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How to pick an Obamacare insurance plan

If you'll be buying on the new Health Insurance Marketplace, you'll need to understand terms and trade-offs to choose from Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum plans.

By MSN Smart Spending editor Sep 26, 2013 12:39PM
This post comes from partner site Investopedia.

Investopedia logoAs part of the Affordable Care Act, the new Health Insurance Marketplace (or “Exchange”) opens for business on Oct. 1. The Marketplace is an online, one-stop shopping experience for health coverage designed to make it easier for individuals and families to compare and purchase insurance. Each state has its own Marketplace, which offers a variety of plans from participating health insurance companies.

Pills (© addition to finding health coverage, you can use the Marketplace to find out if you qualify for money-saving federal subsidies, including Cost-Sharing Reductions, which can lower your out-of-pocket costs, and Advanced Premium Tax Credits, which lower your monthly premiums.

These subsidies are available only on the Marketplace, and can make a significant difference in the type of coverage you might be able to afford.

During open enrollment, which runs from Oct. 1 through March 31, 2014, you can set up an account and fill out the online application on your state’s Marketplace to see the health coverage options available to you and find out if you qualify for subsidies.

Regardless of where you live, all plans in the Marketplace are separated into four “metallic” levels -- Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum -- based on how you and the plan can expect to share your health care costs. Here, we explain the different coverage levels and define some key terms to help you decide among Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum health insurance plans.

Understanding out-of-pocket costs

When you purchase health insurance, the amount you pay for the coverage each month is called the premium. You pay this whether or not you go to the doctor, visit the hospital or buy prescription medications. When and if you do receive health care, your costs – above and beyond the premium -- are based on your plan’s deductible, co-payment, coinsurance and out-of-pocket maximum. In order to make informed choices when comparing and purchasing health care plans, it is important to understand what these terms mean.

A deductible is the amount you have to pay for covered services before your insurance starts to pay. For instance, if you have a $2,000 deductible, you will pay 100% of your health care expenses until the amount you have paid reaches $2,000. After you meet your deductible, some services might be covered at 100% while others would require you to pay coinsurance (more on that below).

A co-payment (sometimes called “co-pay”) is a fixed dollar amount that you pay for certain health care services. Typically, you will have different co-payment amounts for different types of service, such as a $25 co-payment for a doctor’s office visit or a $150 co-payment for an emergency room visit. In most cases, any co-payments you make do not count toward your deductible.

Your share of the costs of a health care service is called coinsurance. Typically, this is figured as a fixed percentage of the total charge for a service, such as 15% or 30%. Coinsurance kicks in after you’ve met your deductible. For example, assume you’ve already met your $2,000 deductible and your plan’s coinsurance is 15%. If you have a hospital charge of $1,000, your share of the costs would be $150 (15% of $1,000). If your coinsurance was 30%, your share would be $300.

A plan’s out-of-pocket maximum (or out-of-pocket limit) is the most you pay during a policy period (typically a year) before your plan starts to pay 100% of the allowed amount. The money you pay for premiums and health care that your plan doesn’t cover (e.g. elective surgery) does not count toward your out-of-pocket maximum. Depending on your plan, your deductible, co-payments and/or coinsurance may apply toward the out-of-pocket maximum. The various health care plans have different out-of-pocket maximums; however, under health care reform, the 2014 limits are $6,350 for individuals and $12,700 for families.

Essential Health Benefits
For an insurance company to participate in the Marketplace, it must offer at least Silver and Gold plans. No matter what plan you choose -- Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum -- the same set of Essential Health Benefits will be covered:
  • Addiction treatment.
  • Ambulatory patient services.
  • Care for newborns and children.
  • Chronic disease treatment (such as diabetes and asthma).
  • Emergency services.
  • Hospitalization.
  • Laboratory services.
  • Maternity care.
  • Mental health services.
  • Occupational and physical therapy.
  • Prescription drugs.
  • Preventive and wellness services (such as vaccines and cancer screenings).
  • Speech-language therapy.
Covered benefits are the health care services that your insurer pays for under your plan. You may still be required to pay a co-payment or coinsurance, but the service is recognized by your plan. By comparison, if a service is not covered -- such as an elective surgery or chiropractic care -- you would be responsible for 100% of the associated costs.

