BENNINGTON - Individuals and small businesses in Vermont now have a marketplace where they can purchase health insurance: Vermont Health Connect (VHC).

Beginning on the extended date of April 1, 2014, all Vermonters are required to have health insurance, whether through their employer or purchased on their own.

For some, there is confusion about Vermont Health Connect, the federal Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"), and how to sign up for health insurance. As navigators in Bennington County and Wilmington, we're here to help.

Vermont Health Connect has the mission to provide all Vermonters with the knowledge and tools they need to easily compare and choose a quality, affordable, and comprehensive health plan. The overall goals are to reduce health care costs and cost growth; to ensure that all Vermonters have access to and coverage for high quality care; to improve the health of Vermont's population; and to assure greater fairness and equity in how all of us pay for health insurance.

If you live in Vermont and don't have employer-sponsored health insurance, or if you work for a small employer who is offering insurance, Vermont Health Connect is the place to go to find out more. On the website (www.VermontHealthConnect.gov, you can read about and compare the different plans available to you. Individuals and families can also figure out if they qualify for tax credits or other cost reductions. Once you're ready, you'll want to choose your plan by the 15th of the month before you wish your insurance coverage to start.

Specifically, Vermont Health Connect was designed for use by individuals and families without insurance; small businesses with less than 50 employees; and individuals whose employer-sponsored plans do not meet certain federal standards.

Vermonters who have VHAP and Catamount will also be affected by the changes in health insurance, as those state programs are being phased out. In fact, if you have VHAP or Catamount coverage, you MUST enroll in a health plan on Vermont Health Connect by March 15, so you will have coverage on April 1.

Besides the website, there are other ways to connect with Vermont Health Connect and get your questions answered and your plan chosen: via toll free help lines at 1-855-899-9600 for individuals and 1-855-499-9800 for small businesses; by emailing your questions to vthealthconnect@state. vt. us; or by contacting or meeting with one of us.

We know health insurance is not an exciting topic and that all of this is a lot of information to take in, but that's why we're here to help.

If you'd like to meet with one of us, our contact information is below.

The VHC website also lists navigators and their contact information by Vermont county.

For assistance by a Navigator in southwestern Vermont, contact the Bennington Free Clinic at (802) 447-3700; or Eileen Druckenmiller of the Bennington Blueprint for Health at (802) 440-8013.