Maybe you feel overwhelmed by news coverage of it, or maybe you’ve hardly heard of it. Either way, the Affordable Care Act, now commonly known as Obamacare, is just around the corner.
Obamacare, the biggest piece of legislation passed during President Obama’s presidency, requires that Americans — depending on income level and citizenship status — have health insurance or pay a fine. Today, states had to open health exchanges, online insurance marketplaces that allow consumers to compare rates.
Many polls show Americans are largely uneducated about the law, especially those between 18 and 35 years old. Just 56 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds in a USA Today/Pew Research Center poll reported knowing about the individual mandate — that the uninsured must get insurance. In the same poll, only a quarter of respondents reported understanding the law “very well.”
So if you don’t understand much, you’re not alone. Here, we’ve answered five of your most basic questions.
What is Obamacare?
At its heart, Obamacare, formally known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aims to insure at least 26 million more Americans.
It requires everyone to have insurance beginning in January — barring limited exceptions — or else pay a fine. At $95, the fine is small in the law’s first year but continues increasing each year.
Obamacare makes insurance more accessible in multiple ways, including expanding eligibility for Medicaid, a federally- and state-funded program that provides free or low-cost health coverage to the poor. In states that choose to expand their Medicaid programs, those who make within 138 percent of the poverty level — $11,490 for an individual and $23,550 for a family of four — will be eligible.
Additionally, the government will provide tax subsidies to people who do not receive employer-provided insurance, the expanded Medicaid program or Medicare. That means the government will pay part of the cost of health insurance, and the amount varies depending on the income level and the size of the family.
What are the health exchanges?
The health exchanges are state marketplaces that essentially provide a one-stop shop of sorts for people looking to buy insurance. The idea is consumers can go to a website and compare various health plans and rates to decide which is best for them.
States can run the exchanges themselves or default to the federal government. Twenty-seven states — 23 of which are Republican-led — have allowed their marketplaces to be federally run, leading to less awareness among their residents of Obamacare’s provisions, according to the same USA Today/Pew poll.
This state, however, is one of the law’s most ardent supporters and is operating its own exchange, called the Maryland Health Connection.
What is the employer mandate?
One of the law’s most controversial provisions is requiring employers with more than 50 full-time employees to provide insurance to all employees working full time, which is defined as 30 hours or more a week. Employers pay a fine for every full-time employee they do not insure.
However, as more businesses complained they were not adequately prepared for this mandate, the White House announced over the summer the rule would be delayed by one year to 2015. That has not affected this university’s plans, though, and it plans to abide by all of the law’s requirements come January.
How am I going to be affected?
The answer depends on who you are.
The law allows those younger than 26 years old to remain under their parents’ health insurance, meaning most students on family plans won’t experience much immediate change. For employees at this university under its health benefits program, little will also change, as the university already provides health coverage to employees working 20 or more hours a week.
For graduates who have to purchase their own insurance, though, it’s a more complicated answer. Those with a full-time job will likely receive employer-provided insurance. Those who don’t, however, can shop in the health exchanges and may qualify for a tax subsidy.
What’s this talk of the law being repealed?
Since its passage in 2010, the law has faced a barrage of criticism. Republicans are especially opposed to it and have tried to repeal the law dozens of times. It was sent to the Supreme Court when 26 states filed a suit in hopes of overturning the law but it was subsequently upheld in 2012.
Last month, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a version of a budget bill that would strip the law of funding and later amended it to delay the law by a year and repeal a tax that helps pay for it. The Democrat-controlled Senate, however, won’t agree to a bill that impairs Obamacare’s ability to work — this led to in part to today’s government shutdown.
No matter how hard they try to repeal the law, though, you can pretty much guarantee Obama won’t sign a budget bill that hurts the law in any way. For better or worse, Obamacare will become the law of the land, and with exchanges open today, it’s nearly in full swing.