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Will it take me longer to enroll this year?

Online health exchanges are more efficient than ever, but the upcoming open enrollment period could prove challenging

How quickly can you enroll in a health plan?

There’s been plenty of news coverage in 2017 about the Affordable Care Act and the seemingly unending repeal battle. It’s enough to make consumers wonder whether the ACA’s open enrollment will be affected. Will all of the turmoil – threatened and real – affect how long it takes for consumers to enroll?

The bad news is that it actually might affect enrollment. The good news is that with a little planning, you can probably sidestep any potential enrollment snags:

Online enrollment has become much more efficient – and fast

During Obamacare’s first open enrollment period, there was no shortage of media reports about the agonizing delays and online crashes that slowed users’ exchange enrollment – or brought it to a complete standstill.

But Round Two was much smoother, and Round Three was so smooth that there were very few extensions issued at the end of open enrollment in 2016. Most people had their enrollments sorted out prior to the start of the year; enrollment during January 2016 was relatively light, but total year-over-year enrollment continued to grow.

New administration adds uncertainty to OEP

The fourth open enrollment period (OEP) began during President Obama’s final months in office, but President Trump was inaugurated when there were still several days remaining in open enrollment. His first executive order, signed just hours after taking office, instructed federal agencies to be as lenient as possible in enforcing the ACA’s penalties and taxes. And the Trump Administration opted to cut advertising and outreach for HealthCare.gov in the final week of open enrollment.

Both of these actions – the former making people assume that the individual mandate penalty would no longer be enforced (which is not the case), and the latter making people less aware of the enrollment process and available assistance – resulted in lower total enrollment in HealthCare.gov for 2017, compared with 2016.

As we head into the fifth open enrollment period – the first that will be fully overseen by the Trump Administration – there is considerable uncertainty in terms of what to expect, especially given that the length of time people will have to enroll will be half as long as it’s been for the last few years.

In July 2017, the Trump Administration ended contracts for enrollment assistance centers in 18 cities, and in August the Administration announced that marketing funding for HealthCare.gov would be cut by 90 percent, and the budget for in-person assistance was also sharply reduced. In September, HHS announced that HealthCare.gov would be unavailable for large chunks of most Sundays during open enrollment — a total of three full days out of the 45-day open enrollment period. And in October, all on the same day, President Trump signed an executive order that will eventually destabilize the individual insurance market, and announced that CSR funding would end immediately.

The Trump Administration has been openly hostile to the ACA from the start, and it’s a fairly safe bet to assume that the fifth open enrollment is likely to be rocky under their oversight.

Shorter OEP means more pressure on those who help

The enrollment window for 2018 coverage will be half as long as it was for the past few years. In most states, open enrollment will begin November 1, 2017, and will end December 15, 2017 – the first time that open enrollment will end before the start of the coming year, with all plans effective January 1.

That will almost certainly result in backlogs at enrollment assistance centers, especially considering the reduced budget for navigators and the fact that insurers are reducing or eliminating commissions for brokers in some states, both factors that could result in fewer in-person assisters. This won’t necessarily be the case everywhere, though. Vermont’s exchange, for example, is reducing their navigator funding but will have more certified enrollment counselors than they’ve had in the past, and the total number of in-person enrollment assisters in Vermont will increase.

The enrollment process itself will vary from one applicant to another. If you’re already enrolled in 2017 and are considering switching to a new plan for 2018, it will be relatively quick – especially if you have someone helping you compare the available options. But the shorter open enrollment period and reduced number of enrollment assistance centers means that there is likely to be a longer-than-usual wait if you need help picking a plan.

If you’re enrolling for the first time and need to create an account with the exchange, expect to set aside at least 30 to 60 minutes to complete the enrollment. But that’s the amount of time it takes just to enter all of your information, compare available plans, and select one. You should be prepared to spend more time than that if you need help with the process (enrollment assistance centers and call centers are likely to be very busy, with long wait times), or if potential budget cuts result in a slower web site or less responsive call center. We already know that HealthCare.gov will be down for half the day on most Sundays during open enrollment, so be sure to plan around that too.

In general, enrollees should expect less available assistance and longer hold times, which could add significantly to the amount of time it takes to actually finish the enrollment.

Come armed with your personal info

To make the process as smooth and fast as possible, make sure you have the following information available when you begin your enrollment:

  1. Names, address, social security numbers, birthdays, citizenship status and email address. Most of this information will be needed for all family members who will be included on the application.
  2. Household size and income. (A pay stub, W2 or 2016 tax return will help make this info as precise as possible.)
  3. Coverage details and premium for any employer-sponsored plan available to you or anyone in your household.
  4. Payment information (bank account or credit card) to submit the first month’s premium either to the exchange or directly to the carrier once you’ve enrolled.
  5. Your doctors’ names and zip codes, so you can check the networks in your area and make sure your doctors are included. You’ll also want to verify which local hospitals are on the networks of the plans you’re considering.

You can ‘phone it in’

If you’re not comfortable applying online – or if you do have difficulties setting up an account or completing the online application, you can enroll by phone. You could even have someone on the phone to help you go through the process of completing a paper application.

Health and Human Services (HHS) phone application and enrollment support is available 24/7 at 1-800-318-2596, although consumers should brace for potentially longer wait times during the open enrollment period for 2018 coverage, due to the compressed enrollment window and budget cuts. State-based exchanges also have call centers that offer assistance by phone. Their funding is not impacted by the Trump Administration, and most of the state-run exchanges have opted to extend open enrollment by at least a few weeks, helping to relieve some of the pressure on call centers.

Some online health portals – hailed as source of quick health insurance quotes – are now devoting more resources to phone support, with agents licensed in each state to help customers through the enrollment process. (You can call one of healthinsurance.org’s partners at 1-844-608-2739 to talk with a licensed, exchange-certified brokers who can enroll you in an ACA-compliant plan.)

Applying in person may reduce confusion

As always, if you’d prefer get help in person, your state exchange site or HealthCare.gov can help you find someone who can provide in-person help in your area. But as noted above, you’ll want to play ahead for this, as in-person assistance centers are likely to be very busy during the open enrollment period for 2018 coverage.