This weekend, Ding Yuan got a flu shot -- for free.
The 25-year-old San Jose software engineer is among 156 million Americans whose employers pay for their health insurance. But like many of them, Yuan was surprised to find out that as of Jan. 1, the annual flu shot at his CVS pharmacy wouldn't cost him anything because of the new federal health care law.
So was Terry Woo, a 53-year-old San Jose father of five who was getting his inoculation at a Walgreens a few miles away.
"That's great," said Woo, who also receives his health insurance through work. "I fully supported Obamacare, but I didn't know that."
After months of controversy and angst following the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act -- from the initial meltdown of the federal health exchange website to the shock of many consumers told their old policies were being canceled-- some of the law's most tangible perks are finally in place.
And amid a deadly swine flu outbreak across the country, one potentially life-saving service -- free flu shots -- could represent the first positive experience millions of average Americans have with the new law.
The law, signed by President Barack Obama in March 2010, now mandates that most health plans cover a set of preventive services, including shots and screening tests, with no co-payment -- regardless of whether someone has met his or her yearly deductible.
"It's a great example of how having insurance can make a lot of difference and may reduce a barrier for people," said Dr. Jeffrey Rideout, senior medical adviser at Covered California, the state's health insurance exchange.
A common misunderstanding is that the health care law's free preventive services are available only to people who bought their plans on the exchange.
Not true, said Roy Kennedy, a Covered California spokesman.
"These are part of the essential benefits that are now included in all plans," he said.
The law's requirement to cover preventive services at no cost applies to all "non-grandfathered" private plans -- including individual, employer and self-insured plans in which employers contract with a third-party payer, said Cynthia Cox, a senior policy analyst at the Menlo Park-based Kaiser Family Foundation.
Grandfathered plans are those insurance policies that were in effect before the health reform law was passed almost four years ago -- and they are exempt from some of the law's requirements.
"As long as your employer plan isn't grandfathered," Cox said, "then you should be able to get a free flu shot.''
Cox added that it's a good idea to check with your doctor to make sure he or she correctly bills the flu-shot visit as a preventive service. Otherwise, consumers might get a bill for the service.
Consumers should also find out from their health insurer where they can get their free shots. Kaiser Permanente, for example, will only cover a flu shot administered at a Kaiser facility or by Kaiser staff. But a company spokesman said Kaiser customers can get the shots with no appointment.
Those without health insurance can still get flu shots at pharmacies such as Walgreens and CVS, spokesmen for both chains said. But it will cost them about $32.
Meanwhile, flu shots continue to be fully covered under Medicare Part B, a benefit that was in place before the Affordable Care Act.
County public health departments also offer low-cost or free flu shots. Bay Area residents should check with their county health department for more information about prices and clinic locations.
The new health law offers more than just free flu shots. At least a dozen other free preventive health services -- from diabetes to HIV screening, programs for weight loss and smoking cessation -- are available to most American adults.
Women can get free annual check-ups, free breast and cervical cancer screenings and free contraception.
Children with private medical insurance or who are on Medi-Cal get their own set of free screenings for vision, oral health and obesity, among other tests.
"People should take advantage of the preventive and wellness services," said Covered California's Kennedy. "It makes a lot of sense.''
Contact Tracy Seipel at 408-920-5343. Follow her at Twitter.com/taseipel.
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