Even though many federal government operations around Long Beach were winding down on Tuesday, the city’s Health and Human Services Department was gearing up to help people start registering for insurance under the Affordable Health Care Act (AHCA or ACA), also known as Obamacare.

Covered California, the state insurance exchange created under the ACA, opened for business on Tuesday. People can sign up now for health insurance that starts on Jan. 1. As the law stands now, anyone who does not have insurance through an employer or who is covered by Medicare or Medi-Cal must have insurance by March 31 or pay a penalty.

“We have a group of people who have gone through the training and can help people with the application process,” said Kelly Colopy, director of the city’s Health and Human Services Department. “We’re qualified as a certified enrollment entity. We’ve already been conducting quite a bit of outreach.”

Long Beach’s Health Department has assisted for years in determining whether people qualify for Medi-Cal, the government insurance program for very low-income people. One of the components of the ACA is a significant expansion of Medi-Cal so more people will get health coverage without cost. That expertise made it simple to transition into a certified enrollment entity, according to Cheryl Barrit, manager of the Preventative Health Services Bureau.

“We have two staff members working now, and ultimately will have five trained staff members doing the counseling and the outreach,” Barrit said. “We’ve been at health fairs, community meetings, churches, neighborhood groups… We’ve also had people just call in anticipation of enrolling, looking for information.”

In addition to expanding the number of people covered by Medi-Cal, the new law also changes the way income is calculated —it now will be based on a family’s modified adjusted gross income, with no assets test for qualification. Families at or below 138% of the federal poverty level — $32,499 for a family of four — will be able to get Medi-Cal coverage. Children qualify for Medi-Cal if their family makes less than 250% of the poverty level.

The same formula will be used to determine whether people will be eligible for a federal government subsidy for health insurance costs. Subsidies are available to individuals or families making less than 400% of the poverty level.

Those are only the first few decisions to be made when applying for insurance through the Covered California exchange. There are four levels of coverage with varying premiums to be paid, and varying payouts for health care.

For example, with the cheapest coverage, the Bronze level, the insurance typically pays 60% while the individual pays 40%, with a fairly large deductible. The Platinum level plans, with the highest premiums, pay 90% of the cost if you get sick. To qualify for government subsidies, you must buy the Silver-level, or standard, insurance.

There also are six companies in Southern California to purchase insurance from — Molina Healthcare, LA Care Health Plan, Kaiser Permanente, Health Net, Blue Shield and Anthem Blue Cross. Each provide comparable coverage within the service bands, but with some options and differing premiums.

Help to figure all that out and decide what path is best is available through the department by calling 570-7979. The Medi-Cal Outreach and Health Access Program is based at the department’s headquarters, 2525 Grand Ave., in Suite 210.

Covered California also has an extensive website including explainers and an on-line calculator at www.coveredca.com.

Harry Saltzgaver can be reached at hsalt@gazettes.com.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 20 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 30 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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