How To Shop for an ACA Health Plan in 2023

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An ACA health plan is a health insurance policy that complies with the Affordable Care Act. Eligibility generally includes U.S. citizens and legal residents who are not eligible for Medicare, and whose income falls within specified limits.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has made it easier for millions of Americans to buy health insurance coverage at affordable prices. Even if it is not a requirement to have health insurance in your state, it’s a good idea to buy coverage so you don’t end up in medical debt should your health take a turn or if you are injured.

If you're considering purchasing an ACA health plan in 2023, it's important to know if you are eligible, how you should prepare to apply, and how to effectively compare rates using an online comparison website to compare prices.

Buying a low cost health insurance plan can be a manageable process when you're well-prepared and use online comparison websites effectively.

In this comprehensive guide, we'll walk you through the steps to find and purchase the right ACA health plan for you and your family.

Part 1: Eligibility for an ACA Health Plan

Before you begin your search for an ACA health plan, it's crucial to determine if you're eligible. Here are the key eligibility criteria:

  1. U.S. Citizenship or Legal Residency: To be eligible for an ACA health plan, you must be a U.S. citizen or a legal resident. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for ACA plans but may be eligible for other state or local healthcare programs like Medicaid, depending on income.
  2. Not Eligible for Medicare: ACA health plans are designed for those under 65. If you're 65 years or older, you're eligible for Medicare. You may even be eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, depending on your income.
  3. Income Within Certain Limits: If you fit #1 and #2 above, your income must fall within a certain range to qualify for subsidies and tax credits. The specific income thresholds vary by state. Generally, if your income falls between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level, you will qualify for an ACA plan. If not, you will have the option of the lowest cost plans available to you when you compare rates.

Part 2: Preparing to Compare Rates

Before comparing rates for ACA health plans, gather the necessary information:

  1. Know Your Budget: Determine how much you can pay towards health insurance premiums each month. Consider your monthly income, expenses and any other financial commitments. Also consider how the copays and out-of-pocket expenses may outweigh a lower premium. Don’t just look at monthly premiums alone.
  2. Know Your Healthcare Needs: Make a list of your healthcare needs based on the previous year, including prescription medications, number of doctor and specialist visits, and any specific medical conditions that require regular services. Apply the cost of visit copays and deductibles of each plan you’re considering to your list and see which one brings you the lowest overall cost.
  3. Gather Personal Information: You'll need personal information for all members of your household who will be on your health insurance plan. This includes Social Security numbers, birthdates and immigration status information, if applicable.
  4. Estimate Your Income: Accurately estimate your household's expected annual income for the upcoming year. This information is crucial for determining your eligibility for subsidies and tax credits. You may need to provide one or more of the following:
    • Tax Returns: The most common way to prove your income is by providing copies of your federal income tax returns. This includes the most recent tax return you filed, whether it's a Form 1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ. Your tax return will show your adjusted gross income (AGI), which is a key figure used to determine your eligibility for subsidies and tax credits.
    • Pay Stubs: Many individuals use pay stubs to demonstrate their income. You can provide recent pay stubs that show your year-to-date earnings. Some states may require several months' worth of pay stubs to verify your income.
    • W-2 Forms: Your W-2 forms from your employer can also be used to verify your income. These forms provide information about your annual earnings and taxes withheld.
    • Social Security Benefits Statements: If you receive Social Security benefits, you can provide your Social Security Benefits Statement (Form SSA-1099) as proof of income.
    • Self-Employment Documents: If you're self-employed or have income from freelancing or gig work, you can use documents such as profit and loss statements, business tax returns (e.g., Schedule C), and invoices as evidence of your income.
    • Unemployment Benefits: If you're receiving unemployment benefits, you can use documentation from your state unemployment agency to verify your income. This may include benefit statements or letters confirming your unemployment income.
    • Pension or Retirement Income: If you're retired and receive pension or retirement income, you can provide documents such as pension statements, 1099-R forms, or retirement account statements as proof of income.
    • Alimony or Child Support: If you receive alimony or child support, you can use legal agreements, court orders, or bank statements showing deposits as proof of income.
    • Other Income Sources: If you have other sources of income, such as rental income, investment income, or interest income, provide documentation related to these sources to demonstrate your total income.
  1. Review Your Current Doctors and Medications: If you have preferred healthcare providers or specific medications, make a list of them. Ensure that the plans you consider include your doctors in their networks and cover your prescription drugs, unless you’re willing to start seeing new doctors to save money.

Part 3: Comparing Health Insurance Rates with an Online Comparison Website

While is the official health insurance marketplace for the ACA, a comparison website can also be used. The advantage of using a comparison website is that if you do not qualify for an ACA plan, you can see what your other affordable options are right away.

