How long will it take me to enroll?

Online health exchanges are more efficient than ever, but enrollment assistance may be harder to find this year

How long will it take me to enroll in a health plan?

As we head into the ACA’s sixth enrollment period, the exchanges have long-since worked out their initial bugs, and have been improving their user interface systems ever since. Enrollment is a fairly smooth process now, although it might still take you some time to figure out which plan you want.

But when it comes to the logistics of the enrollment process, a little advance planning will help to make your enrollment as simple as possible.

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.

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.

These actions resulted in lower total enrollment in HealthCare.gov for 2017, compared with 2016. And enrollment dropped again in 2018, after the Trump Administration shortened open enrollment and simultaneously reduced marketing funding for HealthCare.gov, reduced Navigator funding, and ended contracts for enrollment assistance centers in 18 cities (but effectuated enrollment ended up being slightly higher in 2018, although, as Charles Gaba explains, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison).

Regardless of enrollment numbers, the fact remains that the enrollment process has become easier and smoother than ever. The ACA itself faces other challenges from the Trump Administration, Congressional Republicans, and in some cases, attorneys general who represent red states. But glitchy exchange websites are no longer making headlines, and that’s been the case for a few years now. People are able to sign up with relative ease, as long as they’re able to find a plan that fits their needs and budget.

Shorter OEP means more pressure on those who help

The enrollment window for 2019 coverage will be just over six weeks long, as was the case for 2018 coverage. In most states, open enrollment will begin November 1, 2018, and will end December 15, 2018, with all plans effective January 1.

And for the second year in a row, the Trump Administration has drastically reduced Navigator funding, which will likely result in fewer enrollment assisters and potential backlogs at enrollment assistance centers during the open enrollment period in the fall of 2018. In addition, insurers have been reducing or eliminating commissions for brokers in many states, resulting in fewer brokers working with the exchanges to help people enroll (this trend appears to be reversing in some areas however, with insurers joining the exchanges rather than exiting them, and seeing profitable individual market segments in many states — some of these insurers are either starting to pay brokers again, or are increasing commissions after reducing them during the years that individual market coverage was not profitable).


The enrollment process itself will vary from one applicant to another. If you’re already enrolled in 2018 and are considering switching to a new plan for 2019, it will be relatively quick — typically under an hour. But the compressed open enrollment period and reduced number of enrollment assistance centers mean that there could 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 more time to complete the enrollment. The average new enrollee who receives enrollment assistance takes about 90 minutes to complete the process, although some enrollees will find that it goes faster than that (again, it varies from person to person; if you’ve got a long list of medications that you need to check against each plan’s covered drug list, it’s going to take longer to pick a plan than it would for someone who doesn’t take any prescriptions).

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. State-based exchanges also have call centers that offer assistance by phone.

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 broker who can enroll you in an ACA-compliant plan.)

Applying in person may reduce confusion

As always, if you’d prefer to 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 (here’s the page on HealthCare.gov where you can find local assistance). But as noted above, you’ll want to plan ahead for this, as in-person assistance centers are likely to be quite busy during the open enrollment period for 2019 coverage.


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 exchange updates are regularly cited by media who cover health reform and by other health insurance experts.

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Insider’s Guide to Obamacare’s Open Enrollment cover illustration

Insider’s Guide to Obamacare’s Open Enrollment

Table of Contents

What’s in our 2019 Guide to Open Enrollment?
1 What’s the deadline to get coverage during Obamacare’s open enrollment period?
2 How can I choose the best health plan for me?
3 Can I preview premiums before open enrollment?
4 Should I let my 2018 coverage auto-renew?
5 Should you look outside the ACA’s exchanges?
6 What’s happening with the Obamacare penalty?
7 How long will it take me to enroll?
8 Who should help me enroll in a health plan?
9 Should I keep my grandmothered health plan?
10 What happens if I don’t buy coverage during the ACA’s open enrollment period?

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