No matter what you think of the Affordable Care Act, it's important to take advantage of the health insurance law's favorable provisions, avoid or minimize its disadvantages and, if necessary, talk to people in government about fixing problems, panelists at a discussion in Omaha said Wednesday.

“We are a democracy,” said Angelia Kiani, a vice president with Lincoln Financial Management of Lincoln, encouraging those in the audience to let their representatives know what should be changed in the law.

The Better Business Bureau of Omaha sponsored the information session for business owners, attended by about 90 people at the offices of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska. The program is to be repeated in Lincoln at 8:30 a.m. today at Union Bank, 4732 Calvert St.

Kiani and two other experts outlined the basics of the law, also known as Obamacare, and answered questions. They focused on parts of the law affecting small businesses and individuals because the law requires nearly all Americans to have health insurance starting Jan. 1, 2014.

Among key points:

» Each state's health insurance exchange, or online marketplace, will open Oct. 1, but individuals and small businesses don't have to make decisions on buying insurance until March 31. That's enough time to get information, weigh options and make good choices.

» People who have qualified insurance don't have to use the marketplaces. That includes most large-group policies, and people with Medicare, Medicaid and Tricare, the coverage plan for military families.

» Insurance brokers and other experts can help businesses plan for 2014 and beyond.

» In general, individual and small-group policies will provide more coverage than current policies but likely cost more, even if people would rather pay less and have less coverage. Many people will qualify for government subsidies on individual policies through the exchanges to help them afford the coverage.

» State offices in Nebraska and Iowa and the federal oversight agency haven't published cost information yet but are expected to in September.

» Small businesses might run into IRS problems if they try to delay complying with the new rules until later in 2014 by switching from a Jan. 1 policy renewal to a December date.

» Employers of fewer than 50 people won't be subject to penalties for not offering insurance, and larger employers won't be subject to penalties for another year. But individuals still are required to have coverage.

» Regulations under the law are still changing as the Department of Health and Human Services puts out guidance notices.

“What we talk about today may change tomorrow,” Kiani said. “My hope is that the changes that come will be good.”

Although people may disagree with the law, she said, “in a few months it is the law of the land that everyone is supposed to have health insurance,” with a few exceptions such as people in jail and those not required to file income tax returns.

Despite the political dissension connected to the law, Russell Collins, a Blue Cross vice president, said the law is making “a lot of positive changes.”

For example, he said, insurance companies can no longer reject applicants for having pre-existing medical conditions. Children can stay on their parents' policies until age 26, insurers can't charge women higher rates than men and people won't be charged copayments for preventive health care.

Blue Cross will offer policies through Nebraska's health insurance exchange, although the Blue Cross affiliate in Iowa, Wellmark, will not offer policies on Iowa's exchange.

CoOportunity Health, Coventry Health Care and Health Alliance Midwest are to offer coverage on the exchanges in both Nebraska and Iowa. Other insurers to offer coverage on Iowa's exchange are Avera Health Plans, Gunderson Health Plan and Sanford Health.

David Lyons, CEO of CoOportunity, said people should remember the unfavorable trends that led to passage of the Affordable Care Act. Those include rapid increases in health care costs, the overuse of emergency rooms for routine care by uninsured people, and millions of uninsured families missing out on preventive care, he said.

While taking steps to comply with the law, he said, business owners also should encourage the government to make “smart changes” in parts of the law that need fixing.

He said many individuals and businesses are not ready for the coming changes, but there's time to learn enough details to make good decisions. He urged employers to give their workers information on the changes, even if they start with simple briefings.

Lyons said he expects most people, at least in the Midwest, to get insurance if they don't have it now, or to pay penalties as required by the law. “People tend to be compliant here.”

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