Beginning with enrollment in October 2013, individuals and employees of small businesses who are uninsured can go to the exchanges to compare private health plan options across four levels of coverage -- bronze, silver, gold and platinum -- and purchase coverage.
The exchanges must ensure that each health plan offers a sufficient number of providers and meets other minimum standards. To participate in an exchange, an insurer must offer at least one "gold" and one "silver" health plan.
Each state's exchange must also maintain an up-to-date website with comparative health plan information; maintain a toll-free, consumer call center; and fund a "navigator" program to assist individuals and families with obtaining coverage. The exchanges are also the vehicle for people who meet certain income thresholds to qualify for tax credits to reduce their premium costs and federal subsidies to lower out-of-pocket expenses.
The federal government is offering premium assistance in the form of refundable tax credits to people with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($44,680 for an individual and $92,200 for a family of four in 2012) and out-of-pocket spending caps on covered services.
Some GOP governors critical of exchanges
Republican governors in six states have decided not to create a state-based health insurance exchange, and New Hampshire Democratic Gov. John Lynch, in the face of GOP opposition, signed legislation barring the state from creating its own exchange. As many as 16 states are still exploring their options and nine states have shown little progress in planning their next steps, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's latest tally.
In states that do not create an exchange, the federal government has the a
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