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Obamacare minimum benefits: CNBC Explains

President Barack Obama delivers remarks about the error-plagued launch of the Affordable Care Act's online enrollment in the Rose Garden of the White House.
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President Barack Obama delivers remarks about the error-plagued launch of the Affordable Care Act's online enrollment in the Rose Garden of the White House.

The cost of private health insurance starting Jan. 1 will vary—often greatly—for people, but under Obamacare nearly everyone with insurance will have the same minimum level of benefits.

The Affordable Care Act requires private health insurance to offer that same set of "essential health benefits" as part of the health-care reform law's effort to both improve Americans' overall health, and control long-term medical costs by encouraging preventive care.

These benefits must be included whether they are in employer-sponsored insurance plans—which cover most working Americans—or in individual plans being sold on the open market and by the new government-run marketplaces such as the federally run HealthCare.gov site and the state-run health exchanges.

(Read more: Obamacare deadlines you need to know)

Before the ACA, insurers were offering plans that had a wide range of benefits, from bare-bones catastrophic coverage, to high-end "Cadillac plans," but there were no minimums.

The new minimum essential benefits that insurers must cover as part of their plans include emergency services as well as outpatient care that people get at a hospital without being admitted.

(Read more: 8 things you MUST know about Obamacare)

Other benefits also include:

-Hospitalization, such as for surgery.

-Care both before and after the birth of a baby. Includes breast pump.

-Mental health and substance use services, which includes behavioral health treatment such as counseling and psychotherapy.

-Prescription drugs.

-Lab services.

-Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices for injuries, disabilities and chronic conditions. This includes speech and other therapies designed to help a person keep, learn or improve skills and functioning for daily living.

-Preventive and wellness services.

-Pediatric services.

Insurers can, but are not obligated to, offer benefits that exceed these minimum benefits.

By CNBC's Dan Mangan. Follow him on Twitter @_DanMangan.

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