The deadline is quickly approaching to enroll in healthcare coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare.
If you don’t sign up for a health insurance plan by Feb. 15, you will likely be without coverage for months and will face penalties on next year’s income tax return.
Don’t fret, though. You can follow these steps to choose the best healthcare plan for you and your family.
How Do I Sign Up?
The easiest way to get started is by logging on to the ACA website, HealthCare.gov, or the website for your particular state. There you can find the information you need to enroll along with a number of resources and answers to commonly asked questions.
You can also apply by phone or with a paper application.
Before creating an online account, it’s helpful to collect the information you’ll need when you choose from the selection of online plans collectively referred to as the Health Insurance Marketplace.
You should gather relevant documents, including mailing addresses for everyone applying for coverage, employer and income information for every member of your household, and everyone’s social security numbers.
The Marketplace website will tell you which programs and savings you qualify for depending on your income and family situation. While the Marketplace ultimately decides whether you are eligible for subsidies from the government to offset the cost of insurance, this page tells you how to make a ballpark estimate using your income.
This government checklist will help you stay on track and ensure you have everything you need to enroll on hand.
Where Can I Go for Help?
If you run into any issues during the application process, you can contact the Marketplace directly 24/7. The ACA website also provides a phone number to call if you need to speak with someone in a language other than English.
You can also ask for assistance from local organizations trained to answer your questions, either virtually or in person. These organizations do get slammed with requests in the days leading up to the deadline, so reach out to them sooner rather than later. Be patient, too.
Confused about all of the health insurance lingo? Check out the Marketplace glossary of common terminology.
What Happens if I Miss the Deadline?
You must enroll in an insurance plan by Feb. 15 to obtain coverage or you’ll have to wait until the next Open Enrollment period to apply. That window begins in October, and you could be without health insurance until then if you don’t sign up now.
You can enroll between March and October if you experience a major life change that would qualify you for a Special Enrollment period. This grace period gives people 60 days following major events, such as marriage, the birth of a child, or the loss of other healthcare coverage, to enroll.
You can enroll in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) any time during the year, but you have to qualify for those programs, which target low-income families.
If you aren’t granted a special enrollment or if you want to contest another decision made by the Marketplace, such as the amount of your subsidy, you may be able to file an appeal.
And if you didn’t sign up for health insurance last year, you’re not off the hook in 2015.
You could be one of the millions of people who can expect a tax penalty of $95 or 1 percent of income above a certain threshold.
If you don’t have insurance at any time during this year, the penalty goes up on your 2016 tax forms. It’s 2 percent of income or $325 per adult and $162.50 per child.