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A happy, healthy New Year [Commentary]

As we wish our friends and family a happy, healthy New Year, these words have renewed meaning in 2014.

January 1st is a new day in health care for millions of families and individuals in the Baltimore area and throughout Maryland.

It's now against the law for insurance companies to deny you coverage or charge you more because of a pre-existing medical condition like diabetes, high-blood pressure or asthma. And they can no longer drop you from coverage just because you get sick or get into an accident.

What's more, insurance companies can no longer impose an annual cap on your health benefits. They can't deny you coverage simply because you made a mistake on your paperwork. Most plans must now cover preventive services like cholesterol and cancer screenings, at no out-of-pocket cost. And, being a woman is no longer a pre-existing condition.

It's all thanks to the health care law: the Affordable Care Act.

If you do not have health insurance through your job, you have an opportunity to obtain quality, affordable coverage through marylandhealthconnection.gov. In fact, you may even qualify for financial assistance to help lower the cost of your premiums.

The Health Insurance Marketplace has brought choice and competition to Maryland that were previously unavailable. And as millions of Americans learn about their new options, they're finding just how affordable health coverage can be under the new law. Nationwide, six in 10 uninsured Americans can obtain coverage for $100 a month or less.

Make no mistake: The plans offered on the marketplace are actual, honest-to-goodness health insurance. By law, they must cover a set of essential benefits, including visits with doctors, prescription medications, hospital stays, ambulatory care, preventive services and maternity and newborn care.

You still have three more months to enroll in affordable coverage — the deadline is March 31, 2014.

If you want your health insurance to begin Feb. 1, you'll need to sign up by Jan. 15.

You can enroll online at marylandhealthconnection.gov, by phone at 1-800-318-2596/TTY 1-855-889-4325, on paper, or directly through an insurer, agent or broker. You can also find in-person assistance in your own community at LocalHelp.HealthCare.gov.

This is a milestone for the many families who have waited too long for affordable health insurance because of a broken system that was stacked against them. Before today, Americans could be dropped from coverage when they got sick, or locked out of the system if they had a health condition, or priced out in the first place because of their health status. Now, not only are there new rights and benefits, we are also seeing the slowest health care price inflation in 50 years.

Whenever I travel, I meet folks who tell me how long they've been waiting for the opportunity to obtain affordable coverage. Some have even been waiting their entire lives.

I keep thinking about Diane whom I met recently in Michigan. In the past, Diane's pre-existing medical condition had made finding quality, affordable health insurance nearly impossible. After being uninsured for over six years, Diane recently enrolled in coverage using HealthCare.gov. Now, Diane no longer needs to worry about treating her condition — or going bankrupt because of an unexpected illness or injury.

For Diane and for millions of Americans like her, it's a new day in health care because of the Affordable Care Act. And we continue to work together toward the goal of making affordable coverage accessible to every American who wants it.

Kathleen Sebelius is secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Her email is Kathleen.Sebelius@hhs.gov.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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