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Don't Miss the Deadlines to Sign Up for Health Insurance

Open enrollment lasts until January 31, but if you wait too long, coverage won't start until March.

I want to sign up for an Obamacare health insurance policy. Is the deadline really January 31?

Yes, open enrollment for 2016 individual health insurance policies continues until January 31, but you'll need to enroll by December 15 if you want your new plan to start on January 1. If you enroll by January 15, your coverage won’t start until February 1, and if you wait until January 31, your coverage won't start until March 1.

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If you currently have a policy, you may be re-enrolled in your plan automatically and may not have to do anything during open enrollment. But if your policy is being discontinued, you may need to find a new plan or your insurer may switch you to another plan that may not provide the best coverage for you.

Even if you can continue in your current plan, it's a good idea to check out all of your options. Insurers have been boosting premiums and out-of-pocket costs and changing drug coverage and provider networks. It's particularly important to reassess your options if your medications or health condition has changed since you chose your policy last year. "If you know you're going to incur certain medical expenses, it may be a smart move not to have the cheapest plan. And remember, you can move later," says Jeff Smedsrud, CEO of Healthcare.com, which provides tools to help people choose the best health insurance plan for their situation.

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As a cancer survivor, Smedsrud helps people going through treatment assess their coverage options. "I talked with a young guy a few weeks ago who had colon cancer surgery, and he was worried about the cost of chemotherapy because he was on a bronze plan," he says. "I told him to switch to a plan with a lower deductible during open enrollment this year, and then he can switch back to a higher-deductible plan if he feels good the following year." Smedsrud reminds people with health issues that now that insurers can't reject people for preexisting conditions, they can switch plans during open enrollment every year. "They aren't used to that mindset," he says.

Compare the premiums plus potential out-of-pocket costs for the medical expenses and drug costs you expect to have over the coming year, as well as the maximum costs you would have to pay under the policies if you end up having an accident or illness. And don't assume that the plan will keep the same provider network from year to year; ask both the doctors and specialists you use if they will be included in your network in 2016.

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Whether or not you change plans, it's also important to update your income and household information with your state exchange so you will qualify for an accurate subsidy. You can get a subsidy to help pay for premiums if your income is below 400% of the federal poverty level ($47,080 if single or $63,720 for a couple). If your income is below 250% of the federal poverty level ($29,425 if single or $39,825 for a couple), you may also qualify for a cost-sharing subsidy to help with deductibles and co-payments, but you can get that extra subsidy only if you buy a silver-level plan. See Save on Obamacare With This Overlooked Cost-Sharing Subsidy for more information.

Go to Healthcare.gov for links to your state's exchange. If you'd like personalized assistance, type your zip code into the Find Local Help tool to find a navigator in your area. You can also find both on-exchange and off-exchange policies, which provide more options if you don't qualify for a subsidy, at eHealthInsurance.com.

For more information, see 7 Steps to Choose the Best Obamacare Health Insurance Plan for 2016.

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