MONEY Taxes

Where to Get Free Tax-Prep Help

American flag graphic on laptop computer key
Pgiam—Getty Images

Use a free program from the IRS to get a jump on tax season.

The IRS Free File program is now open, giving the 70% of Americans with adjusted gross incomes of $60,000 or less free access to federal tax preparation and e-filing software from 14 different tax-prep companies.

Available on irs.gov, Free File provides links to software that can help guide you through preparing and filing the most commonly used tax forms. The site also has an online tool to help you determine which software is the best fit for you and a guide for filing new forms required by the Affordable Care Act. Some of the programs also offer assistance for filing state taxes, but fees may apply.

The IRS will begin accepting electronically filed returns on January 20, but you may not be ready that soon. By law your employer has until the end of January to send your W-2 form, which spells out how much you earned and how much you had withheld in taxes.

If you make more than $60,000 and feel comfortable doing your own taxes, you can use Free File fillable forms starting on January 20.

When combined with direct deposit, electronic filing is the fastest way to get your refund. Considering this year’s tax season is expected to be exceptionally frustrating for taxpayers, with long wait times when calling the IRS, getting a jump on the process might not be a bad idea. If you tend to be a procrastinator, remember the filing deadline for federal taxes is, as usual, April 15. That’s a Wednesday this year.

 

MONEY Health Care

The Most and Least Expensive Places in the U.S. for Health Insurance

South Franklin Street with Mount Roberts tram car passing overhead in Downtown Juneau, Alaska.
Buy your own health insurance? You're paying top dollar if you live in Alaska. Alamy

A survey of health insurance premiums on the exchanges finds that costs tend to be the highest in rural areas with less competition.

In health insurance prices, as in the weather, Alaska and the Sun Belt are extremes. This year Alaska is the most expensive health insurance market for people who do not get coverage through their employers, while Phoenix, Albuquerque, N.M., and Tucson, Ariz., are among the very cheapest.

In this second year of the insurance marketplaces created by the federal health law, the most expensive premiums are in rural spots around the nation: Wyoming, rural Nevada, patches of inland California and the southernmost county in Mississippi, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has compiled premium prices from around the country. (KHN is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

The most and least expensive regions are determined by the monthly premium for the least expensive “silver” level plan, which is the type most consumers buy and covers on average 70% of medical expenses. Premiums in the priciest areas are triple those in the least expensive areas.

Along with the three southwestern cities, the places with the lowest premiums include Louisville, Ky., Pittsburgh, and western Pennsylvania, Knoxville and Memphis, Tenn., and Minneapolis-St. Paul and many of its suburbs, the analysis found.

Starting this month, the cheapest silver plan for a 40-year-old in Alaska costs $488 a month. (Not everyone will have to pay that much because the health law subsidizes premiums for low-and moderate-income people.) A 40-year-old Phoenix resident could pay as little as $166 for the same level plan.

That three-fold spread is similar to the gap between last year’s most expensive area — in the Colorado mountain resort region, where 40-year-olds paid $483—and the least expensive, the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, where they paid $154.

Minneapolis remained one of the cheapest areas in the region, although the lowest silver premium rose to $181 after the insurer that offered the cheapest plan last year pulled out of the market. Premiums in four Colorado counties around Aspen and Vail plummeted this year after state insurance regulators lumped them in with other counties in order to bring rates down.

Cynthia Cox, a researcher at the Kaiser foundation, said the number of insurers in a region was a notable similarity among both the most and least expensive areas. “In the most expensive areas only one or two are participating,” she said. “In the least expensive areas there tends to be five or more insurers competing.” She said that other factors, such as whether insurers need state approval for their premiums and the underlying health of the population, may play a role as well in premiums.

The national median premium for a 40-year-old is $269, according to the foundation’s analysis.

Alaska’s lowest silver premium rose 28% from last year, ratcheting it up from 10th place last year to the nation’s highest. Only two insurers are offering plans in the state, the same number as last year, but the limited competition is just one reason Alaska’s prices are so high, researchers said. The state has a very high cost of living, which drives up rents and salaries of medical professionals, and insurers said patients racked up high costs last year.

