Lauren Vagelakos: Enroll in coverage or risk penalty

Special to The Gainesville Sun

The health insurance marketplace is closing in just a few short days — on March 31. With the next open enrollment period not beginning until fall of 2014, it is imperative that consumers enroll immediately in order to ensure health coverage and avoid paying a penalty.

What many North Central Floridians do not realize is that they may qualify for premium tax credits in the marketplace to help reduce the monthly cost of their insurance premiums. For example, a family of two with the Alachua County median household income of $41,373 could qualify for a monthly tax credit of $492 per month, reducing their monthly premium to $193 to cover their health care needs.

By enrolling in the health insurance marketplace now, North Central Floridians will benefit by having health coverage as soon as April and will avoid paying a penalty. This year, the penalty for not gaining health coverage by March 31 is $95 per adult and $47.50 per child or 1 percent of your family income, whichever is greater. The penalty for not having health coverage increases each year, and by 2016 it will be $695 per adult and $347.50 per child or 2.5 percent of your family income, whichever is greater.

After the March 31 deadline, it is possible to buy insurance through the marketplace if you experience a qualifying life event such as marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child, or loss of job. There is also no limited enrollment period for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and small business owners can start offering coverage to employees at any time.

Being the third-most populous state in the country, Florida faces a unique challenge in having many uninsured individuals. In North Central Florida, the amount of non-elderly uninsured individuals is at 22.5 percent. Many of these individuals have never had insurance before, so the plan-shopping process can be overwhelming. There are also many people that belong to the younger population — known as “young invincibles” — that do not understand the purpose and value of having health insurance.

To remedy this, WellFlorida Council has multiple health insurance marketplace navigators available to help guide North Central Floridians through the enrollment process. Since open enrollment, nearly 4,000 North Central Floridians have been reached by our navigators; whether it is getting their questions answered, enrolling in the marketplace, or weighing their coverage options and selecting a plan.

Navigators are well-equipped to answer all kinds of marketplace questions and are ready to offer application assistance in a variety of settings — from libraries to community centers to churches throughout the region. The navigators can be reached by phone and at different enrollment events in North Central Florida; to contact a Navigator for your area and to view an event calendar, visit http://ncfnavigators.org/.

With only a few days left to enroll, it is important that North Central Floridians know their options and get covered under the new health care law. The navigators are here to help you through the enrollment process so that you are able to make the most informed insurance decision for you and your family.

Lauren Vagelakos is project coordinator of WellFlorida Council’s navigator program for Alachua County and 14 other counties in North Central Florida.

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WellFlorida Council, Inc. is a private, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization created in 1969. We are the state designated local health council for 16 counties in North Central Florida and specialize in health-related consultancy for clients and projects throughout Florida.

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