Here's a guide on how to use private comparison sites effectively:

  1. Visit a Trusted Private Comparison Website: Start by visiting a reputable private health insurance comparison website like SmartFinancial, where you can see which ACA plans and other health insurance plans you qualify for.
  2. Explore Plan Options: Begin your search by entering your zip code or location to see the health insurance plans available in your area. You can usually filter results by specific criteria such as plan type, provider network, and coverage level. The key is to understand how health insurance policies work.
  3. Review Plan Details: Click on the plans that interest you for more detailed information, such as monthly premiums, deductibles, copayments, coinsurance, and out-of-pocket maximums.
  4. Check Network Providers: Pay close attention to the network of healthcare providers associated with each plan. Ensure that your preferred doctors, specialists, and hospitals are included in the plan's network unless you’re willing to switch providers. Seeking care outside the network can be expensive.
  5. Consider Your Healthcare Needs: Evaluate your healthcare needs and those of your family members. See how each plan aligns with your anticipated healthcare usage and your budgeted costs.
  6. Compare Costs: Compare not only the monthly premiums but also other expenses like deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance. Calculate the total cost of each plan based on your anticipated health insurance usage.
  7. Verify Prescription Drug Coverage: If you take prescription medications regularly, make sure that the plans you're considering cover your drugs. Review each plan's drug list to see if your medications are included and compare costs.
  8. Check Customer Reviews: Some comparison websites provide customer reviews and ratings for health insurance plans. Reading about other individuals' experiences with a particular plan can provide valuable insights into its quality and customer satisfaction.
  9. Make an Informed Decision: Once you've thoroughly reviewed the available health plans and assessed your needs, it's time to make an informed decision. Select the plan that offers the right balance of coverage, affordability and network access based on your unique circumstances.

Select the plan that offers the right balance of coverage, affordability and network access based on your unique circumstances.

Understand the difference between Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum Plans

Bronze Plans: Basic Coverage With Lower Premiums

Bronze plans typically have the lowest monthly premiums among the metal tiers. This makes them an attractive choice for younger individuals.

Coverage: Bronze plans provide basic essential health benefits and cover about 60% of your healthcare costs on average. You'll pay a larger share of your healthcare expenses out of pocket. If you regularly see a physician, this may not be the best option for you.

Deductibles: These plans often come with high deductibles, meaning you'll need to pay a significant amount of your medical expenses before the insurance starts covering costs.

Out-of-Pocket Costs: Expect to pay higher copayments, coinsurance, and other out-of-pocket costs when you receive medical care or fill prescriptions.

Ideal For: Bronze plans are suitable for younger individuals who are generally healthy and don't anticipate frequent medical visits. They provide financial protection in case of a major health event while keeping monthly premiums low.

Silver Plans: Balanced Coverage With Moderate Premiums

Silver plans are about average in terms of premium prices and coverage. They have moderate monthly premiums, making them a popular choice for many individuals and families.

Coverage: Silver plans cover around 70% of your healthcare costs on average, offering more comprehensive coverage than Bronze plans.

Deductibles: Deductibles for Silver plans are typically lower than those of Bronze plans, which means you'll have less to pay out of pocket before the insurance kicks in.

Out-of-Pocket Costs: Expect moderate copayments and coinsurance, making it easier to budget for healthcare expenses.

Cost-Sharing Reductions (CSR): If you qualify for CSRs based on your income and family size, you can receive additional financial assistance with out-of-pocket costs, such as copayments and deductibles.

Ideal For: Silver plans are especially beneficial for those who qualify for CSRs.

Gold Plans: Enhanced Coverage With Higher Premiums

Some plans offer Gold as the highest tier. Gold plans offer comprehensive coverage and cost slightly more per month but have lower out-of-pocket expenses. They are the ideal option for individuals and families who want more coverage without the highest upfront costs.

Coverage: Gold plans offer enhanced coverage, typically covering about 80% of your healthcare costs on average. This means you'll have lower out-of-pocket expenses compared to Bronze and Silver plans.

Deductibles: While not as low as Platinum plans, Gold plans usually feature lower deductibles. You'll need to pay a lower amount out of pocket before the insurance covers most of your medical expenses.

Out-of-Pocket Costs: Expect lower copayments and coinsurance than Bronze or Silver plans, making healthcare expenses more manageable.

Ideal For: Gold plans are an excellent choice for individuals and families who want comprehensive coverage, anticipate moderate to high medical expenses, and are willing to pay slightly higher premiums for greater coverage. They are especially suitable for those who qualify for CSRs based on their income and family size.

Platinum Plans: Comprehensive Coverage With Highest Premiums

Platinum plans have the highest monthly premiums among the metal tiers, making them more expensive upfront but very few out-of-pocket expenses.

Coverage: These plans offer the most comprehensive coverage, covering approximately 90% of your healthcare costs on average. You'll have minimal out-of-pocket expenses when you receive medical care.

Deductibles: Platinum plans typically have very low deductibles, meaning you'll have minimal upfront costs before the insurance covers your care.

Out-of-Pocket Costs: Expect low copayments and coinsurance, making healthcare costs predictable and manageable.

Ideal For: Platinum plans are an excellent choice for individuals and families with frequent medical needs, chronic conditions or those who want maximum coverage and minimal out-of-pocket expenses. Platinum plans can be cost-effective for those who anticipate high healthcare usage.

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Shopping for an ACA Health Plan FAQs

Can I purchase an ACA health plan at any time during the year, or are there specific enrollment periods?

ACA health plans are typically available during the annual Open Enrollment Period, which begins November 1. However, you may be eligible for Special Enrollment if you experience certain qualifying life events, such as getting married, having a child, or losing other coverage.

How should I choose between a Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum ACA health plan?

Selecting the right health plan depends on your unique circumstances, including your health, financial situation and provider preferences. Consider factors such as anticipated doctor visits, other medical needs and preferred healthcare providers to see if out-of-pocket expenses (like copays) with a lower premium plan will actually cost you more than buying a higher tier plan.

Can I keep my current doctor if I enroll in an ACA health plan?

Whether or not your doctor visits will be covered depends on the specific ACA health plan you choose. Check the plan's provider network to see if your preferred healthcare providers are included. Out-of-network care may result in higher out-of-pocket costs, unless you’re willing to change doctors.

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