You're not alone if you're struggling to understand all the ins and outs of health insurance today.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) in March 2010 has given more health insurance access to Americans. However, it's not made it any easier for people to understand health insurance and the many terms associated with coverage. 

Let's review how you can get health insurance, when and how to buy coverage and how to select a plan.

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How to get covered

You can get covered in a variety of ways:

  • An employer-sponsored health plan at work.
  • A spouse's employer-sponsored plan.
  • A parent's employer-sponsored plan, if you're under age 26.
  • An individual health plan. Individual health coverage can also cover your spouse and children under a nongroup plan. You can also get a plan through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) exchanges. 
  • COBRA continuation coverage. COBRA is short for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. It gives people the ability to continue a former employer's coverage after a job loss, death of a spouse, divorce or loss of eligibility for dependent coverage. COBRA lasts as long as 18 months, but dependents may be able to have COBRA for longer. 
  • A government health plan, such as Medicaid or Medicare, if you qualify. Medicaid is the state and federal insurance program for low-income individuals and families. Medicare is for people age 65 and older and for young people with certain disabilities. Find out more about the differences. In addition, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) insures kids from low-income families.
  • Catastrophic health plans. These are only for people under 30 and those who are going through specific hardships, such as homelessness. These plans, offered through the ACA marketplace, have low premiums. They offer comprehensive coverage similar to an ACA plan. However, catastrophic plans have high deductibles, which mean you'll pay more out-of-pocket if you need care. 
  • Short-term health plans. Most Americans now have access to these plans. These plans have low premiums, but high out-of-pocket costs. They also offer limited benefits, so you may not be able to find a plan that covers mental health and prescription drugs. Short-term plans last a year in most states, but members can request two extensions. 
  • Association health plans. Small companies and sole proprietors can band together and buy health insurance. These plans may be low-cost, but offer fewer benefits than a standard health insurance plan. 

health insurance explainedEmployers with at least 50 employees must provide health benefits to 95% of their full-time workers (those who work over 30 hours per week) or pay a penalty. Coverage needs to be offered to workers and their dependents, but doesn't have to be offered to spouses.

If you don't have access to health insurance through an employer or through a government program, then you'll need to buy health insurance coverage.

When to buy

You can buy or change health insurance during open enrollment. Most Americans get their coverage through their employer. Businesses' open enrollment periods vary. Ask your employer about your open enrollment period. 

Medicare beneficiaries' open enrollment runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7. There is also a more limited open enrollment from Jan. 1 to March 31. 

Medicaid doesn't have an open enrollment period, so you can sign up for a Medicaid plan anytime if you're eligible. 

The annual open enrollment period for individual and marketplace health plans runs from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15 in most states. Your new plan's coverage will start on Jan. 1, 2010.

There are a handful of states with longer enrollment periods: 

  • California – Nov. 1, 2020 to Jan. 31, 2021
  • Colorado – Nov. 1, 2020 to Jan. 15, 2021
  • D.C. – Nov. 1 , 2020 to Jan. 31, 2021
  • Massachusetts – Nov. 1, 2020 to Jan. 23, 2021
  • Minnesota – Nov. 1, 2020 to Dec. 23, 2020
  • Nevada – Nov. 1, 2020 to Jan. 15, 2021
  • New Jersey – Nov. 1, 2020 to Jan. 31, 2021
  • New York – Nov. 1, 2020 to Jan. 31, 2021

If you buy after the Dec. 15 date in the states that are extending the enrollment period, you'll need to check to see when the coverage will start as most still require you to obtain your plan by Dec. 15 for it to start on Jan. 1, 2021. If you buy after Dec. 15, your plan's start date may be Feb. 1 or March 1, 2021.

What happens if you miss the deadline? Unless you have a special circumstance, you have to wait for next year's open enrollment period.

The special circumstances that qualify you to sign up outside the open enrollment period are known as a "qualifying life events." Such events include getting married, losing health insurance coverage, having or adopting a child, moving to an area with different health plans or a household change that affects whether you qualify for financial help to purchase coverage.

You can buy a health plan through an insurance agent, directly from an insurance company or an insurance website or through your state’s health insurance marketplace (aka exchange). But if you think you might qualify for government assistance, you should start your search at the health insurance marketplace for your state.

You could qualify for premium discounts in the form of subsidies if your household income falls below 400% of the federal poverty line (FPL). When you compare plans, the marketplace will factor in those subsidies once you enter your income information. 

Bear in mind you can't get the discount or subsidy if you have access to affordable employer-sponsored coverage. And you must go through the marketplace to get the tax credit or subsidy.

Shopping the health insurance marketplace

Some states run their own marketplaces; the federal government runs the marketplaces for other states through its HealthCare.gov site. Go to HealthCare.gov to find a link to your state’s marketplace or call 1-800-318-2596 for information.

Through your state marketplace, you can apply for financial help, compare health plans available in your area and purchase a plan. Although operated by the government, the marketplaces sell private health insurance plans. You can also see if you're eligible for Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Health plans fall into four categories to make them easier to compare. The categories vary according to how much the insurer pays and how much you pay out of pocket for deductibles, copayments and coinsurance.

  • Bronze: You pay 40% of your costs on average; the insurer pays 60%.
  • Silver: You pay 30%; the insurer pays 70%.
  • Gold: You pay 20%; the insurer pays 80%.
  • Platinum: You pay 10%; the insurer pays 90%.

Health insurance consultants, called navigators, can help you apply for coverage in the marketplace. But they can't tell you which plan to pick -- that's up to you. Assess your health care needs, consider your budget and compare the costs, benefits and provider networks offered by each plan.

If you don't qualify for discounts or subsidies in the marketplace, then compare health plans outside the marketplace as well. Some major insurers are not selling plans through the government-run marketplaces. Instead, they're marketing directly to consumers or through health insurance agents.

Compare health plans

No matter what type of health insurance you get, make sure you compare the plans and check that your providers are in those plans. Some costs to compare include:

  • Out-of-pocket maximums
  • Deductibles
  • Copays
  • Co-insurance

Also, make sure you're comfortable with the health insurance plan. Health coverage is a personal decision. One person may not mind getting a referral from a primary care physician and stay within a network of providers. Another person may want more flexibility and the ability to see more doctors out-of-network. 

Once you're comfortable with the plans, know your doctors are part of the network and satisfied with the costs associated with the health plan, then you're ready to make a health insurance decision. Knowing the basics of health insurance is key in making that decision.