Smart SpendingSmart Spending

10 essential tips for navigating Obamacare

Trying to figure out how to use the new insurance exchanges? Here's how it's going for others, along with tools and advice.

By Nov 12, 2013 1:04PM

This post comes from Jeanne Pinder at partner site on MSN MoneyIf you're shopping for health insurance and your state built its own exchange, you might be very happy (Kentucky and New York, generally) or sort of happy (Oregon, where paper forms are now being used). If your state left the job to the feds -- meaning you are consigned to with its tech problems -- you are most likely less happy.

Injured man © image100, CorbisDon’t worry: you’ve got some time. Decisions should be made by Dec. 15 for coverage beginning Jan. 1.

We’re here to help. Here are 10 great tools and tips to shop for your health insurance.

1. Do your homework. Get your information from an unbiased source, and from someone who’s not trying to sell you something. Some of the news coverage is wrong, and a lot of the private-party and big-company information tools may malfunction, or simply point you toward a purchase of the big company’s products. They ask you to give up a lot of info (on the United HealthCare site, for example, email, family details, medical history) and give you vague info in return. Some of the "decision support" tools direct you into plans but can’t calculate a subsidy, or don’t suggest other insurers’ products.

2. Figure out if you qualify for a subsidy. The Kaiser Family Foundation made a great subsidy calculator to help you understand whether you qualify and how much it might be. It works like a charm ... but are the numbers correct? Hard to say, since many people have not yet chosen a plan or written a check. The site says these are rough estimates.

3. Planning to go without insurance, or wondering if you should? Understand that there will be penalties. There are some great calculators online to help you figure out what those penalties will be, depending on if you're an individual or if you have a family.

4. Do you have cancer or some other serious illness? It's important if you have a serious illness like cancer or HIV/AIDS that requires continual care that you do some serious research on the care you're currently getting and how changing your coverage could affect your costs and even which doctors you can go to.

5. Find your state's exchange. Not sure where your state's exchange is? You can find it by going to

6. Want to know the premium rates in your state? Kaiser Health News has links to the individual state exchanges, with rates, and also a link to the listing of premiums for the 36 states where the federal government is running the exchange.

7. Living in a state where you're dependent on and feeling that you’re in the dark? Don't lose hope. Many of us in states where the exchange is functioning are finding that prices and coverage are much better than before on COBRA or on the private market.

Example: I'm a head of household, nearing 60, with twin daughters, now 19. Our premiums on COBRA were $2,000 a month in New York about a year ago for pedestrian coverage and no pre-existing conditions. That's what the private market looked like, too. After a period on insurance from a part-time job, I’m again insuring myself, and looking on the exchanges, am finding premiums to be much lower. On the other hand, Charlie Ornstein at ProPublica wrote about a couple in California who found their premiums to be higher ($1,300 instead of $550 for the two), their deductible to be higher ($4,500 instead of $4,000) and fewer options on the California exchange. As they say, your results may vary.

8. Don't forget about the private market. If you don't qualify for a subsidy, the private market (insurers who chose not to sell on the exchanges or comply with exchange rules) may be a good alternative.

9. There are many other subtleties. The New York Times told us, for example, that silver plans (the 2nd-lowest premiums) qualify not only for premium subsidies, but also for cost-sharing on co-pays, depending on income, meaning that might be your best option. Read the fine print!

10. A lot of people actually qualify for free or nearly free insurance because of government subsidies. A recent series of reports says that as many as 7 million people might qualify, though it varies greatly from state to state. You can compare subsidy levels state by state.

A few experiences with health insurance shopping

Didn’t sign up yet? You’re not alone. A new study from the Commonwealth Fund on the first month of the exchanges says just one in five visitors to or the state marketplaces actually enrolled in a plan in the first month. Of those who did not enroll, 37 percent cited technical difficulties as a reason, 47 percent said they weren’t sure they could afford a plan, 46 percent said they were still trying to decide, and 42 percent said they thought the co-pays and deductibles are too high. "A majority of survey respondents, however, appear determined to gain coverage over the next few months," the survey added.

My friend Casey Quinlan, known as "the Mighty Mouth," and author of "Cancer for Christmas," is a very Web-savvy and well-informed resident of Virginia, where is the only choice. She reports that she couldn’t use the site with the Chrome browser. She also reports:

Discovering that most of the "get more information" linkage leads to what amounts to a feedback loop. If you contact the plans, they direct you back to and the toll-free number. Detailed plan info is hard to get. The Anthem plans I looked at had NO, I repeat NO, plan details available on their site. Page said "this content is not here."

The process itself, once you get in, is pretty easy to navigate, Web-wise, but there are a host of (as mentioned above) yet-unanswered questions.

I have enrolled in a plan, but have heard nothing from either HHS or the plan itself (Coventry/Bon Secours Carelink) since. Still no bill for 1st month's premium.

Casey, who has been uninsured since she completed treatment for breast cancer in 2008, added: "Overall, as a sophisticated and experienced health insurance consumer who has purchased individual and small business plans in the past, I'm left wondering how someone with no experience shopping for health insurance will navigate the process and wind up with something they're happy with ..."

My friend Nick, who went through, said: "Biggest issue I found was that there's no way to see a real side-by-side comparison of plan details. In some cases, the site will pass you to a specific carrier's site to see plan details. In many cases, the URL redirect didn't work. That said, I was still able to find a plan where my providers were in network and the out-of-pocket expenses were within my bounds."

As for me, a New Yorker, where the state-run exchange is my choice, I’m pretty much OK. I haven’t chosen yet, but feel sure I’ll have the tools to do so.

