Open enrollment begins for health exchanges

It's October, and that means the open-enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act has started.
The ACA, more commonly known as Obamacare, is the sweeping legislation passed in 2010 to reform healthcare in America. The main goal of the law is to allow people who can't afford healthcare coverage - or weren't able to get it because of pre-existing conditions - to find plans using tax credits to help pay for the cost. And that process has started.
Beginning next year, pretty much everyone in America will have to have health insurance under the law. If you don't have insurance, you will face a fine each year beginning in 2015 when you file your federal tax returns unless you don't earn enough money to pay taxes.
People without coverage and those currently paying for an individual healthcare plan can go to www.healthcare.gov to shop for plans on the Health Insurance Marketplace. You will be asked to enter basic information about yourself, household income and family size. The information you provide will dictate the size of your tax credit.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 3,200 people under age 65 in Barnwell County do not have health insurance. That's 17 percent of the county's population. And 450 of those individuals are younger than 19. For the state, around 19 percent of the population currently do not have insurance.
If you get insurance through your employer, Medicaid or Medicare you probably don't need to do anything. Those who have group insurance through their employer probably aren't going to find a better, cheaper plan on the Marketplace. People currently on Medicaid may find they are eligible for more benefits under the new law. If you want to get on the Marketplace just to see what's available that's fine too.
What everyone wants to know is how much the plans will cost on the Marketplace. Last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released data on the expected costs.
For Barnwell County, there will be 27 different coverage plans on the Marketplace. The plans are broken into three categories: bronze, silver and gold (there are no platinum plans offered in S.C.). Bronze plans are on the lower end in terms of quality and have the lowest premiums. Gold plans are on the higher end and have higher premiums.
Also, with a bronze plan you will pay more out-of-pocket expenses than with a gold plan.
There are also plans available for young people who just want coverage for a major health crisis - called catastrophic coverage.
According to HHS, a 27-year old living in South Carolina who makes $25,000 a year will pay $97 per month for the lowest cost bronze plan and $145 per month for the second lowest cost silver plan, taking into account tax credits. For a family of four in South Carolina with an income of $50,000 per year, the lowest bronze plan would cost only $109 per month.
Those figures are averages. Prices for plans will vary based on family size, income and a person's age. You don't have to get your insurance on the Marketplace, but then you won't receive a tax credit.
You will need access to the Internet and an email account to use the Marketplace. If you don't have access to the Internet, you can go to the Barnwell County Library and use the public computers. Library personnel can help you get to the Marketplace website.
To help with the rollout, the federal government gave grants to organizations across the country to have people trained and certified to help individuals navigate the website. But as of now no organization in Barnwell County has trained helpers.
While on the website, you can chat online with someone trained to help and answer questions. You can also call the federal helpline at (800) 318-2596.
People don't have to rush to get coverage right away; the enrollment period ends in March. In fact, it may be a good idea to wait and see how the service works for others.
So what if you don't want to pay for any coverage at all? According to healthcare.gov, the fine in 2014 for being uninsured is 1 percent of your yearly income or $95 per person for the year, whichever is higher. The fee increases every year. In 2016 it is 2.5 percent of income or $695 per person, whichever is higher. In 2014 the fee for uninsured children is $47.50 per child. The most a family would have to pay in 2014 is $285.