What To Do If You Missed The Obamacare Deadline

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The window for buying health insurance through the Affordable Care Act ends Dec. 15. With a shorter open enrollment period this year, it's definitely possible that many Americans will miss the deadline to purchase health insurance through the government — an oversight that comes with a minimum fine of $695. So the immediate question becomes: What do I do if I miss the Obamacare enrollment window?

Well, a few lucky state residents will have a second chance. Eight states and the District of Columbia all offer extended enrollment, though the number of extra days varies from place to place (read: Time is still very much of the essence). If you live in California, Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island, or Washington, coverage for 2018 isn't closed off just yet.

But for residents of the other 42 states, ACA coverage will be available after Dec. 15 only if one qualifies under the program's "Special Enrollment Period" requirements. That ongoing access to purchasing health care is extended only to individuals who lose their previous health coverage, move, get married, have a baby, or adopt a child.

The good news is there are some options for those who missed open enrollment for 2018 coverage under the ACA. The bad news? It might be challenging to avoid facing a government fine.

The first option is to look for a private insurance plan that is Obamacare-compliant. Some private insurance companies do offer plans for purchase outside the government window, but some sleuth work will be required. The government's health care page does not offer information or links to those plans, so those looking to buy on the private market will have to search for themselves.

The crucial component for a private insurance plan is that it meets all the federally mandated requirements of the ACA. If it doesn't, then you will still be subject to that $695 fine come next year.

Private insurance plans can be pricey, though, so if it's strictly insurance that one needs to procure, then considering short-term plans is not a terrible idea. They're available year-round, and coverage can begin as soon as the day after purchase. Because they don't have to comply with the ACA, they also tend to be more flexible — and sometimes affordable.

There are some major caveats, though. For starters, short-term insurance plans are not required to cover everyone. They can discriminate and reject applicants on the basis of preexisting conditions. Also, they can't help you avoid the government fine. So, keep that in mind.

There's also the possibility of choosing just critical illness or accident insurance, sometimes labeled as "catastrophic coverage." This can be used if one undergoes a major, life-altering health event — a serious accident or diagnosis, for instance.

This might be an especially appealing option for young people with few or no regular health needs, who want "just in case" insurance on the unlucky off-chance something unforeseen causes a major health and financial burden.

These types of plans also tend to be affordable. EHealth Insurance offers accident plans that start at $19 per month. Critical illness insurance plans averaged $283 per year in 2013 for up to $25,000 in cash payouts should the policyholder be diagnosed with a serious disease. And that money can be used toward both medical and life expenses (rent, child care, etc.).

It's worth noting that the value of critical illness insurance has been questioned by Consumer Reports and other experts. However, that critique was in the context of offering such coverage as an "extra" to already insured employees. Critical illness coverage may provide meaningful peace of mind to otherwise uninsured individuals.

So, if you missed the Obamacare enrollment deadline, don't lose hope: There are other routes to insurance out there. A little research and internet-digging will probably be required to find the best plan for you.