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What This Year’s Health Insurance Open Enrollment Season Means for You

Sign-up periods for Medicare, employer-plans and the new insurance marketplace are happening at the same time. Which, if any, requires your attention?

Close up of woman writing, Open Enrollment Season (Zero Creatives/cultura/Corbis)

Open enrollment is the time to evaluate the health insurance coverage you have, or need, and learn about available options. — Zero Creatives/cultura/Corbis

In Spanish l Americans are gearing up for the first open enrollment season of the Affordable Care Act, the federal health care law known as Obamacare, beginning Oct. 1.

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Despite a barrage of articles, advertisements and public service announcements, there's still a lot to learn about open enrollment in the Health Insurance Marketplace and whether it affects open enrollment for other types of insurance, including Medicare, existing employer-sponsored plans and individual insurance plans.

Here are answers to several frequently asked questions about health insurance.

What is open enrollment?

It's the window during which eligible individuals can enroll in a group health insurance plan or change their existing coverage.

What happens during open enrollment?

You can choose health insurance that best meets your needs. This includes initiating or dropping coverage, or picking among such options as monthly premium costs, copayments, annual deductibles and prescription drug coverage. Participating insurance companies can't turn you away or charge you more because you have an illness or medical condition.

How often is open enrollment held?

Once a year, typically. If you have a qualifying "life event" (you get married or divorced or adopt a child, for example), you may be able to change your insurance coverage outside of the open enrollment period.

Does everybody have to do something during the Health Insurance Marketplace open enrollment period?

No. Most people with health insurance don't have to do anything. This includes people who have Medicare, Medicaid and, for the most part, those who have employer-sponsored insurance or their own individual policies. Also, people with very low incomes and members of federally recognized Indian tribes don't have to do anything.

Who must apply for coverage through the marketplace?

In general, Americans who don't have health insurance that meets certain government standards must get coverage during this open enrollment period. Those who don't may face financial penalties.

When does open enrollment in the marketplace start?

This first time, it starts on Oct. 1, 2013, and ends on March 31, 2014. If you enroll by Dec. 23, your coverage will begin Jan. 1, 2014.

What about in future years?

Beginning in 2014, the marketplace open enrollment will coincide with Medicare open enrollment: Oct. 15 through Dec. 7.

Next page: What can you do at the marketplace? »

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HEALTH INSURANCE EXCHANGES: How does the marketplace work and how much does it cost?

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