The health insurance exchange is a key component of Obamacare, which takes effect on Jan. 1, 2014

by: JASON CHANEY - The Crook County Health Department recently installed two laptop stations for people to use as they navigate the Cover Oregon website.

Three and a half years after Obamacare was signed into law, Oregon joined all other states in officially launching health insurance exchanges on Tuesday.

Cover Oregon, the state’s new insurance marketplace, opened for business amid fanfare from the exchange officials and Governor John Kitzhaber.

“This is a big day for our state and the nation, and a new era for delivering high-quality health care to Oregonians,” Kitzhaber said Tuesday.

Cover Oregon’s executive director, Howard King, added that “health insurance is now available to hundreds of thousands of people, even if they have pre-existing health conditions.”

According to the Cover Oregon website, the Affordable Care Act requires each state to establish an exchange, which serves as an online marketplace for individuals and small employers to compare health insurance plans and access financial assistance to help pay for coverage.

Cover Oregon is designed to serve people who are uninsured, purchase health insurance on their own, or operate a small business with fewer than 50 eligible employees. Plans offered through the exchange will meet specific requirements and be graded in areas such as quality and customer service.

Open enrollment for Cover Oregon began on Oct. 1 and will end on March 31 unless they experience a life event such as a lost job or divorce that affects coverage. People can visit the Cover Oregon website to browse insurance plans and find a certified agent or community partner who can help them start signing up for health insurance.

Locally, the Crook County Health Department will serve as a primary resource for Cover Oregon assistance, after being awarded an approximately $52,000 outreach and enrollment grant.

“It is to hire a one-year, full-time person to provide outreach and enrollment assistance within the community, Post/Paulina, and Mitchell,” said Jennifer Chaney with the health department.

The new position will help the health department keep up with an anticipated surge of eligible Cover Oregon applicants. Not only will the health department take on new exchange applicants, they will assist people signing up for the Oregon Health Plan (OHP).

“DHS (Oregon Department of Human Services) is not going to be the main go-to agency to do Oregon Health Plan applications anymore,” Chaney said. “They are going to all be done through Cover Oregon.”

Adding to the workload, the income requirement for OHP is expanding. Originally, to qualify for adult OHP coverage, a household could earn no more than 100 percent of the federal poverty level ($23,550 per year for a family of four). Now, that income threshold has risen to 138 percent or $32,500 per year.

However, “fast-track” OHP enrollment should reduce the amount of assistance necessary. Oregon Health Authority is mailing enrollment forms to people who are already receiving OHP or participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. All they have to do to enroll is fill them out and send them back.

Although the launch of Cover Oregon has prompted praise as a major healthcare milestone, the Affordable Care Act still faces lingering issues and controversy. One glitch has emerged that affects the tax credits available to help pay for health care.

Tax credits will be made available to uninsured families earning between 138 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($32,500-$94,200 for a family of four). Workers who have to pay more than 9.5 percent of their wages to participate in an employer’s plan and workers whose employer plan pays less than 60 percent of the cost of covered benefits will also be eligible. The credits will be available to pay the premium at the time the person enrolls in the plan. Therefore, families will not need to wait until they file their taxes to receive them.

However, according to the Cover Oregon website, “If you employer offers dependent coverage, your dependents will not be eligible for a tax credit if they choose to enroll as individuals.”

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are trying to defund or delay the launch of the Affordable Care Act’s requirement to carry insurance. The mandate was challenged as unconstitutional, but was later upheld by the courts.

As a result, according to, the penalty for not carrying health insurance in 2014 is 1 percent of the person’s yearly income or $95 per person for the year, whichever is higher. The fee increases to 2.5 percent of income or $695 per person in 2016.

“We think there ought to be basic fairness for all Americans under Obamacare,” concluded Speaker of the House John Boehner.

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