If you—or, more likely, your millennial offspring, who feel themselves to be invincible—have somehow managed to get this far without obtaining health insurance, today, Jan. 31, is your very last chance for the year to sign up (or possibly longer, depending on the outcome of the debate over the Affordable Care Act).
Having health insurance may matter more than usual this year even if you don’t immediately make use of it. Many of the ACA “repeal and replace” proposals specify that unless you have had “continuous coverage,” meaning no break in insurance coverage, companies may once again be able to turn you down or charge you more if you have a pre-existing condition. You don’t want to find yourself uninsured when it’s too late to do anything about it.
The application process is straightforward if you follow the on-screen prompts on Healthcare.gov, but some steps might be a challenge if you’re not prepared. Here are six ways to quickly get through it.
1. Get your documents ready. These include your Social Security number, your most recent income tax return, and a rough idea of your expected 2017 income. You’ll need these for later.
2. Set up an account on your state’s marketplace. Start at the federal site, Healthcare.gov. Select your state from the drop-down menu and you’ll either be moved onward to set up an account or, if your state runs its own enrollment site, directed to the correct location.
3. Prove your identity. Once you’ve supplied your name, address, birth date, and Social Security number, you’ll be asked to identify a few random personal facts like the make of a car you once took out a loan on, or the name of a city where you once lived. These are drawn from the Experian credit reporting database and used “to make sure you are who you say you are,” explains Shelby Gonzales, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank. Once it’s sure of your identity, behind the scenes the marketplace will start pulling government records such as your recent tax return, or your immigration status. (If you don’t have an Experian record, you may be asked to upload identification documents electronically.)
4. Project your 2017 income. If it isn’t all that different than what you reported on last year’s tax return, the marketplace will send you on to the next step. But if it’s significantly higher or lower the marketplace is going to give you a provisional go-ahead to buy insurance but will cancel it if you haven’t provided income documentation within, usually 90 days. Your 2017 income determines the size of the tax credit you’re entitled to (if any) to offset the cost of your insurance. You can then apply this tax credit to any plan available in your area.
5. Pick a plan. If the income you projected is less than $29,700 for a single person, you can get help paying not only your premiums but also your out-of-pocket costs—but only if you buy a Silver plan. If you make more than that, you can pick any plan. The cheapest will be the Bronze plans, but they come with the highest deductibles. Consider them catastrophic plans that will cover you so that you’re not bankrupted by a lengthy stay in a hospital. All the plans cover the same types of medical care and free preventive care.
6. Don’t hesitate to call if you get stuck. Since time is of the essence, if you run into a snag or can’t figure something out, call your marketplace help line.
Nancy Metcalf is an award-winning independent journalist specializing in health topics. A senior writer and editor for Consumer Reports for more than 25 years, she is a nationally recognized expert on health insurance and health reform.