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Genesis Health System navigator Jennifer Busch in her office on the Genesis East Campus located on East Rusholme Street in Davenport, Iowa Friday, October 13, 2017. Busch assists people who have questions about enrolling in the Affordable Care Act insurance programs. Funding for the ACA navigators has been dramatically cut this year. 

With all the turmoil over the Affordable Care Act, insurance regulators and experts in Iowa and Illinois are urging that people carefully consider their options, as Wednesday opens the six week enrollment period under the law.

This year's enrollment period, which runs from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15, is half as long as last year. In addition, attempts to repeal the law, known by many as Obamacare, has caused uncertainty over what would happen. In Iowa, it was only a week ago that the state abandoned a plan that would have significantly altered the law for 2018.

All that has regulators urging even greater care in signing up this year.

“There has been a lot of news recently about Iowa’s individual insurance market. As the open enrollment season begins, Iowans should thoroughly research all coverage options. I would encourage consumers to meet with a licensed insurance agent to determine the best plan for themselves and their families,” Iowa Insurance Commissioner Doug Ommen said last week.

He noted that, for 2018, Medica will be the only option for people buying coverage through healthcare.gov. Iowa is one of eight states that will have a single issuer, according to a report issued this week by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Iowans will have, on average, five plans available to them for 2018, the report said.

Average prices are up significantly over 2017. The average premium in Iowa's marketplace will be about 57 percent higher than in 2017. However, because of changes stemming from the ending of cost-sharing subsidies and the way that premium tax credits are figured, some lower-income Iowans could find coverage for less money than they paid last year.

Thus, the need to shop around.

Premium tax credits are available to people with incomes less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level. An individual with a 2018 annual income of about $48,000 or less will be eligible for credits.

Experts say that in addition to costs, other factors, like a plan's provider network, should be considered when making a decision.

Most people get health insurance through their employer or via government programs, like Medicare and Medicaid. The enrollment period is for people who purchase their own health coverage.

Iowa's insurance division also said this week that people who find they can't afford prices in the marketplace should visit with an insurance agent about alternatives, such as small group health insurance coverage or Iowa's high-risk pool, called HIPIowa, for those with certain medical conditions.

In Illinois, meanwhile, the state's insurance department is expanding the amount of help it is giving to consumers.

Beginning Wednesday, licensed agents will be available from 7 a.m. through 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, except Thanksgiving, by calling 1-866-311-1119. On weekends, help is available from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Illinois has four companies offering plans for 2018, with an average of 21 options per county, according to the federal government.

Consumers also can shop for a plan at GetCoveredIllinois.gov. The site will provide consumers with all plan options available in the state, according to the department.

The state insurance department also is launching an outreach initiative to help people. "Our goal is to visit every county of the state so consumers get the help they need," said Jennifer Hammer, director of the department.

Genesis Health System, UnityPoint Health Trinity and Community Health Care, Inc., also offer assistance.

As in Iowa, insurance agents or other assistance is available in the state. A list of those individuals and organizations offering help can be found at connector.getcoveredamerica.org.

The Iowa insurance division referred people to localhelp.healthcare.gov to find assistance. The telephone number for assistance via healthcare.gov is 1-800-318-2596.

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