What You Need to Know About Obamacare Open Enrollment for 2016

President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law in 2010 in an effort to provide Americans greater access to healthcare and reduce overall healthcare spending. But if you want to enroll for coverage through the public exchanges, you can generally add yourself only during open enrollment.

Here's what you need to know before you enroll.

Who qualifies?

The Obamacare health insurance marketplace is set up mainly for those who lack health insurance. If you're enrolling for the first time, look over the different plans and prices available before you begin the application process . If you feel more comfortable speaking with someone face-to-face regarding the process, then you can use one of the directories on heathcare.gov to find a specialist in your area .

Young people can remain on their parents' healthcare plan until they turn 26 years of age, at which time they must acquire health coverage on their own.

Note that going without insurance isn't an option under Obamacare. The fine for not having healthcare coverage in 2016 as an adult is the greater of 2.5% of your income or $695, plus $347.50 for each uninsured child in your household. However, if you can't afford to buy insurance and can't get health coverage elsewhere, the government will most likely waive the fine. in the government's eyes, being unable to afford health coverage means that the minimum you would pay for an employer-sponsored plan or a bronze-level health plan exceeds 8% of your household income. According to the IRS there are other circumstances in which you could be exempt from paying a fine for not having health coverage such as homelessness, living abroad, religious persuasion, or certain hardships .

When can I sign up?

If you don't have insurance coverage elsewhere, you can sign up right now. Although the current enrollment period ends Jan. 31, a special enrollment period of up to 60 days following qualifying life events can be allowed for extenuating circumstances. Qualifying life events may include moving to a new state, having a baby, or losing previously held coverage.

If you currently buy health insurance through your workplace, then your employer will let you know its specific enrollment period, which is separate from Obamacare open enrollment. But if you're purchasing any type of health insurance on your own (Obamacare or private insurance), then you can do so through a health insurance exchange, either through your state or through the federal government, or you can go through a health-insurance agent or directly through an insurance company.

What are my options?

Before you apply for 2016 health coverage, you can get a glimpse of the plans and prices available to you based on your location, expected 2016 income, and medications you take. In the open-enrollment marketplace, health plans are categorized into four groups: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. The differences generally come down to how much you'll pay in premiums relative to cost-sharing expenses such as copays and deductibles. With a bronze-level plan, you'll have higher cost-sharing expenses and lower premiums, and with a platinum plan you'll see higher premiums with lower cost-sharing.

Effectively choosing a health plan that suits your needs will involve some kind of assessment of your personal health and the likelihood that services offered will be used. For instance, if you find yourself constantly making doctor visits or using health services due to a chronic condition, then you'll probably want a plan that comes with lower deductibles and copays. On the other hand, if you are young and healthy, and you don't expect to make frequent trips to the doctor anytime soon, then a plan with a lower premium will probably be most desirable. Not to be taken as medical advice, these are general factors you would normally consider when shopping around for health coverage plans.

When does my coverage start?

Keep in mind that once you enroll, your coverage won't start immediately and will depend on the date on which you enrolled.

The bottom line, though, is that as long as we're in an open-enrollment period and you need insurance, then the time to get yourself signed up is right now.

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The article What You Need to Know About Obamacare Open Enrollment for 2016 originally appeared on Fool.com.

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