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What are the deadlines for Obamacare’s open enrollment period?

Although open enrollment for 2021 plans ended in December 2020 in most states, COVID-related enrollment windows are open nationwide in early 2021

Key takeaways


Q. What is the deadline to enroll in 2021 health insurance coverage in the individual market?

White House

An executive order signed by President Biden has authorized a COVID-related special enrollment period on HealthCare.gov. The SEP will run from February 15 to August 15.

A. In most states, open enrollment for 2021 health plans ended on December 15, 2020. HealthCare.gov, which is the exchange platform that’s used by the majority of the states, tends to follow this schedule fairly closely, while the states that run their own exchange platforms generally offer slightly longer enrollment windows.

But the Biden administration has opened a COVID-related special enrollment period on HealthCare.gov. It runs from February 15, 2021 through August 15, 2021, and is available for anyone who is eligible to use the marketplace, including people who are currently uninsured as well as those who already have coverage through HealthCare.gov and would prefer to pick a different plan. A qualifying event is not necessary in order to use this window.

HealthCare.gov is used in 36 states for enrollment in 2021 health plans, and the special enrollment period is available in all of them. In addition, all of the state-run exchanges are offering similar COVID-related special enrollment periods in 2021, although some are only available to people who are otherwise uninsured (or covered by something like a short-term health plan, sharing ministry plan, etc.):

open enrollment 2021

Our 2021 Open Enrollment Guide: Everything you need to know to enroll in an affordable individual-market health plan.

Outside of open enrollment, plan changes and new enrollments are normally only possible for people who experience a qualifying event, but the COVID-related special enrollment periods in most of the country are providing significant flexibility on this for 2021 coverage.

Native Americans and Alaska Natives can enroll year-round in plans offered in the exchange. Applicants who are eligible for Medicaid or CHIP can also enroll year-round. This is true every year, not just in 2021.

States where open enrollment ended on December 15, 2020 but COVID special enrollment period runs from February 15 to August 15, 2021

In the following states, open enrollment ended on December 15, but a COVID-related special enrollment period is available from February 15 to August 15, allowing people another opportunity to enroll or change their coverage:

California, Colorado, and DC: Open enrollment has been permanently extended

California: November 1 – January 31. California enacted legislation in 2017 and again in 2019 that permanently establishes different enrollment dates within the state, both on and off-exchange. Open enrollment for 2021 health plans began November 1, 2020 and will continue through January 31, 2020. California’s enrollment schedule has varied in previous years, but this three-month window, from the beginning of November through the end of January, will be the permanent enrollment window going forward.

Colorado: November 1 – January 15. Colorado’s Division of Insurance has also permanently extended open enrollment. The state finalized regulations in late 2018 that call for an annual special enrollment period, running from December 16 to January 15, that is added to the end of open enrollment each year. So open enrollment in Colorado will effectively last 2.5 months for all future enrollment periods (November 1 to January 15). Plans selected between December 16 and January 15 must take effect no later than February 1.

DC: November 1 – January 31. DC’s exchange board voted unanimously to permanently implement an open enrollment window that runs from November 1 to January 31.

All three of those state-run exchanges have also announced COVID-related special enrollment periods for uninsured residents. In DC, it’s been ongoing throughout the pandemic. In California and Colorado, it starts in early February.

In addition to the three permanent extensions described above, open enrollment for 2021 health plans was also extended in ten of the other 12 fully state-run exchanges. Vermont and Maryland were the only states with fully state-run exchanges where open enrollment for 2021 coverage was not extended. But Maryland is among the states offering a COVID-related special enrollment period for 2021 coverage.

State-run exchanges have some flexibility on open enrollment schedule

The 2017 market stabilization rule noted that the November 1-December 15 open enrollment period would apply in every state in the fall of 2017. However, they also noted that some state-based exchanges — there are 13 of them as of 2020, and potentially 16 as of 2021 — might experience logistical difficulties in getting their systems ready for the new schedule on a fairly tight timeframe.

