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Obamacare enrollment: Here's what you need to know

Consumers in Maryland and across the country can enroll in health insurance for 2018 through the Affordable Care Act.

Thinking of buying health coverage on the exchange? Here’s what you need to know:

Consumers will have less time to enroll in exchange plans this year.

Open enrollment runs from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15 — about six weeks shorter than last year because of a new rule from the Trump administration. The website where people can purchase coverage — www.healthcare.gov — will also be down for maintenance most Sundays during that time.

“We’re all humans and we usually wait until the last minute to make decisions,” said Stephani Becker, a senior policy specialist at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. “Now with this very shortened … open enrollment period there’s not as much time to wait and think about it. People need to get in early.”

Many consumers will still get tax credits and reduced co-pays and deductibles next year.

People can make up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($98,400 a year for a family of four in 2017) and get tax credits to help offset the cost of premiums. Trump’s recent executive order involving the Affordable Care Act does not affect those tax credits.

Consumers below certain income levels will also still benefit from cost-sharing reductions — reduced deductibles, copayments and coinsurance — if they choose silver-level plans. Trump recently announced the government would no longer give insurance companies money to help offset those reductions to consumers, but insurers must continue to offer those reductions to consumers, regardless of whether they get those federal dollars.

Some consumers should consider buying plans outside the exchange.

People who make too much money to qualify for tax credits might want to explore options outside the exchange. People can also buy plans outside the exchange, through insurance brokers or directly from insurance companies.

Trump recently issued another executive order that would allow consumers to buy short-term insurance plans for longer periods of time and let small businesses band together to offer so-called association health plans. Such plans might be cheaper — and cover less — than exchange coverage.

But that executive order has not yet been put into effect.

It’s important to actively shop for a plan.

Consumers who have exchange coverage can, in theory, sit back and still have coverage for next year. Even if they don’t shop, they will be automatically re-enrolled in their current plans or similar plans.

But that might not be the best idea, said Inna Rubin, manager of health access initiatives at the United Way of Metro Chicago.

Insurers are changing many of their plan offerings on the exchange for next year. As a result, if people choose to auto-enroll, they may find themselves with a plan that doesn’t cover all their doctors, covers drugs differently or costs more, Rubin said. Also, if people’s incomes have changed since last year, that could change the amount of the tax credits they qualify for, she said.

Help is available.

ACA navigators offer free, expert assistance in finding the right plan and ensuring you get the subsidies you’re entitled to. They can determine whether you’re eligible for Medicaid, too. For information on how to connect with one, go to marylandhealthconnection.gov/find-help, or call 855-642-8572. Information is also available there about how to work with an authorized insurance broker, a local or state health department or other entity to get help.

lschencker@chicagotribune.com

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