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Health Insurance Exchanges Will Transform Market

Q: How will I know if I can get help with my health insurance premiums?

A: You'll disclose your income to the exchange at the time you apply for coverage and they'll let you know. Only legal residents of the United States can get financial assistance.

The health care law offers sliding-scale subsidies based on income for individuals and families making up to four times the federal poverty level, about $44,700 for singles, $92,200 for a family of four.

But do yourself a favor and read the fine print because the government's help gets skimpier as household income increases.

For example, a family of four headed by a 40-year-old making $35,000 will get a $10,742 tax credit toward an annual premium of $12,130. They'd have to pay $1,388, about 4 percent of their income, or about $115 a month.

A similar hypothetical family making $90,000 will get a much smaller tax credit, $3,580, meaning they'd have to pay $8,550 of the same $12,130 policy. That works out to more than 9 percent of their income, or about $710 a month.

The estimates were made using the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation's online calculator. Some people will also be eligible for help with their copayments.

Final note: Though it's called a "tax credit" the government assistance goes directly to the insurer. You won't see a check.

Q: What will the benefits look like?

A: The coverage will be more comprehensive than what's now typically available in the individual health insurance market, dominated by bare-bones plans. It will be more like what an established, successful small business offers its employees. Premiums are likely to be higher for some people, but government assistance should mostly compensate for that.

All plans in the exchange will have to cover a standard set of "essential health benefits," including hospitalization, doctor visits, prescriptions, emergency room treatment, maternal and newborn care, and prevention. Insurers cannot turn away the sick or charge them more. Middle-aged and older adults can't be charged more than three times what young people pay. Insurers can impose penalties on smokers.

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