Beginning today, millions of Americans — and hundreds of thousands of Marylanders — who could not afford health insurance, or didn't have access to it, will finally be able to sign up for coverage through health marketplaces like the Maryland Health Connection. These marketplaces, where consumers can shop for coverage, were created by the Affordable Care Act to ensure all Americans have access to affordable, quality health coverage. And, thanks to the O'Malley-Brown administration, our state is leading the way in implementing this crucial provision of the law.
In the wealthiest nation on Earth, it is shameful that many go without health care because they can't afford it. And losing a job shouldn't mean losing access to affordable health insurance. For far too long, insurance companies could deny coverage due to a pre-existing condition, drop it — or raise premiums to exorbitant rates — at the first sign of a consumer getting sick, or impose an arbitrary annual or lifetime limit on how much it would pay for care. Thankfully, as a result of the Affordable Care Act, those days are numbered.
Here in our state, the new Maryland Health Connection offers a range of competitively priced insurance plans for those unable to access affordable coverage through their employers. And it will provide real choices to consumers so that all who shop for insurance on the Maryland Health Connection can find options that fit their needs.
Starting today, consumers will be able to log on to marylandhealthconnection.com or call (855) MHC-8572. In-person assistance is available at an office of one of the six regional "Connector" organizations, such as Calvert Healthcare Solutions for Southern Maryland or the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services for Montgomery and Prince George's Counties. Open enrollment season begins tomorrow and extends through the end of March 2014, providing consumers with time to compare rates and benefits to find the right plan for them. For consumers who enroll by Dec. 18, coverage will begin on Jan. 1.
In addition to learning more about the plans being offered, Marylanders who browse the site can find out if they qualify for tax credits to reduce premium prices further. Approximately $7.5 billion in tax credits will be available to Marylanders meeting certain income requirements, in addition to the billions in tax credits to help small business provide their employees with affordable coverage.
Health care reform, through the launch of the Maryland Health Connection and our state's expansion of Medicaid, is expected to enable 280,000 more Marylanders to access health coverage next year, significantly reducing the number of uninsured. With the opening of the new online marketplaces across the country, millions of Americans will be able to get coverage for themselves and their family members for the first time.
Regardless of whether one is insured through an online marketplace or an employer-provided plan, important patient and consumer protections will come into effect in January as well. For the first time, insurance companies will no longer be able to discriminate against you if you have a pre-existing condition, and they will be barred from charging a woman a higher premium than a man for the same coverage. In addition, insurance companies will not be able to set arbitrary annual coverage limits, meaning new freedom for those recovering from serious and chronic illnesses. Lifetime limits have already been eliminated.
These benefits that will begin in January build on the benefits that millions of Americans are already seeing. Medicare beneficiaries are saving through the elimination of co-pays for a range of preventive services, like mammograms and colonoscopies. Children are able to stay on their parents' insurance plans until age 26. And if an insurance company spends more than 20 percent of premium dollars on costs other than patient care, those dollars must be returned to the consumer. In 2011 alone, nearly 150,000 Maryland residents with private insurance coverage benefited from over $13 million in these refunds.
While Republicans remain destructively obsessed with destroying a law that is helping millions, the Affordable Care Act is bringing real benefits to Marylanders. It is not going to be repealed or delayed, and the singular focus of some to do so is not a productive approach. The law is working, and for a successful model of how to implement it in the most effective way possible, Congress need look no further than Maryland.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat, is House Minority Whip. He represents Maryland's 5th District.