Time's Running Out: Pick an Obamacare Plan by Jan. 31

01/23/2017 12:37 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2018

By Lacie Glover

If you haven't yet enrolled in an individual health insurance plan through former President Barack Obama's health care law, act fast: The deadline to sign up is Jan. 31.

might be repealed or changed in coming months, but right now, federal law says that you must have
or you'll payᅡᅠa tax penalty. If you qualify for tax subsidies, shopping on the federal or a state exchange is the only way toᅡᅠreceive them. Exchange plans can be found:
  • At Healthcare.gov or your state's exchange website.
  • Through health insurance comparison sites.
  • Through a health insurance broker.
If getting a subsidy isn't a concern, you can also shop for plans directly throughᅡᅠhealth insurers.

ᅡᄏ MORE: Obamacare subsidies

Here's how to make a quick decision before the open enrollment window closes.

Look closely at costs

Many people choose a plan based on the monthly premium. That's an important factor, but there are other out-of-pocket costs to consider:
  • Deductibles: The amount you pay upfront for medical care eachᅡᅠyear before yourᅡᅠplan pays. Some plans cover certain services,ᅡᅠsuch as primary physician visits, before you meet the deductible; others don't.
  • Copayments: A flat fee you pay at the time of a medical service, such as $25 for a doctor visit or $10 for a prescription.
  • Coinsurance: A portion of the cost of a medical service, which you typically pay even after you've met yourᅡᅠdeductible, such as 20% of the cost of an X-ray or 30% of a laboratory fee for bloodwork.
  • Out-of-pocket spending limits: The most you'll pay eachᅡᅠyear for copays, coinsurance and deductibles before the plan pays 100% of your medical bills.

The health plan withᅡᅠthe lowest monthly premiumᅡᅠlikely has some of the highest out-of-pocket costs. In other words, if your family frequently uses medical services, you have a surgery coming up, or you plan to become pregnant, "maybe a plan with a higher premium and lower deductible is a better choice,"ᅡᅠsays Ellen FitzPatrick, vice presidentᅡᅠof partnership development at Copatient, a medical cost consulting firm.

Pick a tier, then compare choices

Plans on the exchanges are grouped into "metal tiers" based on the average amountᅡᅠthey pay for care:
  • Bronze:ᅡᅠPlans pay 60% of charges.
  • Silver:ᅡᅠPlans pay 70% of charges.
  • Gold:ᅡᅠPlans pay 80% of charges.
  • Platinum:ᅡᅠPlans pay 90% of charges.
Bronze plans generally haveᅡᅠthe lowest premiums and the highest deductibles, copays and coinsurance. Use the metal tier system to compare costs of the available plans and pick a few to look at more carefully.

Examine the provider network and benefits you want

Before you choose any plan, "know what's covered -- and what's not," FitzPatrick says. Make sure theᅡᅠplan you select pays for your doctor visits, as well as services and medications you regularly use.
  • If you have one or more doctors you want to keep, check thatᅡᅠthey're listed in your plan's provider directory before you buy. You'll often find a link to the directory near the plan's details on comparison sites and on the insurer's website.
  • If you use specific health services due to a chronic condition, such asᅡᅠdiabetes, make sure they're covered servicesᅡᅠin the plan's summary of benefits.
  • If you take medications, look them upᅡᅠin your plan's formularyᅡᅠand find out how much you'll pay. Search forᅡᅠthe generic names, not theᅡᅠbrand names. For example, if you take Synthroid for a thyroid disorder, search for the active ingredient "levothyroxine" instead.

ᅡᄏ COMPARE: Health insurance quotes

If you're unsure whether the insurers you're considering will pay for your drug or doctor visits, call sooner than later. Customer service phone wait times will likely increaseᅡᅠas the Jan. 31 deadline gets closer.

Even if you don't have questions, avoid signing up on the last day in case of any last-minute website glitches due to high demand.

Lacie Glover is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: lacie@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @LacieWrites.