Lots of people wait until the last minute to do certain things, whether it's Christmas shopping or filing taxes. It's part of human nature. The deadline comes up and they say, "OK, I'll finally do it now." Well, here's another deadline to put on your radar: Feb. 15. That's the date by which you're supposed to make sure you have some kind of health care coverage.
What kind? If you currently don't have any coverage, then you either should get onto one of the state's public programs like Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare or onto an insurance policy. You can get part of the premium for insurance policies paid for by the government, if you have a moderate income. If you sign up by Feb. 15, then you can get a policy that will start on March 1.
If you already have coverage for yourself, that's great. You can still do your friends, relatives and neighbors a favor by asking them if they are covered. If any of them aren't, then be a friend and urge them to apply. People need to act by Feb. 15, because there are consequences for some who don't.
How do you apply?
The good news is you don't have to do this on your own. You can get free personal help from a "navigator" in the Duluth area who will help you through the process. There are several navigators in Duluth, housed at some of our local nonprofit agencies and also the Duluth Public Library.
Or, if you have a computer and Internet access, you can do this on your own by visiting www.mnsure.org. There, you can apply for financial help and enroll in a public program. If you are going to get an insurance policy, then you can choose between the policies on the website.
The easiest way to connect with a navigator is to call the United Way information line 211 (landline phone) 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 free local help available on the Insure Duluth website, www.insureduluth.org.
The maximum income to qualify for the state's programs is 200 percent of poverty, which is $1,945 per month for a single person, $2,622 for a couple, $3,298 for a family of three, $3,975 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 is for people with the lowest incomes and has no premiums. MinnesotaCare has small premiums. For these public programs, you can sign up anytime during the year.
If your income is up to 400 percent of poverty — $3,890 per month for a single person, $5,244 for a couple and so on — then you can qualify for some financial help to pay a portion of the monthly insurance premiums.
Deadlines have consequences
So what happens if you miss the Feb. 15 deadline? Here's the deal:
If you qualify for Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare, you can still get on it anytime during the year. However, if you don't qualify for these, and you can afford to buy insurance but don't, then you cannot buy one for the rest of the year. In addition to this, the federal government will charge you a penalty at next year's tax time. The penalty is $325 per adult or 2 percent of taxable income, whichever is larger. There is a penalty limit of $975 for any household.
There are some exceptions to this. If you move from one region of Minnesota to another, have a change in household size or lose a job that had health care, then you can still get an insurance policy through MNsure during the year.
People also have the option of buying insurance policies that are not on MNsure from an insurance company or a broker, but you won't be able to use the federal subsidy to reduce the amount of your premium.
A lot of this sounds confusing. That's all the more reason to ask for the help of a navigator now.
Buddy Robinson is the staff director of Minnesota Citizens Federation Northeast.