More from

Nov 12, 2013 1:42PM

Here's how to negotiate OboobCare:


1.) End it

2.) Defund it

3.) Rebel against it

4.) Refuse to participate no matter the cost

Nov 12, 2013 1:43PM
Here's an essential tip for navigating Obamacare: hide your wallet!!!!
Nov 12, 2013 1:47PM
How to navigate obummercare site....BOYCOTT
Nov 12, 2013 1:41PM
Nov 12, 2013 1:46PM
Do not sign up, they confirmed this morning that the security of the website is questionable at best. Don't volunteer for ID theft from a poorly developed website. Wait until they can confirm it is safe....
Nov 12, 2013 1:45PM

This just reads like another Obama support proclamation about this and basically laying it all at the feet of the American people- "see YOU dont know HOW to navigate"! The system works- its YOU that cant..


Why Why Why with all this mess are there STILL PENALTIES TO PAY THREATS at those of us who cannot afford it?

Meanwhile the Govt cronies and unions and big business are all EXEMPT?

Isnt that what LordBama should have done first thing after this mess was exposed?

He right off the bat should have said- ALL ARE EXEMPT!

But no they plow on and will put up bogus numbers and say its "up and operating and we congratulate Sebellius and her team"...

OK America "go get it"...see ya gotta head to Bermuda for some golf"!

Nov 12, 2013 1:56PM

This whole thing is doomed to FAIL.  "AFFORDABLE care act"....biggest joke ever.  Most people were happy with the insurance they had, and now tens of millions of policies are going to lose coverage because we needed to cover a few million without coverage.


  We need to start over and do something that actually works and is cost effective for everyone!  Repeal Obamacare NOW.

Nov 12, 2013 2:02PM
I don't want to budget for Obamacare.  I want it gone.  It's a joke and a very expensive joke to say the least. 
So you CANNOT do side-by-side comparisons on the vaunted website? Lie number kajillion by Obama? No one at HHS thought to make the companies submit information on their policies in a standardized table format?
Nov 12, 2013 1:55PM

1. Close your browser window.

2. Log off. 


Nov 12, 2013 1:49PM
Here is an idea do nothing if you do you are opening a big can of worms your personal info is easy access to anyone your ss# your ID's the government wants control under Obama(Osama) in everything you do you will have no rights att all
Nov 12, 2013 2:10PM
Welcome to your hope and change! The fundamental transformation of this once great Country!
Nov 12, 2013 2:13PM

Surviving Obamacare....


1. DEMAND the law be repealed in its entirety. Tell your congressman and senators you do not give a f#@& if it is the law of the land, so was slavery and prohibition.

2. VOTE OUT OF OFFICE EVERY Congressman and Senator that voted in favor of this "law".

3. DO NOT SIGN UP FOR IT ! ! Even if you have to go without insurance. If something major happens, sign up then, otherwise, ignore the law and pay out of pocket till this law is gone. Most likely you will save thousands of dollars.

4. Spread the word.

5. Next time heed the warning of Socialist Takeover Scheme's of the Democrat Party.

Nov 12, 2013 2:30PM
Here is the most important tip of all - VOTE REPUBLICAN.

To vote democrat is to vote for failure!

Nov 12, 2013 1:56PM
I have fill out the online application since week one, and tried it five different times to get thru the application, keep telling me my application is incomplete.  I also went to see the navigator for help, but that didn't help neither.  A whole month passed by, still can't get it done...thinking about mailing the paper application this week.....My god, we can purchased a product from in 15 minutes, but purchasing medical insurance takes forever.....It's so insane!!!
Nov 12, 2013 2:19PM
Man-o Man, I'm so glad to see the numbers starting to come out on Obamacare sign ups. There literally knocking the doors down at the web site trying to sign up, no wonder with a whopping 50,000 sign ups the first month the site crashes.

All those folks over at MSNBC sure nailed it about how great this ACA was going to be for all of us uninformed morons over here to the right. Man thanks for saving us from ourselves.........  
Nov 12, 2013 2:23PM
If this was truly about heath care. It would not be 20000 pages on how to control health insurance.
Nov 12, 2013 2:11PM
Buy Life-lock before divulging all your finacial information to this unsecured website.
Nov 12, 2013 2:00PM
No links to ANY of the rsouces (calculators, etc.) listed in the article? Jeez, dude, get it together.
Nov 12, 2013 2:34PM
Questions?  Anyone?  Anyone?  This article is about as helpful as - well, its not!!!  This was just another example of anemic journalism to hope to benefit from a current issue.  If all this help is out there, were are are the embedded links?  where are the lists to choose from?  Instead of helping, these sources simply complicate and frustrate the matter.  The end result is still going to be the same -- we/re screwed!!!  I don't think many people have a clue from what all directions this is going to cost us.  Better start limbering up because one day soon you may have to just bend over and kiss your butt goodbye!!!!
Please help us to maintain a healthy and vibrant community by reporting any illegal or inappropriate behavior. If you believe a message violates theCode of Conductplease use this form to notify the moderators. They will investigate your report and take appropriate action. If necessary, they report all illegal activity to the proper authorities.
100 character limit
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


Copyright © 2014 Microsoft. All rights reserved.

Fundamental company data and historical chart data provided by Morningstar Inc. Real-time index quotes and delayed quotes supplied by Morningstar Inc. Quotes delayed by up to 15 minutes, except where indicated otherwise. Fund summary, fund performance and dividend data provided by Morningstar Inc. Analyst recommendations provided by Zacks Investment Research. StockScouter data provided by Verus Analytics. IPO data provided by Hoover's Inc. Index membership data provided by Morningstar Inc.


Smart Spending brings you the best money-saving tips from MSN Money and the rest of the Web. Join the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.