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By Kara Brandeisky
December 14, 2015

If you need to buy your own health insurance for 2016, don’t forget that the deadline to get coverage starting on New Year’s Day is Dec. 15. You can still sign up for insurance until Jan. 31, but your coverage won’t begin until later in the year.

If you miss the Jan. 31 deadline too, you won’t be able to get insurance at all in 2016, unless you have a big life change like losing your job, getting married or having a baby. And the Obama administration says the deadline will not be extended this year, as it has in the past.

Go without health insurance in 2016, and you’ll pay a huge tax in 2017. The average tax penalty is expected to reach almost $1,000 next year. The penalty could be even higher depending on your income and family size.

Here are some other things you should know:

How Obamacare works. The Affordable Care Act created government-regulated “marketplaces” where people can buy private health insurance plans with certain protections and minimum essential benefits. For example, insurers in the marketplaces cannot reject people with preexisting conditions, must offer free preventive services, and must put a cap on how much you’ll be forced to spend out-of-pocket on in-network services. Here’s more about what the law means for you.

How to sign up. Some states have created their own health insurance marketplaces, while others are using the federal government’s system. It doesn’t matter to you — just go to Healthcare.gov and select your state, and the portal will send you to the right website.

How to choose a plan. There are five kinds of Obamacare plans: Platinum, gold, silver, bronze and catastrophic. The metal levels refer to the amount of care you can expect the insurer to cover. Platinum plans are supposed to cover 90% of your health care costs, gold plans cover 80%, silver plans cover 70%, and bronze plans cover 60%. (Catastrophic plans, which are only available to people under age 30 or people with a hardship exemption, cover 100% of your care after you’ve paid $6,850 out-of-pocket.)

Why choose a plan that covers less? Generally, the less your plan is expected to cover, the less you’ll pay in premiums every month. Here’s how to weigh your choices and make the decision in 15 minutes or less.

How to get a discount. The federal government offers subsidies to help defray the cost of monthly premiums for health plans bought on the marketplaces. This year, individuals who make under $47,080 and families of four who make under $97,000 will be eligible for subsidies. Last year, 87% of Americans with Obamacare (on the federal exchange) qualified for a subsidy — a discount of $272 a month, on average, for individual plans. You can apply for a subsidy when you sign up on Healthcare.gov. Here’s more information about how subsidies work.

How to renew your coverage. If you bought an Obamacare plan last year, your plan will probably be auto-renewed. But take a few minutes to shop anyway. Even if you stay on the same plan, your premiums may increase, your benefits may change, and your subsidy could shrink. There’s probably a better deal out there too — in 73% of U.S. counties, consumers will be able to find a cheaper plan than their old one, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Here’s what to know.

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