The Essential Health Benefits are the minimum requirements for all plans in the Marketplace; certain plans will offer additional coverage, but no plan can offer less.

Actuarial value
The four levels of health plans -- Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum -- are differentiated based on their actuarial value: the average percentage of health care expenses that will be paid by the plan. The higher the actuarial value (i.e. Gold and Platinum), the more the plan will pay towards your health care expenses and, therefore, the lower your out-of-pocket costs for things such as:
  • Deductibles – the amount you owe for covered services before insurance kicks in.
  • Co-payments – a fixed amount you pay for a covered health care service.
  • Coinsurance – your share of the costs of a covered health care service.
The downside to the plans that provide more coverage is that you will pay a higher premium each month.

On average, a Bronze plan will cover 60% of covered medical expenses, and your share will be the remaining 40%. The actuarial value of each type of plan is shown here:

InvestopediaYour share of costs might come in the form of a large deductible with low coinsurance once you’ve met your deductible. Another plan might offer a low deductible with higher coinsurance. For example, Silver Plan A (which generally pays 70% of your health care expenses) offers a high $2,000 deductible and a low 15% coinsurance. Silver Plan B, on the other hand, has a low $250 deductible but a higher 30% coinsurance.

How much will it cost?

For any plan, your monthly premium will be based on several factors including:
  • Your age.
  • Whether you smoke (in some states you will pay a “surcharge” if you are a smoker).
  • Where you live.
  • How many people are enrolling with you (spouse and/or child).
  • Your insurance company.
Since your state’s Marketplace allows various private insurers to offer plans, a Silver plan from one company may cost more or less than the same plan offered by a different insurer. Plans offered by the same company, however, will increase in price as the actuarial value and the amount the plan pays go up. Starting in 2014 the federal limit for annual out-of-pocket expense for individuals (not including monthly premiums) is expected to be capped at $6,350; the family cap is $12,700. Certain plans may have even lower out-of-pocket caps.
How to decide which plan is best for you

Deciding which plan is best for you can be a challenge. You will have to consider your health and your financial situation as you compare plans. In general, if you expect to have a lot of health care visits or require regular prescriptions, you may be better off with a Gold or Platinum plan that pays a higher percentage of the costs. If, on the other hand, you are by-and-large healthy and don’t expect to have many health care bills, you might be comfortable choosing a Bronze or Silver plan. Of course, even healthy people can have accidents or become ill and end up with lots of medical bills, so you have to factor in your risk tolerance as well.

If your income falls between 100% and 250% of the federal poverty level ($11,490 to $28,725 for an individual), you may be eligible for a Cost-Sharing Reduction subsidy, which can help lower your deductibles, co-payments and coinsurance. In order to receive Cost-Sharing Reductions, you must purchase a Silver plan on the Marketplace. You will still have a variety of plans from which to choose, but it must be Silver to be able to take advantage of the Cost-Sharing Reduction subsidy.

Many people will qualify for Advanced Premium Tax Credits, a type of subsidy that lowers your monthly premium. You may be eligible for this subsidy if your income falls between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level ($11,490 to $45,960 for an individual).

Tip: The Cost-Sharing Reduction and Advanced Premium Tax Credits subsidies are not automatic: you must apply for them on the Health Insurance Marketplace.

The bottom line
When choosing a plan, it is helpful to remember that all plans -- Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum -- cover the same Essential Health Benefits. Your monthly health insurance premium will be higher if you choose a higher level plan, such as Gold or Platinum. But you will also pay less each time you visit a health care provider or get a prescription filled. Conversely, your monthly premium will be lower if you choose a Bronze or Silver plan, but you will pay more for each doctor visit, prescription or health care service that you use.