Ceci Connolly, director of PwC’s Health Research Institute, noted that the long distances between providers and patients also added to the costs. Restraining costs in rural areas, she said, “continues to be a challenge” around the country. One reason is that there tend to be fewer doctors and hospitals, so those that are there have more power to dictate higher prices, since insurers have nowhere else to turn.

By contrast, in Maricopa County, Phoenix’s home, the lowest silver premium price dropped 15% from last year, when Phoenix did not rank among the lowest areas. A dozen insurers are offering silver plans. “Phoenix, during the boom, attracted a lot of providers so it’s a very robust, competitive market,” said Allen Gjersvig, an executive at the Arizona Alliance for Community Health Centers, which is helping people enroll in the marketplaces.

The cheapest silver plan in Phoenix comes from Meritus, a nonprofit insurance cooperative. The plan is an HMO that provides care through Maricopa Integrated Health System, a safety net system that is experienced in managing care for Medicaid patients. Meritus’ chief executive, Tom Zumtobel, said they brought that plan’s premium down from 2014. The insurer and the health system meet regularly to figure out how to treat complicated cases in the most efficient manner. “We’re working together to get the best outcome,” Zumtobel said.

Katherine Hempstead, who oversees the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s research on health insurance prices, found no significant differences in the designs of the plans that would explain their premiums. “In most of the plans – cheap or expensive – there seemed to be a high deductible and fairly similar cost-sharing,” she said.

Highest and Lowest Premiums

Here are the 10 most and least expensive regions in the country–with the counties listed in parenthesis–based on premium prices for the lowest-cost silver plan. Regions are counties that share the same price for the same lowest-cost-plan and are either geographically contiguous or are part of the same rating area created by the state.

Premiums are listed for 40-year-olds; and for most states the difference in prices stays the same for people of any age. Vermont and two upstate New York area—Ithaca and Plattsburgh—also are among the 10 most expensive places, although those states do not let insurers adjust premiums based on the consumer’s age, making comparisons inexact. Older residents in those states will end up getting better deals than in most places, while younger ones tend to pay more.

10 Highest Premiums
Region Monthly premium
Alaska (entire state) $488
Ithaca, NY (Tompkins) $459
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi (Hancock) $456
Plattsburgh, NY (Clinton) $446
Rural Wyoming (Albany, Big Horn, Campbell, Carbon, Converse, Crook, Fremont, Goshen, Hot Springs, Johnson, Lincoln, Niobrara, Park, Platte, Sheridan, Sublette, Sweetwater, Teton, Uinta, Washakie, and Weston) $440
Vermont (entire state) $428
Rural Nevada (Churchill, Elko, Eureka, Humboldt, Lander, Mineral, Pershing, and White Pine) $418
Casper, Wyoming (Natrona) $412
Inland California (Imperial, Inyo, and Mono) $410
Cheyenne, Wyoming (Laramie) $401
10 Lowest Premiums
Region Monthly premium
Phoenix, Ariz. (Maricopa) $166
Albuquerque, N.M. (Bernalillo, Sandoval, Torrance, and Valencia) $167
Louisville, Ky. (Bullitt, Jefferson, Oldham, and Shelby) $167
Tucson, Ariz. (Pima and Santa Cruz) $170
Pittsburgh, Pa. (Allegheny and Erie) $170
Western Pennsylvania (Beaver, Butler, Washington, Westmoreland, Armstrong, Crawford, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, McKean, Mercer, and Warren) $179
Knoxville and Eastern Tennessee (Anderson, Blount, Campbell, Claiborne, Cocke, Grainger, Hamblen, Jefferson, Knox, Loudon, Monroe, Morgan, Roane, Scott, Sevier, and Union) $181
Minneapolis-St. Paul (Anoka, Benton, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott, Sherburne, Stearns, Washington, and Wright) $181
Memphis and suburbs (Fayette, Haywood, Lauderdale, Shelby, and Tipton) $184
North of Minneapolis (Chisago and Isanti) $189

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nonprofit national health policy news service.

