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Washington Memo: Next week begins a new era in health insurance

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius speaks about the Health Insurance Marketplace at the Community Health and Social Services Center in Detroit Friday, Nov. 15, 2013. Sebelius says she's confident a troubled federal website will work much better by month's end so people can sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius speaks about the Health Insurance Marketplace at the Community Health and Social Services Center in Detroit Friday, Nov. 15, 2013. Sebelius says she's confident a troubled federal website will work much better by month's end so people can sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

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

Jan. 1 will be a new day in health care for millions of families and individuals in the Concord area and throughout New Hampshire.

Starting Wednesday, it will be 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 will no longer be able to drop you from coverage just because you get sick or get into an accident.

What’s more, insurance companies will no longer be able to impose an annual cap on your health benefits. They won’t be able to deny you coverage simply because you made a mistake on your paperwork. Most plans will cover preventive services like cholesterol and cancer screenings, at no out-of-pocket cost. And, being a woman will no longer be 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 HealthCare.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 New Hampshire 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 as little as $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, maternity and newborn care, and preventive services.

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 HealthCare.gov, by phone at 800-318-2596/TTY 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 who 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 will be 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.)

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