Countdown to Obamacare: A Consumer's Toolbox

Here are some helpful and trusted sources of information to help you prepare for health reform changes.

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Editor's Note: This is part of a continuing series counting down to the Oct. 1 launch for new state health insurance exchanges that have been created to help people find coverage and meet the requirement for mandatory health insurance that takes effect Jan. 1, 2014. The first piece of the series was "How Will My Health Insurance Change?"

Toolbox on floor
Toolbox on floor

Since the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, Tracy Watts has become a walking encyclopedia of the incredibly complex provisions of the law.

Yet even after three years of immersing herself in the world of Obamacare, Watts uses cheat sheets to make sure her explanations of the law are accurate. "It's way too complicated for me to remember everything," says Watts, the national health care spokeswoman for Mercer, a consulting firm that advises mostly large employers on their employee benefit needs.

If you do not have a Tracy Watts or her cheat sheets handy, there are still ways to become informed about Obamacare. Many insurance companies and health websites provide information on the law. The Kaiser Family Foundation, which does not sell health insurance or receive compensation for its recommendations, is widely recognized as having the best set of Obamacare tools. Even federal government experts within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend Kaiser tools. Another reliable source for Obamacare information is the government itself.

Here is a look at some of the most helpful online health care reform resources that consumers should have in their toolboxes:

State health insurance marketplace profiles: Obamacare may be the law of the land, but its provisions are being carried out on the state and local levels. The Kaiser Family Foundation has profiles of the new insurance exchanges that are being set up in each state. Most are being created for the states by the federal government, but a number of states have built their own exchanges. Not all state exchanges will have the same features. If you are shopping for coverage for you and your family, it's important to understand your state's exchange.

State insurance exchange subsidy calculator: One of the most helpful, yet confusing, parts of Obamacare is the complex set of tax credit subsidies for individuals buying insurance through a state exchange. Individuals who are offered group health insurance from their employers may not use the state exchanges for subsidies unless their employer's standard plan fails to cover minimum insurance requirements of the law or their incomes are too small to afford the standard plan. If you are looking for insurance in an exchange, this tool from Kaiser provides an easy way to estimate how much of a subsidy you would qualify for on a state exchange.

Status of state medicaid expansions: Obamacare's goal to secure health insurance for all Americans includes a significant expansion of Medicaid to nearly all citizens who cannot afford private health insurance and are too young to apply for Medicare. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court said the Affordable Care Act was constitutional but that states, which pay a large portion of Medicaid costs, could not be forced to expand their Medicaid programs. The law promises to pay 100 percent of added state Medicaid expenses for three years and then to reduce that rate, but it would never fall below a 90 percent federal share. To date, about half the states have decided to expand their Medicaid programs, and half are not expanding at this time. Click on your state in this Kaiser map to see what's happening where you live.

What's in the Affordable Care Act? The government's HealthCare.gov website provides an overview of the most important consumer features of the law. It's broken down into topics with links to more detailed explanations, including changes to rules about pre-existing conditions, keeping young adults on their family health policies up to age 26, ending lifetime limits on health insurance payments, preventive health services, access to emergency care services and how to keep using your preferred doctors.

A timeline of key features. Use this HealthCare.gov tool to see a timetable of key features of the law that have been or will be implemented.