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Five Things to Know About Montana’s Health Exchange
In Montana and across the country, new online insurance marketplaces opened for business Tuesday
A pair of nurses check on a patient at North Valley Hospital in Whitefish. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
HELENA — Montanans looking to shop for health insurance under the state's new marketplace Tuesday encountered delays and dead-ends as they tried to work through the federally run website on its first day.

But health care providers assisting with enrollment under a key portion of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act said many people are looking for information at this point and aren't yet ready to pull the trigger and enroll.

Montana is one of 36 states where the online exchange is run by the federal government at http://www.healthcare.gov . On Tuesday morning, as a rush of people logged on to the website to check the available plans, many were met with a message saying "We have a lot of visitors on our site right now and we're working to make your experience here better."

Later, visitors were able to enter some personal information only to reach a dead-end when asked to enter answers to security questions that never appeared.

State and insurance industry officials had said to expect glitches in the new system. Health organizations awarded federal grants to help navigate consumers through the process said they were still able to provide the information about the new health coverage to those who came seeking.

"I think that for all of us, we didn't really know what to expect. This is not a sprint, this open enrollment period is a marathon," said Lindsay Love, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, one of the three federally funded navigators in Montana. "Going into this today, we just wanted to be flexible and adapt."

The enrollment period goes through Dec. 15 for coverage that begins in January, and people can wait until March to enroll to avoid tax penalties in 2014.

The exchange is meant to help people who don't have insurance find health coverage, and those with insurance to compare plans in an open marketplace. In Montana, three companies are offering coverage through the exchange: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana, PacificSource and the Montana Health Co-Op.

Different plans have different premiums, taking into account the level of coverage, the age of the consumer and the size of the family, among other factors. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says the cheapest "bronze" plans in Montana have a weighted average of $251 per month.

Subsidies are offered to people who earn less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

Most people who decide not to by coverage will face a tax penalty of at least $95 the first year, which is to rise to at least $695 by 2016. Consumers have until March to avoid tax penalties in 2014.

Desiree Acholla, a 30-year-old University of Montana student studying anthropology, said she has health insurance through the university but wanted to see if there is a cheaper option through the exchange.

She initially encountered some of the website delays when she tried to sign up, but was able to get to some of the instructional areas of the website and ask questions of one of the Planned Parenthood navigators, which is what she was mainly interested in.

"I just wanted to know more information, to get educated about what the options are," Acholla said. "I know I will probably sign up before March 1, but just now I wanted to know more information."

In eastern Montana, Montana Health Network executive assistant Jody Fiechtner said the network's navigators did not see many people coming in to its health clinics and facilities asking about the exchange.

"They've had a few calls with questions, and I know there was a problem with the website," Fiechtner said of the navigators.

The network's navigators, along with others across the state, are still building their programs. They expect to train more people and go out into rural communities, where many of the state's uninsured residents live.

"I think there is going to be a steady ramping up of people taking advantage of the marketplace," Love said. "One thing we know, a lot of people still don't know what it means to them or how it could benefit them."

The Beacon wrote an expansive feature recently about the upcoming changes.
Here are five things to know about the new health exchange in Montana:

WHAT IS IT?

The insurance marketplaces are at the heart of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul requiring most Americans to have insurance coverage starting next year. The exchanges opened Tuesday for consumers to shop for plans, with coverage to begin in January.

WHO IS OFFERING INSURANCE?

In Montana, three companies are offering coverage through the exchange: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana, PacificSource and the Montana Health Co-Op.

WHAT DOES IT COST?

Different plans have different premiums, taking into account the level of coverage, the age of the consumer and the size of the family, among other factors. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says the cheapest "bronze" plans in Montana have a weighted average of $251 per month, while the more expensive "silver" plans average $316 per month. Subsidies are offered to people who earn less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

WHERE TO GO:

Montana is one of 36 states in which the federal government is running the health exchanges through this website. Consumers can also sign up through a call center, in person or by mail. Planned Parenthood of Montana, the Montana Primary Care Association and the Montana Health Network have been awarded federal grants for navigators to tell people their options to buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

WHAT IF I DECIDE NOT TO BUY INSURANCE?

People who decide not to by coverage will face a tax penalty of at least $95 the first year, which is to rise to at least $695 by 2016. Consumers have until Dec. 15 to choose coverage that begins in January, and until March to avoid tax penalties in 2014.
 
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