Healthcare

Federal open enrollment period is now shorter than it was before

Now is a good time to think about open enrollment for 2018. This is the period when you can enroll in or make changes to a health plan. Now the federal open enrollment period is half as long it was before.

Last year, the open enrollment period in the federal Health Insurance Marketplace lasted three months. This year, it will last just 45 days: from Nov.1 to Dec. 15. If you want to choose or change a federal marketplace plan for 2018, you must do so then. Some state marketplaces, however, such as those in California and New York, are offering longer open enrollment periods.

The federal government and many states operate a health insurance marketplace or exchange. Those are websites that offer one or more health plans in which individuals can enroll themselves and their families.

They are worth considering if your employer doesn't offer health coverage or you don't like the coverage your employer offers. They also may be of interest if you're self-employed or unemployed. An advantage of Marketplace plans is that when you apply for one, you'll find out if you qualify for subsidies to reduce the cost of coverage. You'll also see whether you're eligible for Medicaid, the government health insurance program for people with limited incomes.

If you live in one of the states on this list and want to use a marketplace, use your state's marketplace. Check with that Marketplace to find out what their open enrollment period will be. If you don't live in one of those states and want to use a marketplace, use the federal one.

Job-based health plans

Many businesses that offer health insurance to their employees have plans that are based on the calendar year, with coverage beginning in January. If that applies to your employer, you too are likely to have an open enrollment period in the fall.

Your employer may offer a choice of plans. If so, this is your chance to consider which plan is best for you. You can choose a different plan, sign up for new plan offerings and add or drop dependents. The exact dates vary from employer to employer, but the period may be short - perhaps just a few weeks. Ask your manager or human resources department when your company's open enrollment period will take place.

Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP

When you turn 65, you can enroll in the government's Medicare program. Every year, Medicare has its own open enrollment period, from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7. During this period, you can make changes to your Medicare coverage. For example, you can join a new Medicare Advantage plan, which lets you get your Medicare benefits from a private health plan. Or, you can enroll in a new stand-alone prescription drug plan. For more information, contact Medicare or visit Medicare Interactive.

If your income is under certain limits, you may qualify for Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). If you qualify, you can enroll at any time of the year. Check here to see if you qualify.

Preparing for open enrollment

It pays to prepare for open enrollment. You may have choices to make, and not much time to make them. You'll want to review in advance what you and your family need. Are you going to apply for coverage through the health insurance marketplace? If so, here's a checklist of information you may want to gather in advance.

If you miss open enrollment, you still may have opportunities to change your coverage before next year's open enrollment period. Most employers let you make changes to your coverage for certain life events, whenever they happen. Those events may include the birth of a child or loss of coverage under a spouse's plan. The health insurance marketplace allows "special enrollment periods" for similar sorts of events.

Even so, the open enrollment period is your best chance to take control of your health coverage - and maybe improve it.

Robin Gelburd, JD, is the president of FAIR Health, a national, independent, nonprofit organization with the mission of bringing transparency to healthcare costs and health insurance information. You can find them on Twitter: @FAIRHealth

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