Finding a balance between coverage and costs can be challenging. Starting Oct. 1, you will be able to compare plans on the Marketplace to find the coverage that is the best fit for your financial situation and health care needs. You will also be able to apply for federal subsidies that can help reduce your health care costs.

More from Investopedia:

Sep 26, 2013 2:44PM

Article forgot the most important item - check with your doctor to see which insurance plan(s) they accept.  If you have to change doctors or  travel a 100 miles to find a doctor that accepts the plan, then it probably is not the right plan for you.  This may not be a significant factor for people in a big city, but in areas with limited medical choices - be careful.



Sep 26, 2013 3:19PM
No catastrophic only?  No, thanks.
Sep 26, 2013 3:44PM
Throw a dart. You'll find out what you get when you read it.
Sep 27, 2013 11:34AM
The forgot a metal....   "Lead"...  which is what we should give every supporter of Obamacare...

We grow tired of supporting the LEECH democrats...
Sep 27, 2013 10:31AM
I think it about time to stop workin and get on the Obama Train!!!!
Sep 27, 2013 11:35AM

Part One


This well-researched article omits the fact that young adults under a certain age, and I do not know whether the age is -29 and under- or -30 and under-, can purchase a lower-level of coverage than the Bronze level, known as Catastrophic coverage, that has a high annual deductible, but which will cost about 25% less than Bronze-level coverage for their age group. 


California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and several other States already have their ACA plans and their costs online, and Kaiser Health also already has a subsidy calculator online too.   You can find Colorado's ACA health plans and their rates using the Google search term "Colorado Health Insurance Exchange", and the Kaiser subsidy calculator using the search term "Kaiser ACA subsidy calculator".  


The Denver Business Journal also wrote a piece in August that found that Colorado's ACA plans and rates will be a better deal for Colorado businesses than were previous group health plans under previous (current) law.  


If your aggregate family income is below approximately $90K for a family of four, or below $45K for an individual, some of the stated premium cost will be covered by one or more subsidies as is stated in the news story above.   


I ran a couple of hypothetical scenarios using Colorado's ACA rates and Kaiser's subsidy calculator.  For a family of 4, a guy and his wife aged 57 and 53, with 2 kids at home under the age of 20, with an aggregate annual income of $70K, (middle-class), their rate after the subsidy for their income level (52%), including a $2500 annual deductible prorated as a monthly cost, for a Kaiser Silver 70/30 plan in the metro-Denver/Boulder region will be $524 per month total, while a Gold 80/20 plan will be $599 per month, and a Platinum 90/10 plan would be $673 per month from a different insurer.   A Bronze 60/40 plan would be $452 per month.


If you and your wife are only 40 years old, under the same scenario as above, your monthly cost will drop by approximately 35% from the above rates for the couple aged 57 and 53, and if you are only age 27, your monthly rates would drop another 20% or so below a couple aged 40.   If you are a 27 year old individual, and you earn $30K, your ACA rate for a Silver 70/30 plan at Kaiser in the metro Denver/Boulder region including your annual deductible prorated as a monthly cost as well as your subsidy percentage (22%), your monthly premium would be $229, (including 1/12th of the annual deductible and 1/12th of the subsidy).  If you only wanted a Bronze 60/40 plan your monthly cost would be $189 per month, and only $149 per month for the Catastrophic level of coverage that only young adults may choose.  

Jan 28, 2014 9:24PM
I would love to be able to switch to a plan that worked with my <a href='' >chiropractic care in Denver</a> . I think this article does a great job of summing up Obamacare. 
Sep 27, 2013 3:42PM
Obamacare = POTUS's rape room for the American citizen
Sep 26, 2013 1:35PM
so Im going from my dads insurance for free at age 26 to paying $250 a month for it FFFUUU
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