If you've been putting off shopping for health insurance for 2014, beware that you'll miss your chance if you wait too long. Open enrollment -- the time when you can purchase an individual or individual family health plan for this year -- will end March 31. This open enrollment period does not apply to people who buy their health insurance through work; your employer will still hold its own open enrollment period, usually in the fall. For those seeking individual plans, if you haven't bought a health plan by end of the day on March 31, then you'll have to wait until the next open enrollment period, unless you have a special circumstance, such as losing coverage at work or having a baby, and qualify for "special enrollment." The open enrollment for 2015 health plans is set to run from Nov. 15, 2014, through Jan. 15, 2015. You can enroll in Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program, state and federal insurance programs for low-income families, at any time during the year -- but only if your income is low enough to qualify. Although a limited open enrollment period is customary for people covered by Medicare and for employees enrolling in health plans at work, it's a new concept for the individual health insurance market.
A new way of doing things
Before this year, you could shop for an individual health plan at any time. But starting with 2014 health plans you're limited to purchasing coverage during the open enrollment period, which began Oct. 1, 2013. "We caution consumers that it may take a while to get through the enrollment process, so they should start it as soon as they can," says Cheryl Fish-Parcham, deputy director of health policy at Families USA, a health care advocacy group. Through March 31, you can buy a health plan directly from an insurance company, health insurance agent, insurance website or through the government-run marketplace in your state. If you qualify for tax credits or cost-saving subsidies to make coverage more affordable, you must enroll through the government-run marketplace to get them.