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By Elizabeth O'Brien
Updated: April 6, 2021 10:10 AM ET | Originally published: February 14, 2021
A Special Obamacare Enrollment Period Starts Tomorrow
Money

This story has been updated to reflect the extension of the enrollment deadline to Aug. 15, 2021 and the expansion of premium subsidies that passed as part of the American Rescue Plan.

Starting Feb. 15, Americans will have another chance to shop for health insurance on the Affordable Care Act marketplaces.

The Biden administration has ordered a special, three-month enrollment period to allow consumers to shop for individual or family plans under the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare." Those who are already enrolled can reevaluate their coverage options, while new consumers can enroll for the first time.

The move is designed to help Americans affected by the pandemic. The regular open enrollment period ended in December, and while people who lose their employer-sponsored health insurance already qualify for a special enrollment period, they must enroll within 60 days of losing their job, and many miss that window.

This opportunity will allow people whose health insurance has lapsed, or those who are paying pricey COBRA premiums, to enroll in new, likely cheaper coverage. And while the insurers participating in this enrollment period will be the same ones that participated last fall, it's still a good idea for those with existing coverage to make sure there isn't a plan better suited to their needs, says Corey Ford, director of reimbursement & policy Insights at Xcenda, a health care consulting firm.

When is the special "Obamacare" enrollment period for 2021?

The special enrollment period runs from Feb. 15 through Aug. 15, 2021.

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Where is the health insurance marketplace?

Consumers can sign up for coverage on healthcare.gov. About 14 states and the District of Columbia run their own state marketplaces, and some of them, including California, have also announced plans for a special enrollment period. If you’re not sure where to look, type your zip code into healthcare.gov and the site will direct you either to your options within the site or to your state’s individual marketplace.

How to get affordable health insurance

Don’t assume that health insurance will be unaffordable. The Kaiser Family Foundation analyzed the approximately 15 million uninsured Americans who could shop for coverage on the Affordable Care Act marketplaces and found that four million could get a free bronze plan based on their income (with a $0 premium, after federal subsidies). The analysis also found that nearly five million additional uninsured people could buy a marketplace plan for a reduced premium, partially covered by a subsidy.

Those numbers may be even higher now, following Congress' passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in March. This stimulus package included an expansion of the Affordable Care Act premium subsidies, making coverage cheaper for consumers whose income had previously exceeded the eligibility threshold. The law temporarily caps premium costs at 8.5% of income for all consumers, including those whose incomes exceed the limit for government premium subsidies. This means that people making more than 400% of the federal poverty level — or $51,520 for an individual in 2021 — will see their premium costs contained for the first time since the law’s inception. Healthcare.gov now reflects this change, so check out your options.

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Where can I get more help?

The Trump administration slashed the Affordable Care Act budget for marketing and enrollment assistance. By contrast, the Biden administration wants to raise awareness of the special enrollment period through an advertising campaign and direct consumer outreach: Starting February 15, consumers seeking to enroll can find out if they are eligible by visiting HealthCare.gov.

Consumers can find local assistance at Localhelp.healthcare.gov or by calling the marketplace call center at 1-800-318-2596, and teletype (TTY) users should call 1-855-889-4325. Assistance is available in 150 languages, and the call is free.

Brokers can also help you enroll in a plan, but keep in mind that some brokers also sell cheaper short-term plans, which come with lots of coverage exclusions and are sometimes mistaken for more comprehensive coverage. Very low-income consumers may be eligible for Medicaid.

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