If you plan on signing up for health insurance coverage in the Affordable Care Act marketplaces, you can start doing so on Wednesday.
Unless you try to log in early that morning.
Or any Sunday morning during the next five weeks.
Or after December 15.
Plus, if you need some help navigating the Obamacare website, it might be harder to find someone to assist you.
There seems to be little doubt that enrolling for Affordable Care Act (ACA) plans this fall for 2018 coverage is going to be more difficult.
And critics say that’s exactly the way the White House wants it.
This summer, President Donald Trump said he would “let Obamacare fail” after Republicans in the Senate failed to approve a new healthcare bill.
To some, the president is already succeeding.
At the end of 2016, only 10.9 percent of American adults were without health insurance — a record low.
That was in stark contrast to the 18 percent rate in 2013, the year before the ACA took effect.
However, in the first nine months after President Trump took office, that rate has risen to 12.3 percent, according to a poll by Gallup and Sharecare.
That’s the highest it’s been since 2014.
U.S. News and World Report estimated that 3.5 million Americans have lost their health insurance since the president took the oath of office in January.
Against that backdrop, here’s what you need to know as the 2018 ACA enrollment gets under way.
Less time to sign up
The signup period during the first four years of Obamacare extended from early November to late January.
This year, that window has been cut in half.
The 2018 enrollment period will run from November 1 to December 15.
White House officials have said the shorter window brings the ACA more in line with Medicare and employer-sponsored health plans.
Critics say it gives consumers less opportunity to enroll and may impact younger and healthier consumers who tend to wait until the last minute to sign up.
In addition to shortening the time frame, the Trump administration also plans to shut down the healthcare.gov website for maintenance during the overnight hours on Wednesday, the first day of the enrollment period.
The website will also be unavailable because of maintenance from midnight to noon (East Coast time) every Sunday between now and December 9, according to Kaiser Health News.
An official with the Trump administration told Kaiser that “maintenance outages” are scheduled on the ACA website every year.
“The maintenance schedule was provided in advance this year in order to accommodate requests from certified application assisters. System downtime is planned for the lowest-traffic time periods on healthcare.gov, including Sunday evenings and overnight,” the official said.
However, former Obama administration officials told Kaiser that planned shutdowns of the ACA website in the past were only for a few hours at a time and happened less frequently than once a week.
A report to Congress stated that the ACA site was online 99 percent of the time in 2015 and 2016. This year, it’ll be up 93 percent of the time during the enrollment period.
The bottom line is that the ACA website will be available for a total of 42 days this time compared to 90 days in the Obama administration.
Less information, less help
You probably won’t hear too much about the Obamacare signup period either.
There’s a reason for that.
The Trump administration has slashed the advertising budget for this year’s signup campaign from $100 million to $10 million.
White House officials noted that last year’s advertising budget was double the 2015 expenditures, according to Kaiser Health News.
They said too much money was spent in the past with too few results.
They noted that despite the larger advertising budget last year, Obamacare enrollment decreased by 500,000.
However, former Obama administration officials told Kaiser that the decline was mostly due to the Trump White House pulling advertising for Obamacare during the crucial final week of enrollment last January.
The White House added that most consumers are now familiar with the ACA, so advertising isn’t needed as much.
Some Democratic leaders don’t see it that way.
“The Trump administration is deliberately trying to sabotage our healthcare system,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York).
The Trump administration also cut the budget of so-called navigators by 40 percent to $36 million this year.
The navigators are employees who help consumers with questions or problems they may be having with ACA enrollment or coverage.
Those workers told NPR the cuts will make it a lot more difficult for consumers to get the information they need on healthcare coverage.
They said this is particularly true during a shorter enrollment period when phone lines might be busier than usual.
Add in some confusion
These hurdles will also come amid confusion in the nation’s healthcare system.
The Republicans’ failed attempts to replace Obamacare have added an element of uncertainty into the ACA marketplaces.
In addition, experts say the president’s decision in mid-October to stop government subsidies to insurance companies to help with the cost of low-income enrollees added some instability to the market.
They predicted consumers in some regions will have fewer insurers to choose from and higher premiums and deductibles to pay.
A former Obama administration official told the Washington Post that the reduction in advertising spending and other factors could result in 1.1 million fewer Americans signing up for ACA plans.