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Time to shop for health coverage

It's that shopping time of the year again: Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas presents and ... health coverage. That last one isn't as fun as the others, but it's important and lasts a whole year.

How to shop? There are different strokes for different folks.

If you are on Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare, your coverage and benefits are in place. However, if your card says "UCare" on the top, you need to pick a different health plan to continue your coverage on Jan. 1. If you don't pick one, one will be picked for you. UCare isn't available any more.

Other people buy a policy from an insurance company. For them, many changes have happened in the premiums, coverage and participating providers.

They need to sign up before Dec. 31 for insurance starting Jan. 1. A final deadline is Jan. 31 for insurance starting Feb. 1.

You might or might not want to keep the policy you have now. Many of these policies have sharp rate hikes for 2016. It varies from policy to policy. If you shop around, you could find something that would have the same coverage, but avoid a nasty spike in your premiums. Or, you might want to switch to different coverage. It is a big headache, but your wallet will thank you later, big time.

"Mark" continued to find a benefit in buying insurance through MNsure this year. He is retired but at age 62, can't get Medicare yet. Mark signed up for a MNsure policy last year and got a tax credit to help pay for it. For 2016, Community Action showed him that his premium is going up, but so is his credit. Next year's monthly premium is only $1 more.

The need to take a fresh look is true whether or not you received a federal tax credit in 2015 to reduce the cost of your premiums. Many who didn't get a subsidy in 2015 will qualify for it in 2016.

If you bought a policy for 2015, but not through MNsure, this time around you ought to see what is available on MNsure, to discover if you qualify for a subsidy for 2016 even if you didn't qualify for 2015.

"Joanne" lost her job and health coverage after missing work for illness too often. Now, a "navigator" is helping her enroll in Medical Assistance. (More on navigators below.) The coverage will enable her to manage her diabetes and get back in the job market.

Are you like Joanne and don't have any coverage at all? It may be more affordable than you think. If your income is below $1,945/mo for a single person, $2,622/month for a couple and so on, then you probably qualify for state Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare. You can apply for this anytime during the year, but the sooner you do, the sooner you'll get covered.

If your income is above these limits, and you can afford to buy coverage but don't, then you'll pay a penalty for that on your taxes for 2016: $695 or 2.5 percent of your income, whichever is higher.

Note to people on Medicare: MNsure does not have anything for you. But, if you have Medicare and are below the income amounts listed above, you can get help from the Citizens Federation at (218) 727-0207. If your income is higher, call the Senior Linkage Line at (800) 333-2433.

For everyone else, how do you find out what you can get from MNsure and apply for it? The good news is that there's a network of people in Duluth, called navigators, ready to give you free personalized assistance and help you figure out what to do. They're based at several local nonprofit agencies as part of the InsureDuluth Coalition (www.insureduluth.org) and work with you in-person or over the phone.

One of the locations is the Duluth Public Library main branch, 520 W. Superior St. Navigators will be there each Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and Mondays 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

To get in touch with a navigator and make an appointment, call the United Way information number at 211 (landline), or (800) 543-7709 (mobile phone). They'll make sure your shopping is successful.

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

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