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If I don’t enroll in a plan by the open enrollment deadline, what are my options?

Q. If I don’t enroll in a health insurance plan by the end of open enrollment (December 15), what options will I have?

ACA open enrollment guide

The Insider’s Guide to Obamacare’s Open Enrollment offers time-saving strategies for selecting coverage during open enrollment.

A. In most cases, your options will be very limited for the coming year if you don’t enroll in coverage by December 15.  Open enrollment won’t come around again until next November, with coverage effective the first of the following year.

Nevada allows people to enroll outside the exchange (ie, directly through a health insurance company) year-round, but with a 90-day waiting period if you enroll after open enrollment has ended (and bear in mind that there are no subsidies available outside the exchange).

And for 2018 coverage only, state-run exchanges have significant flexibility in terms of the open enrollment schedule. Some state-run exchanges have already announced extensions, and others may follow suit:

  • Connecticut’s exchange will allow people to enroll until December 22, for coverage effective January 1.
  • Maryland‘s exchange will allow enrollments until December 22, for coverage effective January 1. Unlike the other exchanges that planned their extensions well in advance of open enrollment, this was a last-minute announcement.
  • Rhode Island’s exchange will allow people to enroll until December 31, for coverage effective January 1. (in other words, they’re extending open enrollment, and also extending the normal deadline to obtain coverage for the first of the following month).
  • Colorado is allowing people to enroll until January 12, 2018 (instead of cutting off enrollment on December 15).
  • Minnesota‘s exchange is allowing people until January 14 to enroll. MNsure has also extended the deadline for a January 1 effective date: residents who enroll by December 20 will have coverage effective January 1, 2018.
  • Washington’s exchange will allow enrollments until January 15, 2018. The exchange confirmed by email that they have added a special enrollment period that will run from December 16 to January 15, although they’re encouraging residents to sign up by December 15 so that they can have a January 1 effective date.
  • Massachusetts‘ exchange will continue open enrollment through January 23, 2018. In Massachusetts, enrollments can always be submitted by the 23rd of the month for a first of the following month effective date. People in Massachusetts who enroll between December 24 and January 23 will have coverage effective February 1.
  • DC‘s exchange is allowing people to enroll until January 31, 2018. This is the same as the originally scheduled open enrollment period for 2018 coverage, which would have been used nationwide if the federal government hadn’t changed it in the spring of 2017.
  • California’s exchange is following the same open enrollment schedule they used for 2017 coverage, so open enrollment will begin November 1, 2017 and continue until January 31, 2018. Covered California has also announced that people can enroll until December 22 for coverage effective January 1.
  • New York’s exchange announced in early September that their open enrollment period will run from November 1, 2017 through January 31, 2018 — the full three months that was originally scheduled before CMS changed the dates in April.

These are one-time extensions, though; those states will follow the November 1 – December 15 enrollment schedule beginning in the fall of 2018.

In the rest of the country, December 15 is the deadline to enroll in coverage, regardless of whether you’re purchasing a plan through the exchange or outside the exchange. But depending on your circumstances, there are some exceptions that will allow you to enroll outside of open enrollment.


Medicaid enrollment is available year-round for those who qualify.  If your income drops to a Medicaid-eligible level later in the year, you’ll be able to enroll at that point. Similarly, if you’re on Medicaid and your income increases to a level that makes you ineligible for Medicaid, you’ll have an opportunity to switch to a private plan at that point.

Native Americans

Native Americans can enroll in plans through the exchange year-round. Here’s more about special provisions in the ACA that apply to Native Americans.

Special enrollment period

If you have a qualifying event during the year, you’ll have access to a special enrollment period. Qualifying events include marriage, the birth or adoption of a child, loss of other minimum essential coverage, or a permanent move to a new geographical area where the available health plans are different from what was available in your prior location (assuming you already had coverage prior to your move).

Soon after Tom Price took over as Secretary of HHS, the agency implemented a variety of changes aimed at market stabilization, particularly for the individual market. It’s unclear whether the various proposals and changes made by the Trump Administration will be stabilizing or destabilizing for the markets, but in terms of special enrollment periods, HealthCare.gov now requires virtually all applicants to provide proof of their qualifying events before being allowed to finalize enrollments outside of open enrollment. The state-run exchanges can use their own discretion on this, but in general, if you’re enrolling mid-year, be prepared to provide proof of the qualifying event that triggered your special enrollment period.

If you do not have a qualifying event, there is no way to enroll in an ACA-qualified individual health insurance policy outside of normal open enrollment, either on or off-exchange (unless you’re in Nevada, where all off-exchange plans are available year-round with a 90-day waiting period).

This is very different from the pre-2014 individual health insurance market, where people could apply for coverage at any time. But of course, approval used to be contingent on health status, which is no longer the case.

For 2018 coverage, there are special enrollment periods that apply to people in Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and the Gulf coast of Texas due to the hurricanes in 2017 (this special enrollment period continues until December 31, 2017). There’s also a special enrollment period for people whose insurer is leaving the exchange and/or the entire individual market at the end of 2017 (this includes at least 19 insurers across about 30 states). This special enrollment period is triggered by loss of other coverage, and continues until March 1, 2018.

Other plans – and their limits

Unless you have a qualifying event or become eligible for Medicaid or employer-sponsored coverage, the only plans you can purchase outside of open enrollment are those that are not deemed minimum essential coverage.

This includes discount plans, critical illness coverage, dental and vision plans, accident supplements, and short-term policies. Of the plans that are available outside of open enrollment, short-term policies are probably the best coverage option, but they should not be considered a good substitute for an ACA-qualified plan.

Although ACA-qualified policies are all guaranteed issue during open enrollment and special enrollment periods, short-term policies are not regulated by the ACA and continue to be medically underwritten and provide no coverage for pre-existing conditions. As of 2017, short-term plans are limited to less than three months in duration, but that is a rule that was put in place by HHS under the Obama Administration; it’s expected to be changed by the Trump Administration (the proposed rule to change it has been under review since November 2017, but was not yet available for public viewing as of mid-December).

Discount plans and supplemental policies tend to be guaranteed issue, but their coverage is gossamer thin and provides no cap on out-of-pocket exposure.

It’s also important to note that short-term / temporary health insurance policies have set expiration dates. And while loss of other health insurance that is considered minimum essential coverage is a qualifying event that triggers a special open enrollment period, short-term policies are not minimum essential coverage. So you will not be able to purchase an ACA-compliant plan outside of open enrollment when your short-term policy expires.

Keep in mind that short-term policies are not renewable. Depending on your state’s regulations, you may be able to purchase a new short-term policy when your existing one expires, but that purchase will require new underwriting, and the new policy will not cover pre-existing conditions, including any that began while you were covered under the first short-term policy.

Meager coverage

The plans available outside of open enrollment will provide meager coverage compared with the ACA-qualified plans that are sold on and off-exchange. And purchasing them will not satisfy the individual mandate. If you opt to have coverage through a supplemental or discount plan or a short-term policy, you’ll still be subject to the shared responsibility penalty unless you qualify for an exemption.

In 2017, the penalty for not having health insurance was $695 per adult (half that amount per child) or 2.5 percent of household income, whichever is greater. It has remained at that level for 2018 (the flat-rate penalty can be adjusted annually for inflation, but so far, it has remained at $695). Eliminating the penalty is a key part of the Republican agenda, and it’s part of the tax reform bill that GOP lawmakers were working on in late 2017. But for the time being, the ACA, including the individual mandate penalty, remains intact.