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State

Illinois launches health insurance marketplace

CHICAGO — Illinois residents were getting their first opportunity Tuesday to comparison shop for health insurance on a new marketplace that state officials hope will help an estimated 1.8 uninsured Illinoisans get coverage.

The marketplace, called Get Covered Illinois, is one of the key components of President Barack Obama's health care law. Consumers can go online to compare plans and rates, and to learn if they qualify for federal tax credits to help defray some of the cost. The state also opened a call center where staff can field questions, and county health departments, health centers and community organizations have trained workers on hand to help people with the process.

Illinois also launched a $33 million advertising campaign to inform residents about the marketplace.

Still, officials are expecting a slow rollout. A survey released Monday showed most Illinoisans were unaware of the program, and Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services Director Julie Hamos said people should take some time to weigh their options and not feel as though they have to enroll immediately.

Though the law requires almost everyone to have health insurance, consumers have until the end of March to do so and avoid penalties for 2014. People who want their coverage to begin Jan. 1 must enroll by Dec. 15.

For Sue Winking, of Quincy, the marketplace can't arrive soon enough. Winking, who has multiple sclerosis, lost her job fundraising for nonprofits in January and got by with a severance package that included insurance coverage until that financial cushion ended in July. Since then, she has collected about $1,500 in monthly unemployment benefits — just $200 more than what her household is paying for COBRA insurance coverage.

She anticipates the cost of a plan through the marketplace will be far cheaper.

"We're paying this awful fee every month on a case-by-case basis," Winking said Monday. "My hope is that, come Jan. 1, I will have a health plan that covers my conditions that is affordable. I'm so excited."

Not everyone shared her enthusiasm. Tuesday's launch comes on the same day as a threatened shutdown of the federal government, led by congressional Republicans who want to block the law from taking effect, though a shutdown would have no immediate effect on the marketplaces.

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Associated Press writer Jim Suhr contributed from St. Louis.

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