MONEY Taxes

How Obamacare Could Make Tax Filing Trickier This Year

Affordable Care Act health insurance marketplace navigator Herb Shook pulls up information on his computer to help someone re-enroll in an Affordable Care Act health insurance plan Friday, Nov. 14, 2014, in Houston.
If you got a health insurance subsidy via the online marketplace, you may have more work to do on your tax return. David J. Phillip—AP

For the first time, you'll need to show that you had health insurance last year. For some, that means more paperwork.

In addition to the normal thrills and chills of the income tax filing season, this year consumers will have the added excitement of figuring out how the health law figures in their 2014 taxes.

The good news is that for most people the only change to their normal tax filing routine will be to check the box on their Form 1040 that says they had health insurance all year.

“Someone who had employer-based coverage or Medicaid or Medicare, that’s all they have to do,” says Tricia Brooks, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families.

The law requires people to have “minimum essential coverage,” but most types of insurance qualify.

But for others, here are several situations to keep in mind.

If you were uninsured for some or all of the year

If you had health insurance for only part of 2014 or didn’t have coverage at all, it’s a bit more complicated. In that case, you’ll have to file Form 8965, which allows you to claim an exemption from the requirement to have insurance or calculate your penalty for the months that you weren’t covered.

On page 2 of the instructions for Form 8965 you’ll see a lengthy list of the coverage exemptions for which you may qualify. If your income is below the filing threshold ($10,150 for an individual in 2014), for example, you’re exempt. Likewise if coverage was unaffordable because it would have cost more than 8% of your household income, or you experienced a hardship that prevented you from buying a marketplace plan, or you had a short coverage gap of less than three consecutive months. These are just some of the circumstances that would allow you to avoid the penalty.

In addition, you don’t have to pay a penalty if you live in a state that didn’t expand Medicaid to adults with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level $16,104.60 for an individual in 2013) and your income falls below that level.

Some of the exemptions have to be granted by the health insurance marketplace, but many can be claimed right on your tax return. The tax form instructions spell out where to claim each type of exemption.

If you do have to go to the marketplace to get an exemption, be aware that it may take two weeks or more to process the application. Act promptly if you want to avoid bumping up against the April 15 filing deadline, says Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University who is an expert on the health law.

If you don’t qualify for a coverage exemption

If none of the exemptions apply to you, you’ll owe a penalty of either $95 or 1% of your income above the tax filing threshold, whichever is greater. The penalty will be prorated if you had coverage for at least part of the year. The amount of the penalty is capped at the national average premium for a bronze level plan, or $2,448 for an individual in 2014.

The instructions for Form 8965 include a worksheet to calculate the amount of your penalty.

If you received a premium tax credit for a marketplace plan

Under the health law, people with incomes between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level ($11,490 to $45,960 for an individual in 2013) could qualify for premium tax credits for 2014 coverage bought on the exchanges. If consumers wished, the tax credit was payable in advance directly to the insurer. Many chose that option.

The marketplace determined the amount of premium tax credit people were eligible for based on their estimated income for 2014. At tax time those estimates will be reconciled against actual income. People whose actual income was lower than they estimated may have received too little in advance premium tax credits. They can claim the amount they’re owed as a tax refund.

People whose income was higher than estimated and received too much in advance premium tax credits will generally have to pay some or all of it back. The amount that must be repaid is capped based on a sliding income scale, but people whose income is 400% of poverty or higher will have to pay the entire amount of any tax credit back.

If you bought a plan on the marketplace, you’ll receive a Form 1095-A from your state marketplace by Jan. 31 that spells out how much your insurer received in advance premium tax credits. You’ll use that information to complete Form 8962 to reconcile how much you received against the amount you should have received.

Assuming the information on the form is correct, “It should be easy to reconcile,” says Judith Solomon, vice president for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Tax software programs and tax preparers should know how to make the calculations, she said.

In addition to using commercial tax software or hiring tax preparer, many lower income consumers and seniors can get free tax preparation assistance through the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs.

