11/08/2013 10:02 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Why You Don't Have to Wait to Do Your Health Insurance Research

It's no secret that website problems continue to dog the federal government's health care marketplace. Promises have been made for a fully functioning site by the end of November. But in the meantime, a lot of consumers who eager to take advantage of the insurance coverage that the exchanges promise have been left in the lurch.

No one likes being told to hurry up and wait. But consumers don't have to twiddle their thumbs, biding their time until the glitches are fixed. They can take advantage of this time to get tips and advice that will help them understand what options are available, so that their experience in the marketplace -- once technology issues are resolved -- is a successful one.

When it comes to a purchase as important and complex as health insurance, you'll be a more satisfied shopper if you do your homework before trying to get on the exchange. Compared to the way individual insurance was available before, the new marketplaces are a great improvement for consumers -- but only if you understand what is being offered.

That's why Consumer Reports created a free online tool called the It provides personalized guidance on the Affordable Care Act. We understand that consumers have a lot of questions about what's changing in healthcare. And that's only natural, especially since picking the right insurance plan could be confusing even before these new changes.

By answering a few questions anonymously, like your age, family size and the state where you live, you can get the facts that matter to you at our free site. The site, also available in Spanish at, offers visitors advice about what to consider when picking a health plan and how millions of Americans might benefit from new tax credits.

This tool is not just for people who are uninsured or underinsured. It's for every consumer who wonders, regardless of your insurance status -- "Do I need to do anything differently than I do now?"

The answer for a large majority of Americans is no, you don't. If you are insured through your employer or covered by Medicare, the reassuring answer is that you don't need to do anything. But that may not mean there aren't better options available to you. Taking the time to check out what else is available could actually save you money in the long run. If you currently buy expensive individual insurance, or even if your employer offers coverage, in some cases it could be more beneficial to shop through the marketplace.

No matter how you get your insurance, choosing a quality plan can be complicated if you don't know what to look for. It's not as simple as choosing the lowest monthly premium. Knowing the differences between premiums, copays and deductibles, paying attention to the doctors that are in your network and the level of care and coverage provided should all be kept in mind when comparing plans.

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports, encourages consumers to make sure they get insured. It's important to remember that while the technical glitches in the marketplaces are being worked out, there is no "while supplies last" fine print on any of the plans. The same insurers that were available to you on October 1 will still be there. To guarantee that your coverage begins on January 1 -- the first day possible -- consumers have until December 15th to enroll. You can even wait until the last day of open enrollment, March 31, to sign up and still avoid any type of penalty, though it is a big risk to go uncovered.

As with any new program like this, there are opportunists out there looking to take advantage of public confusion. You need to beware of other websites posing as marketplace look-a-likes. The policies may be real, but they won't necessarily be the same plans available through your state's marketplace, and you may be passing up a chance at getting a better deal and financial help with your premiums or out-of-pocket costs.

Consumers should also avoid plans that start before the end of 2013 and don't cover all essential types of health care. Until January 1, insurers are still allowed to sell plans with deductibles as high as $10,000 that don't cover important things such as prescription drugs or outpatient doctor visits.

Spending the time to understand how the health law affects you in advance can make the time you spend on the marketplace that much shorter once technical difficulties end. By taking advantage of the unbiased information available now, consumers will be better able to make the important insurance choices once these technical difficulties are resolved.