It's been a tumultuous year for the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. President Trump and the Republican party have spent most of 2017 trying to dismantle President Obama's signature healthcare law, without a lot of success, and their efforts have created an environment of uncertainty.
But even though 24% of Americans incorrectly believe Obamacare has been partially repealed (a whopping 15% think it has been fully repealed), the reality is that the law remains in place. And that means people can still use it to get coverage for the year ahead.
"Having health insurance is key for all Americans to be able to plan for their future," Regina Schwartz, who has helped tens of thousands of people get healthcare coverage as director of New York City's Public Engagement Unit and leader of the Get Covered NYC campaign, tells Refinery29. "We need to make sure our friends, family, and communities enroll to get the benefits we deserve. And the truth is, signing up for healthcare is easy."
The open enrollment period for 2018 started on Wednesday, November 1 and ends on Friday, December 15. Here's what you need to know about signing up:
Who can enroll?
If you do not get health insurance through your employer and are not a Medicaid or Medicare beneficiary, you can get coverage for 2018 through the Obamacare exchanges.
So how do I enroll?
Visit healthcare.gov or call 800-318-2596 to fill out an application and sign up for an Obamacare exchange health plan. (You can also get in-person help to fill out the application. Check whether someone is available in your community here.)
The first step is to start a new account or sign into your old one. The second step is to provide personal information — yours, if you signed up for individual coverage, or of all your family members if you're choosing a family plan. Some of the details include age, income, whether you have health insurance already, and whether you need help paying for coverage. This helpful checklist breaks down everything you need to apply, especially if you require financial assistance.
The final step is to choose a health plan for yourself or your family and enroll. That's it!
Has anything changed since last year?
Yes — and these changes implemented by the Trump administration are actually making it harder, not easier, to sign up. A new rule makes the enrollment period shorter by six weeks. That means if you live in one of the 39 states that use the federal marketplace, you need to sign up between November 1 and December 15. States that run their own exchanges have set their own deadlines. For example, New York has retained the January 31 cutoff date that the Obama administration used. (If you're not sure which category your home state falls in, check out the list here.)
There are a few other potential hurdles to have on your radar when it comes to signing up. The healthcare.gov website, which is where you can enroll through the federal marketplace, will be down for maintenance for 12 hours on most Sundays during this period.
TL;DR: This is not a deadline you want to miss if you need coverage. Double-check your state's enrollment period today and don't leave everything until the last minute!
What should I consider when signing up?
Like always, it's important that you carefully examine all your options and shop around for what might be the best fit for you.
Here are some key terms you should be familiar with if you aren't yet as you decide which plan is best for you: Premiums (the health insurance's cost), co-payments (the fixed amount you pay to your provider when obtaining a service), deductibles (your out-pocket-costs before the plan's coverage kicks in), and coinsurance (the percentage you pay for a service after reaching your deductible limit).
Being clear on these terms can help you do the math and make smart choices about coverage. For example, a younger person who is considerably healthy might want a plan with lower premiums but higher deductibles if they don't expect to require a lot of medical care throughout the year.
If you're already an Obamacare consumer, be warned that things are different this year: In the past, if you didn't sign up during open enrollment and you were automatically re-enrolled after that period ended, you were able to switch plans between January 1 and January 31 if you were not satisfied with the coverage. But the Trump administration has changed the rules, so if you're auto-enrolled and unhappy with your plan, you can't get a do-over.
You should also verify whether you qualify for premium subsidies. For example, according to a new study by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, certain people in 1,540 counties across the country could potentially get a basic "bronze" plan under the ACA for a premium of $0.
"Most people qualify for financial help," Schwartz says. "People sometimes think that health insurance will cost more than it does."
So do I really need health insurance coverage?
Yes, and your wallet will thank you. If you don't have coverage in 2018, you'll have to pay a penalty at tax time (with some exceptions.) And what's more, not having health insurance can mean you will not have access to preventive, primary, or follow-up care unless you pay an exorbitant amount of money. These big bills, as we've all heard, can lead to financial ruin.
"[Having] healthcare means that if you get sick, you can continue to pursue your dreams, your life, and your career," Schwartz explains. "Right now it's the time to sign up. You gotta pick the plan that's best for you and do it. It's yours to go out and get it."
This story was originally published on October 31, 2017.