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3 reasons to sign up for health insurance before March 31

You'll want your coverage to kick in as soon as possible

Published: March 2014

If you are uninsured or have to buy your own insurance, there are a few good reasons why you shouldn’t delay in signing up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act:

After March 31, you can’t get covered by health insurance until next year

In a big change from previous years, the majority of consumers who need to buy insurance will be able to purchase only private health insurance during the annual Open Enrollment Period. Except for specific, special circumstances, called “qualifying life events,” you can buy coverage for this year only until March 31, whether you’re shopping through your state’s Health Insurance Marketplace or outside it.

You’re still free to change your health plan every year, but you have to wait. Open enrollment for 2014 will run from Nov. 15 through Jan. 15, 2015. But coverage purchased during this period will kick in on Jan. 1, 2015 at the earliest. Simply put, if you don’t enroll by March 31, you won’t be covered until at least Jan. 1, 2015.

The only way to change your coverage outside of Open Enrollment is if you experience a “qualifying life event”—having a baby, moving to another state, changing marital status, gaining a green card, or getting out of jail, for example. You’ll have 60 days to make a change after such an event. Getting sick and suddenly needing urgent health care won’t qualify you. That’s why it’s so important to get covered now.

To share the Health Law Helper, scroll down to “Who We Are” and download it under “How You Can Help.”

You could be passing up free money

More than three-quarters of the people who have purchased a plan through a Health Insurance Marketplace will be receiving financial assistance in paying their premiums, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. You could be one of them.

Depending on your family size and income, you might be able to lower your monthly premium through an Advance Premium Tax Credit. Without checking, you could be passing up this money to help pay for insurance. To find out whether you qualify, use the Consumer Reports (Spanish-language version: This free interactive tool offers clear, unbiased, personalized advice and links to additional resources from Consumer Reports.

(Note: if your income is low enough, you or your children may be eligible for government-financed Medicaid and CHIP programs for lower-income Americans. These programs are exempt from open enrollment and you can sign up at any time.)

Waiting until the last minute could leave you scrambling

Enrollment in new insurance plans has dramatically increased since last fall’s initial problems with the federal website. Millions of consumers still need to review their options, and you don’t want to get caught up in a last-minute shopping frenzy.

Remember, if you buy an insurance plan from March 15 through March 31, coverage might not kick in until May 1, since it takes two weeks to process applications and insurance plans tend to start on the first day of a month.

But don’t rush your decision. Depending on where you live, you might have several plan options to pick from with varying deductibles, co-pays, doctor networks, and monthly premiums. Review those and other plan options carefully.

So don’t wait until the last minute to find the right coverage for you. Visit the Consumer Reports Health Care Countdown for more information.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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