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New York's health exchange opens for business

Excellus BlueCross BlueShield

New York State of Health, the marketplace exchange that will let New Yorkers choose health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is open for business starting Tuesday. The state has plenty of help available for anyone who's taking the jump into these historic waters.

At the center of these exchanges is a website, where you'll get your first look at the four different levels of plans; bronze, silver, gold and platinum. This could be the final point of contact for some New Yorkers, according to Elisabeth Benjamin, vice president for health initiatives for the Community Service Society of New York.

"A lot of people will be really happy going to the exchange, talking to someone in the call center, and just being in the comfort of their own home, working through the website, doing live chat, doing phone," Benjamin said. "But others don't feel comfortable sort of being in that environment, and would rather to go to a certified expert and talk one-on-one, or eyeball-to-eyeball if you will."

That's where navigators come in. These are people, trained and certified by New York state, to guide customers through the process of choosing between the four plans.  In central New York, 14 navigators are affiliated with ACR Health according to Community Health Coordinator Steve Wood.

"We won't help you decide which one," Wood said. "We won't do that. But we can show you all your options, and you can make a better educated decision on what type of plan is good for you. What the costs are, what's covered, is your doctor there, is your prescription there."

So what do these costs look like? In a nutshell, what you pay depends on the plan you choose, where you live, and your income. And the cheaper the plan, the higher the out-of-pocket payments you'll have in the form of co-payments and deductibles. For Benjamin, the thing to remember is that the plans are what she calls doable.

"The law has been written in a progressive way, so the lowest income people pay the least, and the highest income people pay a little more," Benjamin said. "But no one pays a ton."

She also says the goal is to get affordable health insurance to New Yorkers that don't have any.

"Of those 2.6 million uninsured in New York, 1.1 million  are expected to enroll in coverage in the next couple of years and that's great," Benjamin said. "I think we'll try to get all 2.6 million. I don't know if we'll win that struggle, but it will be a struggle."

For Wood, this is landmark work that will change lives.

"This is exactly what happened with Medicare, Medicaid and all of the other major public health programs," Wood said. "This is on the same level as that. How can you not be excited, how can you not be optimistic about that. Right?"

Once New Yorkers sign up with a plan, it will go into effect in January.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.