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Now is the time to sign up for health insurance

Now through Dec. 15 is the key time to sign up for health coverage that will begin Jan. 1, 2015. If you don't get it from your employer, then you should use the state's MNsure system to sign up. You can do this all on your own by visiting this website at www.mnsure.org. Or, you can do it by getting personal help from a "Navigator" in the Duluth area who will help you through the process.

This goes for people who don't have any insurance at all, as well as for those who currently have an individual or family policy which you bought on your own. Here are the basics:

- If you don't have any insurance, then you should apply with MNsure to sign up either for a public program (Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare) if you qualify for it, or to shop for and buy an insurance policy. Depending on your income, you might get extra financial help to pay part of the cost of the insurance premiums.

- If you have your own insurance policy right now, then you should see what is available for you with MNsure. You could let your current policy automatically renew, but you might find yourself better off with a different policy. It pays to shop around. A special note is for people who bought Preferred One insurance policies last year through MNsure. Those are no longer available through MNsure, and the rates have gone up notably. Plus, in order to get extra help to pay for the premiums, you must enroll through MNsure and pick one of the available policies.

- If you are on Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare right now, then the good news is that you should do nothing. The state will contact you when it is time for you to renew. These renewals take place throughout the year.

If you want to get individual help, free of charge, to learn what your options are and what to do to enroll in coverage, then you'll want to make use of the services of "Navigators" who are available with seven Duluth agencies, including the public library. To seek a Navigator, simply call the United Way information line 211 (if you're calling from a landline) or (800) 543-7709 (if you're using a mobile phone), and they will get you connected to a Navigator near you. You can also find information on local help available on the Insure Duluth website, www.insureduluth.org.

Here are a few more tips:

- The state's MNsure website has improved greatly from a year ago, so people who use it on their own aren't expected to run into much trouble this time around.

- Even if you filled out a full application on MNsure a year ago, you need to do it again.

- The Dec. 15 deadline applies to people who want to get enrolled in an insurance policy by Jan. 1. If you miss that, then the next deadline is Jan. 15 for coverage to begin Feb. 1, and Feb. 15 for coverage to begin March 1.

- The maximum income to qualify for the state's programs is 200 percent of poverty, which is $1,945/mo for a single person; $2,622/mo for a couple; $3,298/mo for a family of three, $3,975/mo for a family of four, and so on. If your income is below these amounts, then you can apply for one of Minnesota's public programs: Medical Assistance, or MinnesotaCare. Medical Assistance, which is for people with the lowest incomes, has no premiums. MinnesotaCare has small premiums. For these public programs, you can sign up anytime during the year.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, and MNsure, 95 percent of all Minnesotans now have some form of health care coverage. If you're one of the remaining 5 percent who don't, it's time to join the rest.

Buddy Robinson is the staff director of Minnesota Citizens Federation-Northeast.

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