While GOP efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) have yet to be successful, the Trump administration has taken steps to make signing up more difficult. Perhaps the biggest hurdle for consumers is the newly shortened open enrollment period, which now runs for just 45 days from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15. By contrast, the open enrollment period in previous years ran for 92 days – from Nov. 1 to Jan. 31 – which gave enrollees more than twice as much time to research plans, make decisions and submit applications.

The new deadline allows ACA open enrollment “to more closely align with Medicare and the private market,” according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services CMS). But opponents say the abbreviated period will make it harder for some people to sign up on time, which could ultimately reduce the number of people who have coverage.

Some States Extend Deadlines

In response, several states that run their own health insurance exchanges have extended their open enrollment periods beyond the deadline set by the Trump administration. New York is one: Citing concerns about the earlier deadlines, the state will use the same open enrollment time frame as last year – from Nov. 1, 2017 to Jan. 31, 2018. “Our goal is to ensure that consumers have adequate time to shop for and enroll in the health plan that is best for their family,” New York State of Health Executive Director Donna Frescatore said in a statement. The other states that have opted for longer open enrollment periods (so far; more can join them) are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Washington, plus Washington, D.C. (Check end dates, as they may vary.)

Advertising and ACA Navigator Budgets Slashed

In addition to clipping the enrollment period, the Trump administration slashed the advertising budget for the 2018 open enrollment period – by more than 90%. While last year’s budget was $100 million, the CMS in August announced that it “plans to spend $10 million on promotional activities in order to meet the needs of new or returning ACA enrollees – consistent with promotional spending on Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D.”

Without adequate advertising, it’s likely some consumers will mistakenly assume (based on previous years, perhaps) that they have until the end of January to buy or re-enroll for coverage – which means many could miss out altogether. Short of a “qualifying life event” (such as getting married or divorced, having a baby or losing existing health coverage) that can prompt eligibility for a special enrollment period, people who miss the deadline will have to wait for the next open enrollment period to get coverage through the health insurance exchanges.

Also on the budget chopping block: grants to ACA “navigators,” which have been cut by 41% from 2016 levels. These grants are given to community health centers, nonprofits and private companies that provide free in-person help to people who have trouble understanding or managing the ACA paperwork and applications. Less grant money could mean fewer people getting the help they need to successfully sign up for coverage.

To be fair, a $100 million advertising budget and $62.5 million in funding for the navigator program may not be entirely necessary by this point. As with most large-scale budgets, there is probably room for some thinning without reducing the overall effectiveness of the programs. Still, slashing these budgets by such large percentages has the potential to affect enrollment numbers because people could be less informed about timelines, their options and the enrollment process.

The Bottom Line

If you are planning to enroll or renew your ACA plan this year, mark your calendar now. And while you’re at it, remind your friends and family to mark their calendars, as well. The current enrollment period is typically a particularly busy time for individuals and families, as many are gearing up for the holidays, figuring out how to keep kids entertained during the school break, attending office parties and visiting friends and family. It would be easy to let that Dec. 15 deadline slip past and miss the opportunity to obtain coverage.

Remember, open enrollment starts on Nov. 1. A good approach is to spend the first week or two of November researching your options, and the following week completing and submitting your application. That way you’ll have time to get everything done – even if you wind up running a little late.

You also may want to read Tips for Finding Affordable Health Insurance and How to Get Health Insurance After Losing Your Job.


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