Open enrollment for Affordable Care Act coverage begins Nov. 1.
Although the future of the act and the health insurance marketplaces it created remains uncertain, that shouldn’t deter consumers from enrolling in coverage for 2018.
In fact, health care experts urge consumers who will be shopping for individual plans to act sooner rather than later. Not only is the window for shopping on the federal marketplace narrower this time around, but planned maintenance periods will further reduce the number of days that HealthCare.gov will be up and running.
Here is what you should expect from the coming open-enrollment period for coverage under the act, also known as Obamacare.
Key dates to mark on your calendar
The 2018 open-enrollment period extends from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15. The period is half as long as it was last year. Existing enrollees who miss the enrollment deadline will either be automatically enrolled in their existing health plans, or l be put into a comparable plan if their existing plan is no longer available.
Further reducing the amount of time consumers will have to enroll in plans, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has announced that HealthCare.gov will be taken offline for maintenance each Sunday during the enrollment period.
Consumers who live in states that run their own health care exchange websites might catch a break. Many of the 12 states, such as Colorado and Minnesota, have extended the enrollment window.
Plans purchased during open enrollment will become effective starting Jan.1, 2018.
If your insurer has exited the marketplace, you should have been notified by now, Karen Pollitz, senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said at an October news briefing. Pollitz urged consumers who will have to switch plans to go to the marketplace to check and compare other plans as soon as Obamacare open enrollment starts. If you don’t enroll by Dec.15 (or by your state marketplace’s deadline, if different), you will be automatically signed up for a similar plan.
“It is best act to early. Do not wait until the last minute,” Pollitz said.
Get help from a health care navigator
The Trump administration has cut federal funding for advertising to get people sign up for Obamacare during this fall’s open enrollment season by 90 percent, and slashed 41 percent of grants for navigator groups — those individuals who help consumers enroll.
The slashed budgets have led states to cut back on hiring health care navigators, which could lead to more confusion, experts say.
Some states like Ohio have shut down their navigator program completely.
Use this tool from HealthCare.gov to see if your state has navigators on staff to help you enroll. If not, you can:
- Contact the site’s Marketplace Call Center if you have questions. The center runs 24/7, but there may be a long wait.
- Reach out to trained and registered agents or brokers using the Find Local Help tool. A note from HealthCare.gov: Services are generally free to you — they’re paid by insurance companies whose plans they sell. (Some agents and brokers may sell only certain plans.)
- Use this calculator from the Kaiser Family Foundation to get an estimate of your plan premiums, and check how much financial help you might qualify for based on your age, where you live and the prices in your area. The calculator will soon be updated for 2018 coverage.
- Learn what you need to know from free, reliable resources. The Kaiser Family Foundation will hold web briefings for consumers in different states the week before enrollment starts. Check out the dates here.
Experts are concerned that the pullback on advertising grants, especially on TV promotions to get people signed up, will cause a drop in enrollment. This happened at the end of open enrollment this past January when marketing ads were canceled by the new administration, according to Pollitz.
“Consumers need to hear this information over and over and over again,” Pollitz said.
New Obamacare rules to watch out for
While the enrollment procedure remains largely unchanged this year, there are a few new rules experts say are worth your attention:
People who missed payments last year may not receive coverage for 2018.
The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ruled back in the summer that during the 2018 coverage year, insurers are allowed to deny enrollment for customers who missed payments in 2017. This change will affect those who signed up for health care after the new rule took effect on June 17 and then missed a payment.
Insurers have an option to not to adopt the policy, and states can also prohibit the practice. Pollitz said If you missed payment in that window, you can repay your premium debt to the insurer before the end of the coming open enrollment, or you can sign up for a coverage under a different company.
But if you need to make a dispute, Health and Human Services hasn’t established an appeal process for this insurance change. Pollitz said it’s important for those encouraging this barrier to contact their state’s insurance regulator and the marketplace, and to seek assistance from navigators.
People who haven’t filed a 2016 tax return with Form 8962 may be denied tax credits
Consumers who got premium tax credits in 2016 but have not yet filed a 2016 federal income tax return with Form 8962 (the form allows filers to calculate their tax credits and reconcile their credit amount this year) will be denied premium tax credits next year. However, those affected by the new rule won’t be given the specific reason why they will not be eligible for tax credits, Pollitz said. She advised that if you are denied tax credits, you have to figure out that this is the reason and then file an amended return with Form 8962 to receive premium subsidies in 2018.
Consumers in 31 states and Washington D.C., with income at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level — that 138 percent means a little over $16,600 every year for a single person and nearly $34,000 for a family of four — are now eligible for Medicaid, which is open for enrollment throughout the year. You can apply through the marketplace to find out whether you are eligible for tax credits or Medicaid.
What’s unchanged from last year
Individual mandate remains
You still have to a penalty if you can afford health insurance but don’t buy it.
The penalty for not having coverage is the same as it is this year. The fee is calculated as a percentage of your household income or as a fixed amount per person. You’ll pay whichever is higher.
For 2018 …
- 2.5% of household income (capped at the yearly premium for the national average price of a Bronze plan sold through the marketplace)
- $695 per adult
- $347.50 per child under 18
- Capped at a maximum of $2,085
Auto-renewal remains but is not recommended
If you don’t enroll in new coverage by Dec. 15, your plan will be auto-renewed. About one in every four consumers’ plans were renewed in this fashion in 2017, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And if your plan has changed, you will be automatically assigned a plan. But experts strongly recommend you not rely on auto-renewal this year because algorithms may not get you the best plan for 2018 with all the subsidies changes. What you should do is to log into your account, carefully review all the plan choices and costs and select a plan for 2018.
Premium increases and uncertainty
Unable to successfully repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Trump administration has begun peeling back some elements of the legislation in recent weeks. In mid-October, President Trump announced he would yank key federal subsidies offered to insurers that were used to offer copay and deductible discounts to low-income consumers. Soon after Trump moved to pull the insurance subsidies, two senators struck a bipartisan deal to fund the subsidies through 2019. Experts say if the deal is passed, that could stabilize the marketplace.
But experts say this back-and-forth on insurance subsidies likely won’t change anything for those shopping for coverage for 2018, as insurers are still required to offer cost-sharing help under ACA, and most of them had anticipated the loss of subsidies and had already increased premiums for 2018.
Most people still get tax subsidies that can help reduce their premiums — every eight in 10 people who enrolled in an Obamacare plan received premium tax credits that lowered their monthly insurance bills in 2017. Premium subsidy dollars increase as premiums go up. However, those who earn too much to qualify for tax credits will likely feel the effects of higher premiums.
More difficulty down the road
While it’s unclear how exactly individual accessibility to health care services will be affected in light of the changes to ACA, it will be disruptive when consumers have to switch plans with different providers and apply to new doctors due to the exit of their previous insurers from the marketplace, said Jennifer Tolbert, director of state health reform at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“We do know that simply having an insurance card doesn’t guarantee people access to people and doesn’t mean that they will be able to get the care that they need,” Tolbert said. “But it certainly helps.”