Despite resources to help consumers, this first filing season is likely to be bumpy, particularly for people who have complicated family situations or who receive inaccurate information from the marketplace.

“There is just so much confusion out there,” says Jennifer Tolbert, director of state health reform at the Kaiser Family Foundation (KHN is an editorially independent program of the foundation.). “People are going to see these forms and not have any idea what they’re supposed to do with them.”

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

MONEY Health Care

How Health Care Is Eating Up Your Paycheck

A new study of employer-provided health insurance shows whopping increases in premiums and deductibles.

MONEY Health Care

3 Ways to Get Cheaper Health Care in 2015

Lightbulb with Band-Aids
MONEY (photo illustration)—Getty Images (2)

Companies are offering workers more health and wellness options, which means more opportunities for you to shop around for the most affordable care.

In recent years employers have been doing all they can to reduce their share of health care costs—from pushing high-deductible health plans to limiting spousal coverage. The big thing for 2015: Companies will increasingly be nudging workers toward cheaper care in different settings, says Dr. Jeffrey Kullgren, an assistant professor at University of Michigan Medical School.

A few examples: Next year 37% of companies will offer telemedicine—consultations with a provider by phone or video—and 34% plan to add it by 2017, according to HR consulting firm Towers Watson. More than half of firms offering health benefits now cover services at retail clinics in supermarkets and pharmacies. Plus, employers are bringing some care in-house: 51% of ­companies with 200 or more workers offer biometric screenings for diseases, the Kaiser Family Foundation found. Two-thirds of large firms offer lifestyle-­management programs to help workers lose weight or quit smoking, and 66% offer disease management, HR consultancy Mercer reports.

This new patient-as-consumer world does have an upside for workers—“You now have an opportunity to shop around for the most affordable care,” says Kullgren.

Here’s what you need to know for 2015.

Get wellness at work. A 2013 survey from the Department of Labor and Rand found that few people take advantage of employer wellness initiatives: Fewer than half of eligible workers took part in clinical screenings, 16% made use of disease management, and only 10% joined weight-management programs. The rest are missing out on big savings. The Affordable Care Act allows employers to offer up to a 30% reduction in health-insurance premiums for participation in wellness programs, notes Jacksonville financial planner and MD Carolyn McClanahan.

And there’s more at stake than premiums: Flu shots—which many firms offer for free—result in a 71% reduction in related hospitalizations among adults, per the CDC. Weight loss that takes you out of the obesity zone can save you $2,800 a year, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research paper. Screenings can identify risk factors for illnesses like diabetes—and that disease can increase medical costs by a factor of 2.3, the CDC reports.

Make the right call. On average, the out-of-pocket cost for telemedicine is around $40, vs. $95 for a regular doc visit, Towers Watson reports. Despite the savings, it isn’t right for every health issue. Andrew Fitch of NerdWallet Health says that telemedicine is best used when you need monitoring for a condition you’ve already been treated for or for concerns that likely wouldn’t require in-person testing—e.g., “What’s this weird rash?”

Get care where you get groceries. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that among employers that cover retail clinics, 14% provide a financial incentive to get care at one over a regular doctor’s office. A retail clinic is a viable option—medically and financially—if you need, say, a vaccine or treatment for a minor illness like a fever or sore throat, says Fitch.

Just don’t let this and other new care options tempt you to skip out on regular physicals with your regular doctor (which your insurer likely covers 100%). Most important, Kullgren says, keep your GP in the loop about other care you get.

savings

 

TIME Congress

The 7 Biggest Things That Didn’t Happen in D.C. in 2014

Commuter, Horse Race Breaks Said to Get Senate Panel Vote
The U.S. Capitol stands surrounded by fog in Washington, D.C., March 20, 2014. Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images

No immigration reform. No Supreme Court fight. No shutdown.

Let’s face it: 2014 was no 2008. As far as politics goes, this year won’t go down in American history as one of the more notable ones.

But sometimes it’s the things that didn’t happen that are more interesting. And some very big things didn’t happen this year, even though pundits and commentators once thought they might.

