THE BLOG
09/18/2014 03:45 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

So You Have Health Insurance -- Now What?

More than half a million Illinoisans signed up for health insurance during the first open enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). That's half a million people who now can rest easy knowing they're not a broken bone away from bankruptcy. And while thousands more Illinoisans still need to get covered, the newly insured should know how to best use their insurance.

I know the ACA has worked for my patients. Carlos, a 45-year-old single father of two, was working two jobs so he could put his kids through school. Neither of the jobs offered health insurance and Carlos couldn't afford private health insurance, which would have drained thousands of dollars from his savings every year. He had a strong family history of cardiac disease and diabetes but had no idea he was a heart attack away from losing everything. Because of the ACA, Carlos was able to qualify for Medicaid. Once he got coverage, he was able to get testing that showed he had nearly 80 percent blockage in his heart arteries. He was able to get treatment and, as a result, he will be able to continue to work and ensure his kids have a solid future.

ACA insurance plans cover preventive care like back-to-school immunizations and physicals. But your insurance only helps if you actually use it. Prevention reaps large dividends.

Maria, a mother of three with a strong family history of breast cancer, feared getting a mammogram even though screening was offered prior to ACA. Finding a doctor she could call her own made the difference. Thanks to the ACA she was ultimately able to get a mammogram and was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. If it hadn't been for the ACA, her family would have endured suffering and the system medical costs that were avoidable.

If you haven't had insurance in a while (or ever), you should utilize your new ACA benefits by finding a doctor covered by your health plan. Call your insurance company or visit its website, call your doctor's office to make sure your insurance is accepted, or look up local doctors' reviews and book an appointment online through websites like ZocDoc.com. If you're enrolled in Medicaid, talk to your clinic, discuss the issue with patient navigators that are part of community-based organizations or talk to your public health community.

The Chicago Department of Public Health is working closely with community partners and Accountable Care entities through the Enroll Chicago initiative to ensure that prevention and public health opportunities are encouraged and simple to understand and access. This is an important strategy of Healthy Chicago, the city's first comprehensive public health agenda introduced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2011.

For emergencies, your insurance company can't charge you more even if the hospital isn't in your network. You also can obtain a referral from your clinic prior to going to the emergency room to minimize costs.

For those still uninsured, the next open enrollment period begins on November 15, but you may not have to wait until then. People who experience a life change such as getting married or divorced, having a baby or adopting, moving or people who lose their current coverage may be eligible for a special enrollment period. If you think you qualify, visit GetCoveredAmerica.org immediately to learn more about your options. Or, prepare for the next open enrollment period with resources to estimate how much financial help you might qualify for or where you can find a free, trained professional to help you sign up.

Also, Illinoisans eligible for Medicaid can enroll any time at www.GetCoveredIllinois.gov. These resources make getting started that much easier - there is just no excuse to wait. Enrolling in health insurance is just the first step in taking care of your health. You owe it to your friends and family to take care of yourself.