You only have six weeks to make a decision on an individual health insurance or Affordable Care Act (ACA) exchanges plan in most states.

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You can sign up for health insurance on your state's health insurance exchange or individual marketplace only during an annual open enrollment period, unless you have a "qualifying life event." Those events include getting married or having a baby.

Most people get health insurance through their workplace. Each employer has its own open enrollment period. You'll want to check to see your employer's period. This page is only for ACA and individual plans.

If you're buying health insurance on your own, you have several options for purchasing a policy:

  • From your state’s health insurance marketplace -- check to find yours
  • Directly from a health insurance company
  • From websites like that offers health insurance quotes from multiple carriers
  • From a health insurance agent
Open enrollment for 2020 individual & family health plans in most states
Begins – Nov. 1, 2019Ends – Dec. 15, 2019

Here's what you need to know for the open enrollment period for 2019 individual and family health insurance plans.

1. The open enrollment deadlines can vary by state

Open enrollment starts Nov. 1, 2019, and continues through Dec. 15, 2019 in most states. Your coverage would start on Jan. 1, 2020.

The open enrollment period differs in these states:

  • California – Oct. 15, 2019 to Jan. 15, 2020
  • Colorado – Nov. 1, 2019 to Jan. 15, 2020
  • D.C. – Nov. 1 , 2019 to Jan. 31, 2020
  • Massachusetts – Nov. 1, 2019 to Jan. 23, 2020
  • Minnesota – Nov. 1, 2019 to Dec. 23, 2019
  • New York – Nov. 1, 2019 to Jan. 31, 2020
  • Rhode Island – Nov. 1, 2019 to Dec. 23, 2019

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. Most still require you to obtain your plan by Dec. 15 for it to start on Jan. 1. If you buy after Dec. 15, your plan's start date may be Feb. 1 or March 1.

People who qualify for Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) can enroll at any time of the year. These are state-federal programs for people with limited incomes or disabilities.

2. You're not required to have health insurance in most states

The ACA once required nearly all Americans to have health insurance. However, Congress decided in 2017 to eliminate the individual mandate penalty.

So, though the individual mandate is technically still on the books, the penalty is not. You won't get whacked at tax time if you don't have health insurance.

However, a growing number of states have implemented their own individual mandate. Here is who has an individual mandate in 2020:

  • California
  • District of Columbia
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont

California, Rhode Island and Vermont are new to the individual mandate in 2020.

3. This is the time to make changes to your current plan

What you can do during open enrollment:

  • You can renew your current individual/family health insurance plan.
  • You can choose a new health insurance plan through the marketplace in your state or through private insurance.

If you are currently enrolled in a marketplace health insurance plan, it will automatically renew. However, the plan may make changes to its provider network, copays, co-insurance and drug coverage. Your plan must send you a notice of any changes it will make for 2020.

Take time to read the notice to see what it means for you. Make certain your doctors and preferred hospital are still in your network. Be aware, you may be able to use out-of-network doctors and hospitals, if you're willing to pay more. That's an option in Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) plans. In some cases, such as Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) plans, you're covered if you go out of network. That means you'll have to pick up the costs.

Your prescription drug coverage also could change. The plan may no longer cover the drugs you take to manage your chronic conditions. It's important that you check your plan's drug benefits for 2020 before you allow it to renew. You may need to find a different plan for your needs and now's the time to do it.

Health plans must provide an online link to the list of drugs they will cover, known as formularies.

4. Marketplace open enrollment is only for health insurance

If you qualify for employer-sponsored health insurance, you will likely want to buy health insurance through your employer. Individual insurance usually costs more than employer-sponsored plans. That said, if you qualify for subsidies based on your income, you may find an inexpensive plan on the ACA exchange.

Many states offer financial help for people with income below 400% of the federal poverty limit. You can find out more about these subsidies below.

Open enrollment is not for auto, life insurance or long-term care insurance. Those are completely separate products that you can buy on your own any time of year.

It's also not for Medicare. The fall open enrollment period for Medicare is Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, 2019.

5. If you miss open enrollment, you may have to wait for a year to sign up

You won't be able to sign up for coverage if you miss open enrollment unless you qualify for a special enrollment period.

Here's what might trigger a special enrollment period:

  • Divorce
  • Marriage
  • Birth or adoption of a child
  • Death of a spouse or partner that leaves you without coverage
  • Your spouse or partner, who has you covered, loses his/her job and health insurance
  • You lose your job and with it your health insurance
  • Your hours are cut making you ineligible for your employer's health insurance plan
  • You are in an HMO and move outside its coverage area

6. You have a choice of four levels of individual/family health insurance plans

Plans in the health insurance marketplace are divided primarily into four categories:

  • Bronze - highest out-of-pocket expenses for services (lower premiums)
  • Silver
  • Gold
  • Platinum - least out-of-pocket expenses for services (higher premiums)

The metal level indicates how much cost-sharing they require, explains Bob Fredericks of Fredericks Benefits in Redlands, Calif. Cost-sharing includes deductibles, copays and co-insurance that you must pay until you reach your out-of-pocket maximum limit.