Here’s a look at the seven biggest things that didn’t happen in Washington in 2014.

The House never passed an immigration reform bill.

What might have happened: In June of 2013, the Senate passed a bipartisan overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws. The House could have voted on that bill or passed its own version.

Who thought it would happen: Some Republicans. Many party leaders thought Republicans needed to put the immigration issue behind them in order to win the White House in 2016.

Why it didn’t happen: House Republicans sat the issue out. Speaker John Boehner never brought the Senate bill to the House floor or offered an alternative.

Could it happen next year? Not likely. When President Obama deferred deportation for millions on his own in November, Boehner argued that he had poisoned the well.

There was no big Supreme Court nomination fight.

What might have happened: With four justices born in the 1930s, one could have retired, following in the footsteps of former Justices David Souter, Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stevens.

Who thought it would happen: Some liberal court-watchers suggested that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 81, should step down to ensure a Democratic-appointed successor.

Why it didn’t happen: They weren’t interested. For her part, Ginsburg noted that she’s still capable of doing the work and she seems to be having the time of her life.

Could it happen next year? Unlikely. The combination of a Democratic president and a Republican Senate would give both liberal and conservative justices pause.

Republicans never settled on an alternative to Obamacare.

What might have happened: Republicans in Congress could have gotten serious about the “replace” in “repeal and replace” and introduced an official alternative to the Affordable Care Act.

Who thought it would happen: Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. In January, he said the party would “rally around an alternative to Obamacare and pass it on the floor of the House.”

Why it didn’t happen: Election-year politics. An official Republican alternative would have been a sitting target for Democratic candidates.

Could it happen next year? Not likely. Republicans may now control all of Congress, but as long as they can’t get their plan past the president’s desk, there’s little incentive to produce one.

Congress didn’t debate tax reform.

What might have happened: The House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp’s tax reform plan, unveiled in February, could have sparked a serious effort to reform the tax code.

Who thought it would happen: Camp. He argued that Congress has an “obligation to debate the big issues of the day.” His plan was also praised by Rep. Paul Ryan, who called it a “terrific first step.”

Why it didn’t happen: Election-year politics. Passing tax reform would mean picking fights with a number of special interests and handing the president a win.

Could it happen next year? Probably not. Political observers now think the tax reform debate probably won’t begin in earnest until at least 2017.

The government didn’t shut down.

What might have happened: Conservatives angry over President Obama’s immigration and liberals angry over the repeal of some Wall Street oversight could have shut the government down.

Who thought it would happen: After last year’s bruising shutdown, no one thought it would happen again, but Congress came pretty close in December.

Why it didn’t happen: Both sides punted. The trillion-dollar spending bill passed earlier this month funded the government through September, but it left open a fight over immigration funding.

Could it happen next year? It’s unlikely. Even if conservatives pick a fight over immigration next year, it would only affect one federal agency, Homeland Security.

Obama didn’t become a powerless lame duck.

What might have happened: President Obama could have coasted into the final, lame-duck years of his presidency, wary of taking risks that might hurt Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Who thought it would happen: Some commentators and pundits already said that it had, slamming him for being passive and uninspiring.

Why it didn’t happen: Obama got energized. After Democrats lost the midterms, Obama took bold steps on immigration and reopening diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Could it happen next year? Certainly. There’s only so much the president can do on his own, so at some point he’ll be stuck either vetoing or approving Republican plans.

Congress didn’t find an intelligence failure on Benghazi.

What might have happened: The House Intelligence Committee could have unveiled dramatic, damning findings after a two-year investigation into the Benghazi attacks in Libya.

Who thought it would happen: Republicans. Despite multiple investigations into the attacks, many conservatives have been certain they’ll find a smoking gun.

Why it didn’t happen: The House committee didn’t find anything. The report, which was pushed out quietly on a Friday, found “no intelligence failure prior to the attacks.”

Could it happen next year? Unlikely. Rep. Trey Gowdy, who chairs the House Benghazi Committee, has promised more hearings, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll find anything new.

