January 1, 2014

Key laws taking effect today

Key health care rules as well as new mortgage regulations will affect many Mainers.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The new year brings with it a host of new laws affecting how consumers purchase everything from health care to light bulbs.

click image to enlarge

Lisa Donlea, left, and Susan Roberts, a certified enrollment officer, celebrate after working on Donlea’s federal health insurance exchange enrollment online in Laguna Beach, Calif., last week. Jan. 1 marks the start date for one of the centerpieces of the Affordable Care Act: insurance plans offered by private companies through either federal or state-run marketplaces, or exchanges.

The Associated Press

In Maine, doctors and health care providers will be required to publish price lists for common procedures, while community college students should have an easier time applying their credits toward a bachelor’s degree.

Nationally, key components of President Obama’s sweeping health care law take effect in January. Stricter rules on mortgage lenders, meanwhile, will mean more consumer protections for many but a smaller credit line for some home buyers.

HEALTH CARE

Jan. 1 marks the start date for one of the centerpieces of the Affordable Care Act: insurance plans offered by private companies through either federal or state-run marketplaces, or exchanges. As of Dec. 28, more than 2.1 million people had signed up for insurance through the exchanges – far fewer than Obama administration officials had anticipated but a significant increase over mid-fall, when many consumers were driven away by the problem-plagued federal website, HealthCare.gov.

Roughly 1,700 Mainers had enrolled in coverage through the exchange as of Nov. 30, the last date for which federal officials have released state-specific data.

Residents who enrolled in a plan by Dec. 24 should have coverage as of Jan. 1, although doubts remain about whether everyone will because of the numerous technical problems and communications issues between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and insurance companies. DHHS officials on Tuesday urged the newly insured to check with their coverage provider before going to the doctor and to make sure to pay their premiums on time.

But they also touted other aspects of the still-controversial law that begins Wednesday, including: a prohibition on coverage denials due to pre-existing conditions, mandatory mental health and maternity care, and limitations on rate variations because of a person’s age or geographic location.

“Tomorrow is New Year’s Day and is a new day in health care for millions of Americans,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a conference call with reporters.

Jan. 1 also marks the beginning of the “individual mandate,” the requirement that most individuals purchase insurance or face a fine of up to $95 during the first year, with higher amounts later. But consumers have until March 31 to sign up for coverage to avoid the penalty – a deadline that some lawmakers on Capitol Hill hope to push back even further.

On the state level, the Maine Legislature also passed a bill that, beginning Jan. 1, requires doctors and health care providers to compile a price list for common procedures performed 50 or more times per year. The law is an update to an earlier version that was rarely followed and is intended to better inform consumers.

LENDING CHANGES

Years after the housing boom came crashing down, federal regulators are about to impose new restrictions on mortgage companies to avoid another wave of foreclosures resulting from shady lending practices.

On Jan. 10, lenders will have to take more factors into consideration when deciding whether to offer a loan. At the top of those considerations is a lower debt-to-income ratio of 43 percent that could prohibit some loans from going to individuals, although federal regulators responded to lenders’ concerns by essentially exempting that requirement for loans guaranteed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or other federal programs.

The new rules also put tighter restrictions on when lenders can begin foreclosure proceedings in order to offer homeowners more time to begin alternative negotiations.

Banking associations across the country have raised concerns about whether banks, software vendors and lending compliance specialists will be ready for the new rules, however. They urged the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to delay implementation of the new regulations, but so far to no avail.

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