify for CHIP even if you purchase an insurance policy through the health care exchange. You can learn about CHIP eligibility through the marketplace or by viewing this table at Medicaid.gov.

Your share of the costs of a covered health care service. This is the percentage you must pay out of pocket after you have met your annual deductible. You pay a specific coinsurance amount until you meet your out-of-pocket maximum.

If you earn between 100-250 percent of the federal poverty level, you may qualify for additional savings. This extra savings reduces your out-of-pocket maximum, and it offers assistance with copays and coinsurance.

Disclaimer: There is ambiguity surrounding whether or not Congress and the White House will appropriate funds for the cost sharing subsidies. In October, President Trump used an executive order to cut off funding for the subsidies. However, the Affordable Care Act still requires that health insurers must issue them to all people earning 100-250 percent of the federal poverty line. As a result of this Trump executive order, many insurers raised premiums for silver plans. The premium increases will not affect the prices that people with subsidies will pay, but they will affect the prices you pay if you do not qualify for a subsidy.

Until the Affordable Care Act or the cost sharing subsidies are repealed, insurers will continue to pay cost reduction subsidies in 2018.

A fixed amount you pay for a covered medical service, typically when you receive the service or prescription. Also commonly referred to as a “copay.”

The amount you pay for covered health services before your insurer begins to cover part of your costs. According to the IRS, a high-deductible health insurance plan is any plan with a deductible over $1,300 for an individual or $2,700 for a family.

Medical services are only covered if you go to doctors, specialists or hospitals in the plan’s network (except in an emergency).

These plans focus on integrated care and focus on prevention. Usually, coverage is limited to care from doctors who work for or contract with the HMO. Generally, out-of-network care isn’t covered unless there is an emergency.

Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) allow you to save and invest money for current or future medical expenses. You do not have to pay any taxes on money you contribute to an HSA, and you can withdraw the money tax- and penalty-free if you use the funds for a qualified medical expense.

You can only contribute to an HSA if your insurance meets the standards for a high-deductible insurance plan. Individuals can contribute up to $3,450 to a health savings account, and families can contribute up to $6,900 in 2018.

If you shop for insurance through Healthcare.gov, plans will indicate whether they are HSA approved. To be an HSA compatible plan, your deductible must be at least $1,350 for an individual or $2,700 for a family. The out of pocket maximums on these plans must be less than $6,650 for an individual or $13,300 for a family.

The out-of-pocket maximums required by the IRS do not line up with Affordable Care Act maximums, so many plans with high deductibles will not allow you to contribute to an HSA. If contributing to an HSA is an important part of your financial plan, be sure to filter for HSA compatibility on HealthCare.gov. And be advised: Not everybody will have an opportunity to purchase a subsidized HSA-compatible health insurance plan.

If you can afford to purchase health insurance and choose not to, you will be charged an individual shared responsibility payment, in the form of a tax penalty. There are a few qualified exemptions, outlined in the guide above, that allow you to avoid the fine. For example, if your employer-sponsored health plan costs more than 8.05 percent for individual coverage, you will not have to pay the fine (though you will not qualify for tax credits).

The fine for 2018 has not yet been released, and Congress has considered removing the individual mandate requirement for 2018. If it is removed, we will update this piece with the required information.

For the 2017 tax year, the individual mandate was calculated two ways:

  1. 2.5 percent of household income (up to the total annual premium for the national average price of the marketplace bronze plan)
    OR
  2. $695 per adult and $347.50 per child (up to $2,085)

You had to pay the greater of the two penalties.

Medicaid: A joint federal and state program that provides health coverage to low-income households, some pregnant women, some elderly Americans and people with disabilities. Medicaid provides a broad level of coverage including preventive care and hospital visits. Some states provide additional benefits as well.

If you were a foster child who “aged out” of foster care, you can continue to receive Medicaid coverage until age 26 with no income limitations.

Medicaid Expansion: Obamacare gives each state the choice to expand Medicaid coverage to people earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty line. The primary goal of the ACA is reducing the number of uninsured people through both Medicaid and the health insurance marketplace. The Kaiser Family Foundation keeps track of expanded Medicaid coverage by state.

Medicare: Most people who are over age 65 and disabled people who have received Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payment for 25 months in the United States will qualify for a Medicare Health Insurance Plan. Open enrollment for Medicare, which started Oct. 15, runs through Dec. 7. You can learn more about Medicare plans from the Medicare Plan Finder.

The amount you pay each month for your health insurance.

The highest amount you will pay for covered services in a year. In 2018, all health insurance plans sold through the Federal Health Exchange will have a out-of-pocket limits of $7,350 for an individual or $14,700 for a family plan.

You pay less for medical services if you use providers in the health plan’s network. You need a referral from your primary care doctor to see a specialist.

You pay less for medical services if you use the providers in your plan’s network. You may use out-of-network doctors, specialists or hospitals without a referral. However, there is an additional cost.

All health insurance plans purchased through the health care exchange cover some preventive care benefits without additional costs to you. These benefits include wellness visits, vaccines, contraception and more.

Most insurance plans have preferred pricing with a group of health care providers with whom they have contracted to provide services to members.

The federal subsidy for health insurance that helps eligible individuals or families with low or moderate income afford health insurance purchased through a health insurance marketplace.

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Hannah Rounds
Hannah Rounds |

Hannah Rounds is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Hannah here

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