Shot clock running down to sign up for ACA’s health coverage

What does March Madness have to do with the upcoming deadline to sign up for health insurance?

Not a thing.

But the Obama administration is using the excitement over the brackets for the NCAA basketball tournament to sell people on the Affordable Care Act and get them covered at HealthCare.gov (www.wahealth planfinder.org for Washington residents) before the end of open enrollment March 31.

You can even vote on Twitter and Facebook for the 16 “sweetest reasons” why it makes sense to buy health insurance. The reference to 16 is a play on the Sweet 16, the teams that make the regional semifinal round of the NCAA tournament. But in the administration’s publicity push, the bracket involves voting for your favorite ACA provision, such as:

Women can’t be charged more than men.

You can get covered regardless of your health history, meaning you can’t be denied because of a pre-existing medical condition.

There are no lifetime limits on your coverage. Insurance companies can’t impose dollar limits on essential benefits such as a hospital stay. I’m grateful for this provision, having nearly bumped up against a lifetime limit when my daughter was diagnosed with a rare condition and she was hospitalized for more than two months and needed chemotherapy and experimental drugs for almost a year.

Young adults can stay on a parent’s policy until they are 26.

Most health plans have to include certain preventive services at no cost. Additionally, insurance plans offered in the new marketplaces will have to cover a core set of services called “essential health benefits.”

So much political polarization surrounds the ACA that many people may not realize the new protections they now have because of the health care law. There is more to the ACA then the controversy over the health care exchanges.

Still, the administration says that 5 million people have enrolled through the federal and state exchanges since last October.

WebMD.com asked its readers to submit questions to President Obama about the ACA. Many people were concerned that the prices on the exchanges were still too high and worried about the tax penalty they faced for not getting coverage. Individuals and their dependents are required to have minimum essential health insurance unless they qualify for an exemption.

“What I think is important for people to understand is that if, in fact, they still can’t afford it, there is a hardship exemption in the law,” Obama said in response to a group of questions about health care prices. “That means that they may not be subject to a penalty. The penalty really applies to folks who clearly can afford health insurance but are choosing not to get it. And then, essentially, they are relying on you and me and others who are paying our insurance premiums to subsidize them when they go to the emergency room if, heaven forbid, something happens.”

If it’s determined that you are in the financial position to buy health insurance and you don’t get it, and you don’t qualify for an exemption, you’ll have to pay a penalty for being uninsured when you file your federal income tax return. The penalty starts at $95 annually for an individual and maxes out at $285 for a family, or 1 percent of a family’s household income, depending on which is higher. The penalties will increase. Right now, the IRS only has the authority to collect your “shared responsibility payment” by snatching part or all of your refund, depending on what you owe. And — for now — the agency is prohibited from using its usual tough collection tools to collect payments.

You won’t have to report whether you have health care coverage under the ACA’s individual shared responsibility provision or claim the premium tax credit until you file your 2014 return next year, the IRS points out.

Here’s something else getting lost in the mudslinging about the ACA. If you don’t qualify for low rates on HealthCare.gov, you can still shop for coverage by going directly to an insurance company. You can use an insurance agent or broker to find a policy.

So decide for yourself. Don’t believe the hype in the ads for or against the ACA. Comparison shop.

Just don’t wait until deadline day. Some consumers are reporting that HealthCare.gov is still having episodes of technical trouble. The issues don’t appear to be as widespread as when the site first launched. But if history is any indication, an overload of people trying to get online at the same time March 31 might prevent you from signing up for a policy.

Michelle Singletary: michelle.singletary@washpost.com.

Washington Post Writers Group

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