MONEY Health Care

Why Getting Mental-Health Coverage Can Be So Tough

Despite rules mandating better insurance benefits, finding care remains a challenge, a new 50-state report concludes.

Even though more Americans have access to health insurance because of the health law, getting access to mental health services can still be challenging.

A new report concludes that despite the 2008 mental health parity law, some state exchange health plans may still have a way to go to even the playing field between mental and physical benefits. The report, released by the advocacy group Mental Health America, was paid for by Takeda Pharmaceuticals U.S.A. and Lundbeck U.S.A, a pharmaceutical company that specializes in neurology and psychiatric treatments.

The report listed the states with the lowest prevalence of mental illness and the highest rates of access to care as Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, North Dakota, and Delaware. Those with the highest prevalence of mental illness and most limited access are Arizona, Mississippi, Nevada, Washington, and Louisiana.

Among its other findings:

•42.5 million of adults in America, 18.19%, suffer from a mental health issue.

•19.7 million, or 8.46%, have a substance abuse problem.

•8.8 million, or 3.77% of Americans have reported serious thoughts of suicide.

•The highest rates of emotional, behavioral or developmental issues among young people occur just west of the Appalachian Mountains, where poverty and social inequality are pervasive.

Part of MHA’s examination focused on the exchange market and its essential health benefit requirements that guided 2014 coverage. The group found that, while information provided through plans’ “explanation of benefits” might show that there aren’t limits on mental health coverage, limitations including treatment caps and other barriers still exist.

“Parity is in its infancy. Most plans know the numerical requirements around cost-sharing, but few have taken seriously the requirements around equity—around access through networks and barriers to care through prior authorization,” said Mike Thompson, health care practice leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “And, in practice, we have a history of imposing much more stringent medical necessity standards on mental health care than other health care.”

However, Susan Pisano, vice president of communications for America’s Health Insurance Plans, an insurance trade group, said the report doesn’t reflect the fact that many health plans have rolling renewals. That means the plans have until Jan. 1, 2015, to fully comply with the parity law.

“Our members are committed to mental health parity, and we’re supportive of legislation, and what isn’t apparent is that benchmark plans represented a snapshot in time … so that doesn’t give us the full picture,” Pisano said. “Our plans have really been working to get in compliance.”

Chuck Ingoglia, senior vice president of public policy at the National Council for Behavioral Health, a Washington-based trade group for community mental health and substance use treatment organizations, said the report’s findings aren’t surprising — though they are troubling. Implementation of the parity law remains a work in progress, he said.

“The law is based on a sound policy premise — that addiction and mental health treatment decisions and management should be comparable to physical health conditions,” he said. “But this also creates a tremendous barrier to proving violations as it requires a consumer to obtain access to plan documents for both types of care, which is frequently handled by different plans,” Ingoglia said.

In addition, the report found that some plans didn’t set out what and how many services were covered. That means consumers would only find out a treatment wouldn’t be paid for by their insurer after they’d already received care.

Americans with mental disorders have the lowest rates of health insurance coverage, so obtaining insurance is a good first step, according to Al Guida, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist who works on mental health issues with Guide Consulting Services. But the only way a denial can be reversed is through an appeal, which can be a long and arduous process.

“The vast majority of insurance plans offered on Affordable Care Act federal and state exchanges have close to no transparency, which could lead to abrupt changes in both mental health providers and psychotropic drug regimens with the potential for serious clinical consequences,” Guida said.

Meanwhile, there is a shortage of mental health care professionals—nationally there is only one provider for every 790 people, according to the report.

All of these factors can cause minor mental illnesses to grow more severe, according to Mental Health America CEO Paul Gionfriddo.

He suggested that mental illness should be screened for and covered in the same way cancer, kidney disease, and other illnesses are.

“Right now we’re trapped in a stage where we wait for a crisis, when they’re in advanced stages and then we treat it, and we wonder why it’s so hard to treat it more cheaply,” Giofriddo said.

