If you buy your own health insurance, add this important date to your year-end to-do list: November 15.
That's the date open enrollment opens for individual health care plans offered through the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. You'll have the option of buying new or continuing coverage through the Healthcare.gov site, your respective state health insurance marketplace or independent agents in your community. The enrollment period closes on February 15.
If you're working for a company that provides your health insurance, chances are your open enrollment period has already begun. The SHOP insurance marketplace, open to small businesses and nonprofits with 50 or fewer full-time employees, also begins taking online applications November 15.
Want to make the best health insurance decisions for 2015? Start doing your research now. Here's why:
1. Timing is tight. Last year's ACA-based health insurance enrollment process lasted six months; this time, it's cut in half -- opening November 15 and closing February 15. You may be able to enroll outside of those dates if you're facing a major life change like a divorce, birth of a child or marriage, but otherwise, that's your window.
2. Reading is fundamental. Use this crucial time before enrollment opens to research your particular options online in print media and in any resources recommended by individuals in the know. As open enrollment approaches, you'll be hearing a lot more news about it. It's wise to start your overview now.
3. Getting help early is smart. Even if this is your first time buying coverage or if you bought coverage through the federal website last year, it's not a bad idea to consult with a licensed independent agent before November 15 to get the early line on coverage options. After open enrollment starts, they'll be a lot busier. Get referrals from family and friends to find an agent. The best ones not only want your business, but they're good at analyzing your particular circumstances and boiling down your options. You're not obligated to buy coverage from them, but some people prefer a choice of plans and someone who can handhold them through the process.
4. Sticker shock is a possibility. Obamacare didn't guarantee cheap healthcare coverage; it guaranteed available healthcare coverage. Keep in mind that if you bought health coverage last year, your insurer will automatically re-enroll you December 15 for new coverage effective January 1. However, that's no guarantee that your monthly premium will stay the same. Some experts are predicting only modest increases, but depending where you live, your premiums might go up or down. And if your 2013 carrier grandfathered your 2014 coverage, those changes may go well beyond price.
5. Your doctors and hospitals might change. Hospitals and physician practices scrutinize the state of the health insurance market very closely. Their income depends on it. In 2013, some medical practices made news by dropping insurance plans altogether and accepting only cash or credit; others changed the insurance plans they would honor. Something to keep in mind: the best way to confirm that you'll still have access to your favorite doctor and hospital choice is to pick up the phone. Your doctor's website may list the particular insurance plans his or her practice may accept, but don't expect the list to be current. Call your practitioner or their business office to confirm they're sticking with your plan or any you've chosen instead. You don't want to be surprised with enormous out-of-network costs later.
6. Planning for future health needs is important. The insurance availability benefit of the ACA doesn't mean your 2015 plan will cover everything you want it to. You need to check verbally with your agent and the insurer. Here's an example: If in the next year you're planning to start a family, undergo elective surgery (domestically or abroad) or you're anticipating any changes in the way you'll use health system, query companies and agents to make sure your needs are sufficiently covered. Again, failing to do this can cost you heavily out-of-pocket.
7. You'll need the right coverage start date. Depending when you enroll during the open enrollment period, your actual coverage may not start until two to six weeks later. Check effective dates of coverage for every plan you're evaluating to make sure the timing addresses your particular needs.
8. You'll have time to get extra help if you need it. Personal referrals from friends and co-workers to coverage and agents are always a good way to start your enrollment search. There may also be nonprofit assistance within your community or state to help you evaluate individual plans. On the national level, nonprofit Enroll America runs a nationwide site with specific tools and resources for help in your search. And if you have special medical needs or anticipate them sometime in 2015, it's a good idea to schedule time to speak with your doctor or their business office about those details.
One last important point. When it comes to adequately insuring your health or your family's health, there are no dumb questions. Write down everything you need to know and any responses you receive. You're not only insuring your health, you're insuring your financial future.
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.