5 Things You Might Not Know About Shopping for Your New Obamacare Plan

Tomorrow Americans can start shopping for health insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare). If you are like most people, you're probably confused about Obamacare, and might have put off doing your research. Here are some basic tips you should keep in mind come October 1st.

1. Your state may have its own insurance shopping website

  • Do you live in a state that opted to run its own marketplace, or is it under federal direction? If you don't know, The Commonwealth Fund's interactive map will provide you with more than enough information.
  • All shoppers that reside in states with federally-run marketplaces can see their options on healthcare.gov. State-run marketplaces have their own websites, which aren't always easy to find. Simplify your life by using NerdWallet's marketplace directory.
  • 2. The website will probably be confusing

    • You'll see the term "marketplace" over and over again. Don't let it confuse you -- health insurance marketplaces are just a fancy name for the agency that controls the plans you'll see when you start shopping.

  • You can ignore the sections of the website for employers, employees, and brokers. Look for something like "individuals and families" to lead you to the right place to shop for plans.
  • All of the marketplace websites will have resources if you're still confused. Head to FAQ for basic answers -- consider calling the 24/7 hotline for phone help. If you prefer in-person assistance, you can talk to a Navigator (a person paid by the government to work in community centers to help insurance shoppers with the enrollment process).
  • 3. You'll be asked for some personal information

    • In order to see your plan options, you'll need to enter your household size, your age and the ages of other household members, zip code, marital status, social security number, and whether or not you smoke. You won't however, have to answer questions about your health status, because Obamacare plans are required to accept everyone -- and they aren't allowed to charge you more for pre-existing conditions.
  • Most importantly, you'll need to dig up your 2012 tax forms to find your household's Adjusted Gross Income (line 37 on Form 10-40). Many currently uninsured Americans are eligible for premium assistance (a government-funded discount on your monthly insurance payments), but you'll need a valid income to get this discount. An uninsured individual has good chances of finding a plan for less than $100 per month. You can calculate your premium assistance now using the Kaiser Family Foundation's free Subsidy Calculator.
  • 4. You might be overwhelmed (or excited) by all your options

    • The good news? No matter which plan you choose, you'll have access to the same standard benefits -- free preventative care, clear out-of-pocket limits, and more. And even though you might be puzzled by your choices at first, it's pretty simple once you understand how the plans are structured.

  • First, you'll need to pick a metal tier: Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum. For lower monthly premiums, opt for a Bronze plan -- but expect to pay more for copays, deductibles, and out-of-pocket limits. Higher metal tiers are the opposite. Pick your tier based on both your monthly budget and your health status.
  • Second, you'll be able to pick a company. For a given region (yes, your options will be different depending not only on your state, but also your location within the state) you will be able to choose from multiple insurance companies. If you don't want to do your own research, look to the Easy Index by Consumer Finance site NerdWallet. This listing helps you rank companies based on customer service, available technology support like on-line bill pay, and the size of the provider network (so you have more doctors to choose from).
  • 5. There are more important dates that you might think
    • You probably know that shopping starts on October 1st, and that coverage begins on January 1st, 2014. But do you have December 15th, 2013 marked on your calendar? You should make your first payment by then if you want coverage to start January 1st.
  • If you want to take your time shopping and don't need immediate coverage, you have until March 31st to sign up. After that date, you'll be subject to a tax penalty for not having an insurance plan. Visit Intuit's handy tool to calculate that penalty.