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

TIME Health Care

Number of Uninsured Americans Near Historic Low

Marketplace guide Jim Prim works on the Healthcare.gov federal enrollment website as he helps a resident sign up for a health insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act at an enrollment event in Milford, Delaware on March 27, 2014.
Marketplace guide Jim Prim works on the Healthcare.gov federal enrollment website as he helps a resident sign up for a health insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act at an enrollment event in Milford, Del. on March 27, 2014. Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Just 11.3 percent of Americans were uninsured in the second quarter

New federal government data shows the percentage of Americans without health insurance was at or near historic lows this year following the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, and appears certain to fall to record levels next year.

The data released Thursday from the National Center for Health Statistics’ National Health Interview Survey found that 11.3 percent of Americans were without coverage in the second quarter of 2014, down from 13.1 percent in the first quarter and 14.4 percent throughout 2013. An analysis by the White House Council of Economic Advisers finds the drop in the uninsured to be the largest in four decades, amounting to roughly 9.7 million Americans getting insurance, consistent with other Affordable Care Act estimates.

“As this week’s data confirm, 2014 has seen dramatic coverage gains, gains matched or exceeded only by those seen in the decade of rapid progress that followed the creation of Medicare and Medicaid,” wrote Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Jason Furman and CEA Senior Economist Matt Fiedler in a blog post on the White House website. “Following this year’s gains, we estimate that the Nation’s uninsured rate is now at or near the lowest levels ever recorded across the 50 years for which we have data.”

Council of Economic Advisers

The new data does not include the nearly 2.5 million who have newly selected or re-enrolled for coverage in the latest round of open enrollment which began last month. Nor does it include those who’ve gained coverage in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program since the second quarter—including 400,000 from September to October, according to new data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services—as more states expand access to the program with federal money under the law.

“These data imply that the uninsured rate will continue to fall in the year ahead, reaching low levels unprecedented in the Nation¹s history,” the economists wrote.

MONEY Health Care

5 Things You Need to Know for Today’s Health Care Coverage Deadline

Today is the deadline to buy individual health insurance if you want to have coverage on Jan. 1.

Since open enrollment began on Nov. 15, almost 1.4 million people have signed up for health coverage through the federal insurance exchange, and another 183,000 through state exchanges. With nearly 7 million people already participating, signups are on pace to meet the government’s projection of 9 million enrollees in 2015, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

If you’re one of the many who still need to enroll for 2015 coverage, here are five keys things you need to know before you visit your state’s health exchange website.

1. If you want health insurance on Jan. 1, you must enroll today. You still have until Feb. 15 to buy a 2015 plan, but you will have a gap in coverage if you enroll after today’s deadline. Coverage begins on Feb. 1 for people who enroll between Jan. 1 and Jan. 15. Sign up between Jan. 16 and the end of the month, and coverage won’t begin until March 1.

2. Some states are giving you more time and extending the deadline to get coverage by Jan. 1. For example, New York and Idaho’s exchanges will allow users to sign up until Dec. 20. To find out whether you’re eligible for an extension, visit your state’s marketplace exchange website through healthcare.gov.

3. You’ll be automatically re-enrolled if you bought on an exchange last year and do not renew coverage by today. If the health plan you signed up for is no longer offered, insurers can automatically enroll you in another policy similar to the one you have now. But you can opt out of any plan you’re automatically enrolled in and choose another up until Feb. 15.

4. Skip automatic enrollment and shop again, even if you liked your 2014 policy. The Department of Health and Human Services found that more than 70% of people who currently have insurance through the health law’s federal online marketplace could pay less for comparable coverage if they are willing to switch plans.

5. Costs have changed. Many plans will have out-of-pocket spending limits that are lower than the maximums allowed under the health law, according to an analysis by Avalere Health. But the tradeoff for those lower maximums may be a higher deductible, so be sure to pay attention to both figures when choosing your plan. You can also expect to see your premium change. Depending on where you live, that may be a good or bad thing. The premium for the second-lowest-cost silver plan in Nashville jumped 8.7%, while it dropped 15.6% in Denver, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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