As such, the market stabilization rule clarified that state-based exchanges could use their own flexibility to “supplement the open enrollment period with a special enrollment period, as a transitional measure, to account for those operational difficulties.” Since then, the majority of the state-based exchanges have opted to extend open enrollment for most years, and they continue to have flexibility with the enrollment schedule going forward. HHS has defined open enrollment as the window from November 1 to December 15, and that applies in every state. But state-run exchanges have the option to offer special enrollment periods before or after that window, in order to effectively extend open enrollment.

For 2020 enrollments, Maryland, Vermont, and Nevada opted to keep the December 15 end date (and Idaho came very close to it; their reason for a one-day extension was that their call center isn’t open on Sundays, and the 15th fell on a Sunday. In general, Idaho residents should expect that the enrollment window will not be extended in the future, given how well they’ve adhered to that deadline for the last few years).

For 2021 enrollments, only Vermont and Maryland opted to keep the December 15 end date (and as noted above, Maryland has reopened enrollment for any uninsured resident, through March 15, 2021, in response to the COVID pandemic).

New Mexico and Kentucky plan to have their own enrollment platforms by the fall of 2021, and Maine might do so as well by the fall of 2021. Oregon may join them in the future as well. Fully state-run exchanges are the only ones with the ability to extend open enrollment on their own (in the other states, the decision has to come from CMS, since the extension has to be issued via HealthCare.gov), and most of them have been choosing to do so each year.

Outside of the open enrollment window, enrollment is only available with a qualifying event

After open enrollment ends, people can normally only purchase coverage if they have a special enrollment period triggered by a qualifying event such as:

Regardless of whether you purchase insurance through the exchange or off-exchange, the annual open enrollment window applies, and special enrollment periods are necessary in order to enroll at any other time of the year. The COVID-related special enrollment periods in 2021 are an exception to the normal rules, in that qualifying events are not necessary in order to use these enrollment windows.

In 2016, HHS tightened up the rules regarding eligibility for special enrollment periods, and they further tightened the rules in 2017, as part of the market stabilization rule. As a result, the rules are being followed much more closely than they were in previous years, and in most states, anyone enrolling during a special enrollment period is required to provide proof of the qualifying event that they experienced.


Louise Norris is an individual health insurance broker who has been writing about health insurance and health reform since 2006. She has written dozens of opinions and educational pieces about the Affordable Care Act for healthinsurance.org. Her state health insurance marketplace updates are regularly cited by media who cover health reform and by other health insurance experts.

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Ivelisse Colon-Nevarez
Ivelisse Colon-Nevarez
1 year ago

It’s inhuman to put a limited timing for enrolling in a health plan. Enrollment SHOULD be ALL YEAR LONG. You can establish a norm in which once you get a plan, remain on it for a year and don’t allow changes .

Jeanette Randolph
Jeanette Randolph
6 months ago

If you have changes to your coverage, job, or other life events you can apply any time.

Louise Norris
Louise Norris
6 months ago

Yes, there are a wide range of circumstances that trigger a special enrollment period, albeit with various caveats and requirements. Our guide to special enrollment periods is a comprehensive overview: https://www.healthinsurance.org/special-enrollment-guide/why-you-need-this-book/

Louise Norris
Louise Norris
6 months ago

That’s how it was pre-ACA, but insurance companies used medical underwriting to determine eligibility in nearly every state, meaning that people with pre-existing conditions either paid more for their coverage, faced exclusions for their pre-existing conditions, or were declined altogether.
Limited enrollment windows have long been the norm for employer-sponsored coverage, which is how most non-elderly Americans get their coverage. The ACA changed individual market coverage to be much more similar to employer-sponsored coverage, including the limited enrollment windows. The idea is to make sure that people are maintaining coverage year-round, instead of waiting until they’re sick to enroll. It’s an essential part of having coverage that’s guaranteed-issue even for people with pre-existing conditions.
But special enrollment periods allow people to sign up for coverage if they experience a bona fide qualifying life event: https://www.healthinsurance.org/special-enrollment-guide/why-you-need-this-book/

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