ACA Open Enrollment

The 2014 open-enrollment deadline for health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) officially closes Tuesday, March 31. But extensions will be granted to those who started the process before the deadline but did not complete enrollment, the White House and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced Tuesday.

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Why Coverage Is Important

The ACA was implemented to make healthcare accessible to everyone.

Penalties will be imposed for not having the minimum essential coverage: In 2014, the penalty is 1 percent of your income or $95, whichever is higher. The family maximum this year is $285. While those numbers may seem small, they will increase over the years. In 2016, the maximum penalty will be $695 per person and $2,085 for a family. Penalties are paid annually, when federal income taxes are filed.

In the case of a medical emergency, the uninsured are responsible for 100 percent of the cost of care. It’s a gamble, and the stakes can simply be too high. Medical emergencies can pop up unannounced, and urgent procedures, such as an appendectomy, for instance, cost an average of $13,851, according to NerdWallet Health.

Emergency procedures are not the only healthcare expenses that can add up to big bucks. In 2010, the average cost per hospital stay in the U.S. was $9,700, according to a study for the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project

"What can you lose by being covered for your healthcare? You can’t lose anything," says Dr. Mark Rabinowitz, chief medical officer of the Miami Beach Community Health Center, which offers certified application counselors (CACs) to those trying to sign up for coverage. "All you can do is save yourself some horrible outcomes. If it’s not that, you’re certainly going to save some money down the line." 

Affordable healthcare also makes heading to the doctor for a checkup easy, and preventative care can save lives. "You go to the doctor and you find you have high blood pressure and you can avoid stroke. You head in with a skin lesion and the doctor has a chance to treat skin cancer," Rabinowitz says.

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Different Types of Coverage

The ACA ensures healthcare coverage for all, regardless of past ailments or pre-existing conditions. Other forms of healthcare, such as Medicaid, Medicare, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and acts like the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), offer coverage for certain groups—for instance, the elderly, children, those with low income, or those who have lost their jobs.

The health insurance marketplace offered under the ACA offers a variety of plans to suit the needs of those seeking coverage. The health insurance marketplace, which is accessible through HealthCare.gov, can direct citizens to state-sponsored marketplaces that offer different health plans, let people compare plans, and point users who qualify to one of the other forms of healthcare mentioned above.

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How to Get Covered

There are four ways to enroll in the health insurance marketplace—online, by phone, in person, or by paper mail. The HHS outlines each: 

  • To get coverage online, visit the online marketplace.
  • To get coverage by phone, call 1-800-318-2596.
  • To enroll in person, visit the online directory to find an enrollment counselor near you.
  • To enroll by paper mail, download the paper application form and instructions from HealthCare.gov and mail the completed application.

While online registration has had its fair share of difficulties since the health insurance marketplace opened on October 1, 2013, the HHS reports that as of March 17, about five million individuals have enrolled for healthcare, up from the 4.2 million that had enrolled by March 1.

With an expected surge in enrollment as the deadline approaches, getting into the marketplace sooner rather than later will be important. On average, signing up for healthcare with a certified application counselor takes about 35 to 45 minutes for an individual and about an hour to an hour and a half for families, says Thania Albert, a CAC with the Miami Beach Community Health Center. If you're having trouble navigating the application or choosing between different health plans, a CAC can clear that up, she says.

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Getting Health Insurance After March 31

After April 1, unless you have already begun the enrollment process, only specific life events—such as getting married, having children, or losing coverage—will allow you to enroll for health insurance with the marketplace again. Most qualifying life-event coverage windows last about 60 days.

With just five days left to enroll, visit HealthCare.gov to learn more.