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Column: Choice and competition in health care

As we wish our friends and family a happy, healthy new year, these words have renewed meaning in 2014.

Today is a new day in health care for millions of families and individuals throughout Florida.

It's now against the law for insurance companies to deny you coverage or charge you more because of a pre-existing medical condition like diabetes, high blood pressure, or asthma. And they can no longer drop you from coverage just because you get sick or get into an accident.

What's more, insurance companies can no longer impose an annual cap on your health benefits. They can't deny you coverage simply because you made a mistake on your paperwork. Most plans must now cover preventive services like cholesterol and cancer screenings, at no out-of-pocket cost. And, being a woman is no longer a pre-existing condition.

It's all thanks to the health care law: the Affordable Care Act.

If you do not have health insurance through your job, you have an opportunity to obtain quality, affordable coverage through HealthCare.gov. In fact, you may even qualify for financial assistance to help lower the cost of your premiums.

The Health Insurance Marketplace has brought choice and competition to Florida that were previously unavailable: In the Tampa Bay area you can choose from 102 qualified health plans.

As millions of Americans learn about their new options, they're finding just how affordable health coverage can be under the new law. A family of four in Tampa earning $50,000 per year can obtain affordable coverage for as little as $165 per month (with premium tax credits).

Nationwide, six in 10 uninsured Americans can obtain coverage for as little as $100 a month or less.

And make no mistake: The plans offered on the Marketplace are actual, honest-to-goodness health insurance. By law, they must cover a set of essential benefits, including visits with doctors, prescription medications, hospital stays, ambulatory care, maternity and newborn care and preventive services.

You still have three more months to enroll in affordable coverage — the deadline is March 31, 2014.

If you want your health insurance to begin Feb. 1, you'll need to sign up by Jan. 15.

You can enroll online at HealthCare.gov, by phone at 1-800-318-2596/TTY 1-855-889-4325, on paper, or directly through an insurer, agent or broker. You can also find in-person assistance in your own community at LocalHelp.HealthCare.gov.

This is a milestone for the many families who have waited too long for affordable health insurance because of a broken system that was stacked against them. Before today, Americans could be dropped from coverage when they got sick, or locked out of the system if they had a health condition, or priced out in the first place because of their health status. Now, not only are there new rights and benefits, we are also seeing the slowest health care price inflation in 50 years.

Whenever I travel to Florida, I meet folks who tell me how long they've been waiting for the opportunity to obtain affordable coverage. Some have even been waiting their entire lives.

I keep thinking about Mick, a Florida college student who I met recently. Using HealthCare.gov, Mick was able to enroll in coverage through the Marketplace for $47 per month. He's already paid his first month's premium, and now has secure, quality coverage that he can afford because of the financial assistance available to him through the law.

For Mick and for millions of Americans like him, it's a new day in health care because of the Affordable Care Act. And we continue to work together toward the goal of making affordable coverage accessible to every American who wants it.

Kathleen Sebelius is secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Choice and competition in health care 12/30/13 [Last modified: Monday, December 30, 2013 7:53pm]

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