by Brigette Courtot, Policy Analyst, 
National Women's Law Center 

When my hair stylist Mila gently scolded me last week for going too long without a trim, my excuse was the passage of federal health reform—work has been really busy, after all, and hair just hasn’t been a priority. She wondered whether I could answer her questions about the new health reform law; in particular, would it help her get health insurance?

The hair salon where she works has never offered health insurance to stylists. She’s also a single mom on a budget (her 8-year-old son has dependent coverage through his father’s employer) so buying health insurance on her own in the incredibly-flawed individual market has always proven too expensive. For most of her adult life, Mila has been uninsured, paying for the occasional doctor’s visit out-of-pocket and hoping to avoid serious illness or injury.

The new health reform law will help Mila and millions of other women who currently can’t afford health insurance. Beginning in 2014, women like Mila who don’t have access to affordable employer-sponsored insurance (and who earn too much to qualify for the public Medicaid program) will be able to buy coverage through a new easy-to-use “insurance shopping place” called a Health Insurance Exchange. 

Those with family incomes under a certain limit (in 2010 dollars, that limit is roughly $43,000 for a family of 1 and $88,000 for a family of 4) will get a federal subsidy to help them pay for health premiums and out-of-pocket costs of their Exchange plan. The subsidies are designed so that recipients will never have to pay more than a certain percentage of their income on health premiums—for Mila, who earns roughly $34,000 a year for her family of 2, premiums will be capped at 7.5% of income. This means she won’t pay more than $2,550 a year/$213 a month for her health insurance. And the insurance will be much higher-quality than the deficient products she’s familiar with from her searches in the individual market—a comprehensive set of benefits will be covered, preventive care will be free, and there won’t be any annual/lifetime limits (to name just a few improvements). 

I admire Mila not just for her scissor skills or color-matching talents, but because she is honest, caring, and hardworking. So even though there are a few places where she could have turned to find answers to her questions—like the Kaiser Family Foundation’s nifty “Subsidy Calculator”—I was glad that I could be the one to tell her the good news. Finding affordable, high-quality, health insurance is no longer a pipe dream, thanks to our new health reform law.