While the Affordable Care Act (ACA) became law in 2010, several of the more substantive provisions of the law are not set to take effect until 2014. Here's a review of some of the key parts of the ACA that are scheduled to begin in 2014.
The ACA imposes a shared responsibility mandate, which requires that most U.S. citizens and legal residents of all ages (including children and dependents) have minimum essential health coverage or pay a penalty tax, unless otherwise exempt. The monthly penalty is equal to the greater of a declared dollar amount ($95 in 2014) or a percentage of the individual's gross income.
Note: The employer's mandate to provide coverage for employees was also scheduled to begin in 2014; however, the requirement will not be enforced until January 2015.
The ACA requires that each state establish state-based American Health Benefit Exchanges for individuals and Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) Exchanges for small employers. The Department of Health and Human Services will establish exchanges in states that do not create the exchanges. The general purpose of these exchanges is to provide a single resource in each state for consumers and small businesses to compare health plans, get answers to questions, and enroll in a health plan that is both cost effective and meets their health-care needs.
Exchanges may only offer qualified health plans that cover essential benefits, limit out-of-pocket costs, and provide coverage based on four levels of cost sharing–bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. Also, tax credits and cost-sharing subsidies will be available to U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who buy health insurance through the health exchanges.
Insurers must provide guaranteed issue and renewability of coverage
All individual and group plans must issue insurance to all applicants regardless of health status, medical condition, or prior medical expenses. Insurers must renew coverage for applicants even if their health status has changed. Grandfathered individual plans are exempt from these requirements. Grandfathered plans are those that were in existence prior to the enactment of the ACA (March 2010) and have not been significantly altered in subsequent years.
In the past, insurers used pre-existing medical condition provisions to deny coverage for care related to the condition (pre-existing condition policy exclusion), increased the premium to cover the condition, or denied coverage altogether. Beginning January 1, 2014, the ACA prohibits insurers in group markets and individual markets (with the exception of grandfathered individual plans) from imposing pre-existing condition exclusions.
In keeping with the guaranteed availability of coverage, insurers may not charge individuals and small employers higher premiums based on health status or gender. Premiums may vary only based on family size, geography, age, and tobacco use.
Essential health benefits
All non-grandfathered small group and individual health plans must offer a package of essential health benefits from 10 benefit categories. The categories include ambulatory patient services, emergency services, hospitalization, laboratory services, maternity and newborn care, mental health and substance abuse treatment, prescription drugs, rehabilitative services and devices, preventive and wellness services, and pediatric services, including dental and vision.
Other policy provisions
The ACA also imposes several requirements and eliminates other provisions commonly found in insurance policies:
- Group and individual policies (including grandfathered plans) may not impose waiting periods longer than 90 days before coverage becomes effective.
- Annual deductible for small group (fewer than 50 full-time equivalent employees) health plans (excluding grandfathered plans) must not exceed $2,000 per insured and $4,000 per family. These amounts are indexed to increase in subsequent years.
- The most you'll pay annually for out-of-pocket expenses (deductibles, coinsurance, and co-pays) for all individual and group health plans (excluding grandfathered plans) cannot exceed the maximum out-of-pocket limits for health savings accounts ($6,350 for individual/$12,700 for family in 2014).
- All group health plans and non-grandfathered individual health plans can no longer impose annual or lifetime dollar limits on essential health benefits.
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