Affordable Care Act enrollment opens, community seeks information

Austin residents and businesses are researching the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare," and how it will affect their health insurance coverage.

Information centers have been set up throughout Travis County to help educate the public about the legislation, which will require all U.S. residents to have health insurance beginning in 2014.

While businesses offering affordable health insurance and people already paying for their own insurance are not facing major changes, the debut of the ACA's subsidized insurance exchanges has some people and companies considering whether to sign up for insurance on the new Health Insurance Marketplace.

Beginning in 2014, those individuals who choose to go without coverage will be charged a penalty, said Bob Bonar, president and CEO of Seton Healthcare.

"There are about 100,000 Travis County residents that do not have any health care insurance," he said.

What's changing

Starting in 2014, the penalty for foregoing health coverage will be $95 per adult, $47.50 per child, or 1 percent of an individual's income, whichever is higher, according to, the federal government's site devoted to the marketplace. The penalty will continue to increase annually.

Employers are not required to offer coverage, but businesses with 50 or fewer full-time equivalent employees can get coverage in the Small Business Health Options Program Marketplace. In 2015, companies that have 50 or more full-time employees and do not offer minimum coverage must comply with a Employer Shared Responsibility payment.

Insure Central Texas, an initiative of local nonprofit Foundation Communities, is among the groups offering information about available plans at community financial centers. ICT Director Elizabeth Colvin said that under the ACA, insurance for individuals with pre-existing conditions can no longer be priced based on their health conditions. Women will be charged the same price as men for insurance covering maternity, she added.

Jan Soifer, Travis County Democratic Party chairwoman, noted the ACA also covers preventive care and will make insurance more affordable for small businesses.

Some local groups, including the Travis County Republican Party, oppose the ACA. TCRP Communications Director Andy Hogue said the U.S. needs to return to a free market for health services instead.

"Who supports denial of coverage? Who opposes parents having the choice to insure their children into young adulthood, or anyone else, for that matter? Who is against an online exchange to compare insurance plans? Not us [in the TCRP]. And not anyone in any party. But we believe that free enterprise could provide these services and do a much better job," he said.

Under the ACA, many individuals, including those with job-based insurance, Medicare, Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program coverage, are considered covered by the federal government.

Variables, including whether a person smokes, can affect what available marketplace insurance plans an individual might qualify for, Colvin said.

"There are 80 plans to choose from so you really just have to get someone's individual situation and determine what their cost will be," she said.