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The last day of open enrollment for health insurance in 2024 was Jan. 16, 2024. Open enrollment is an important time of year because it lets people choose their health insurance plan for the next 12 months. Most people who have health insurance at work sign up for insurance and other employee benefits during open enrollment. But if you missed open enrollment, you could be facing some costly consequences.
Let’s look at what it means to miss open enrollment, and what options you have to get health insurance.
How health insurance open enrollment works
Open enrollment is an official period at the end of the year (typically Nov. 1–Jan. 15) when people can sign up for new health insurance or make changes to their current health insurance plan. If you don’t have health insurance through your job or your spouse’s job (such as self-employed people and small business owners), you can get health insurance on HealthCare.gov or other state-based insurance marketplaces.
If your personal finances or health situation have changed in the past year, open enrollment is your opportunity to maximize your employee benefits. If you’re self-employed, open enrollment is your opportunity to find a better health insurance plan or make other financial moves like opening a health savings account (HSA).
But no matter how you get health insurance, try not to miss open enrollment. Missing open enrollment can undermine your financial security for the year ahead. Going without health insurance in America can be financially ruinous, and bad for your life expectancy.
You missed open enrollment: Now what?
Here’s what it means to miss open enrollment: You were eligible to sign up for health insurance at work (or via HealthCare.gov for people who don’t have job-based coverage) but you forgot to fill out the application or missed the January deadline.
Missing open enrollment is an unusual situation. Most employers give people lots of notice and reminders about open enrollment, and HealthCare.gov sends multiple reminders via email and text to finish your application. But sometimes, mistakes happen. If you’ve been going through a stressful time in your life, you might have forgotten to apply for health insurance.
Fortunately, even if you missed open enrollment, you still have a few options for getting health insurance.
1. Special enrollment period with qualifying life event
Even though open enrollment is important, it’s not the only time of year when people can get health insurance. If you missed open enrollment, you can change your health insurance anytime if you or your family have experienced big life changes called “qualifying life events (QLEs).” Having a QLE lets you get a special enrollment period to change your health insurance anytime — even if you missed open enrollment.
Here are a few examples of QLEs that let you change health insurance with a special enrollment period:
- Losing job-based coverage (such as quitting a job or getting laid off, and you decide not to use COBRA to keep paying for your old job-based insurance plan)
- Getting married
- Getting divorced or separated and losing health insurance coverage
- Having a baby, adopting a child, or placing a foster child
- Moving to a new home in a new ZIP code or county
- Having a big change in household income that could make you gain or lose eligibility for Medicaid or state Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) coverage
Open enrollment is not an ironclad, one-size-fits-all situation. Life happens. If you change jobs, change marital status, welcome a new family member, or have other big life changes throughout the year, you can still change your health insurance.
2. Other situations to get a special enrollment period
Along with qualifying life events, there are a few other special situations that can let you get health insurance outside of open enrollment. If any of these complex circumstances caused you to miss open enrollment, you can still qualify for a special enrollment period. Here are a few examples:
- Unexpected hospitalization, temporary cognitive disability, or other incapacitation
- Natural disaster (FEMA-designated incident that is eligible for public assistance or individual assistance)
- Technical errors on HealthCare.gov that prevented you from enrolling
- Being found not eligible for Medicaid or CHIP after open enrollment ended
Sometimes for people with complex situations, even if you miss open enrollment, it’s not too late. Check HealthCare.gov to see if you qualify for a deadline extension to get health insurance.
3. Short-term health insurance plans
If you’ve missed open enrollment and your life circumstances don’t allow you to get a special enrollment period, you might want to consider a short-term health insurance plan. But beware: These plans are not available in all states, and they have some big limitations that could make them a bad deal — or they may even not be an option for you at all.
Short-term health insurance plans don’t have to comply with the rules of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, a.k.a. “Obamacare”). This means the coverage isn’t as good as the plans on HealthCare.gov. The premiums with short-term health insurance might often be cheaper, but that’s because short-term health insurance plans don’t cover a lot of care.
For example, short-term health insurance often does not cover:
- Maternity care
- Mental health services
- Pre-existing conditions (you can even be denied coverage, depending on your health)
- Highly expensive care (there are lifetime limits to coverage)
If you miss open enrollment and have no other options, short-term health insurance can be better than nothing. But try to get a better health insurance plan as soon as you can.
Bottom line: Missing open enrollment is stressful, but it doesn’t have to ruin your year. See if you qualify for a special enrollment period based on recent life changes. Or consider a short-term health insurance plan as a last resort.
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