Bronze plans have the highest deductibles and other cost-sharing. That means more out of pocket costs when you use healthcare services, Fredericks says. Silver plans have lower cost-sharing than bronze and gold plans even lower than silver. Platinum plans have the lowest deductibles and copays, etc.

Generally, the more you pay in premiums the lower your cost-sharing.

In a 2019 report,eHealthestimated that two-person families paid more than $1,000 in premiums monthly for the first time in the individual market in 2019. Premiums for individual coverage for a single person was $448 in 2019.

The average premiums for individual coverage by metal level, according to eHealth, were:

  • Bronze -- $440
  • Silver -- $481
  • Gold -- $596
  • Platinum -- $706

For family coverage, the average premiums were:

  • Bronze -- $1,080
  • Silver -- $1,179
  • Gold -- $1.426
  • Platinum -- $1,460

The most popular plan in the individual market is Bronze. Forty-one percent of people with plans have a Bronze plan. Silver is second with 35%. Thirteen percent picked Gold plans and only 2% chose a Premium plan, eHealth said.

Which plan is right for you depends on how much you'll need healthcare in 2020. If you go to doctors frequently to help manage a chronic condition, you likely want a plan with lower copays and deductibles. If you're pretty healthy, you may be better off signing up for a plan with lower premiums but higher costs when you use your insurance.

Of course, it's a gamble, because you never know what's going to happen, Fredericks says.

When it comes to bronze plans, Fredericks' advice: "Caveat emptor." (Buyer beware.) Once you sign up for a level of coverage, you are locked into that level for the year. If you choose a bronze plan and discover you need surgery, you can't change to a plan with a lower deductible.

Health insurers also offer plans outside the marketplace that have a variety of benefit choices.

Another option is short-term health plans. These low-cost plans often don't provide many benefits and you'll pay much higher out-of-pocket costs. You're able to have a short-term plan for a year and then can renew it twice.

Short-term health plans may make sense if you're young and healthy -- and don't expect to need many health care services. See more about these plans below.

7. Many ACA premiums are lower in 2020

After years of skyrocketing premiums, ACA plan member costs will actually decrease for many plans.

The exact premium you pay depends on factors, including income, your state and the plan type. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said the average ACA federal exchange plans premium costs dropped for the first time since the ACA in 2019.

The lower premiums are likely connected to insurance companies overcharging premiums in previous years. Insurers have felt much upheaval in the market, including Congress attempting to kill the ACA and the White House complaining about the ACA exchanges. However, after weathering that storm, insurance companies in the ACA marketplace are making money. Hence, they have decreased premiums in many areas.

Not all plans will be cheaper, so it's still important to shop around to find the right plan for you.

8. All health plans must cover 10 essential benefits

The health plans, no matter the level, must provide some coverage for at least 10 essential benefits. They are:

  • Outpatient care including chronic disease management
  • Emergency care
  • Hospitalization
  • Pregnancy and newborn care
  • Mental health and substance abuse services
  • Prescription drugs
  • Rehabilitation services and devices
  • Lab tests
  • Preventive and wellness services
  • Dental and vision care for children

The level of coverage for these services can vary. All the plans in the marketplace must provide consumers with a brief, understandable description of what they cover and how their plan works. The Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC) must be posted on the plan's website. Check out the SBCs for the different plans you are considering. This is a good way to compare plans and benefits.

9. Your family size and income determines your eligibility for tax credits

2019 Federal Poverty Level Guidelines (Applies to 2020 Coverage)

Persons in Household2019 federal poverty level for continental U.S.Premium subsidy threshold (400% of federal poverty level)

You may qualify for a premium tax credit which is based on income and family size. To qualify, your family income must fall between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL).

For 2020 coverage for a family of four, the income bracket would be $25,100 to $100,400 to quality for these credits. (The government uses FPL standards from the previous year to determine eligibility.)

If you qualify, the credits can be applied to your monthly insurance premiums. If your income changes during the year and you no longer qualify for the credits when you file your taxes, you will have to repay.

10. Short-term plans offer low-cost alternative

Short-term plans, also called catastrophic plans, were once limited to young people or those who couldn't afford any other coverage. However, the short-term plans are now available to all.

Short-term plans have low premiums, so you pay little upfront. However, if you need healthcare services, a short-term plan might provide little coverage. In fact, a short-term plan doesn't have to follow the ACA's 10 essential health benefits.

That means they're not required to cover pregnancy and newborn care, prescription drugs and the eight other benefits. You may find a short-term plan that covers some or all of those benefits. Those plans will likely cost more than a regular bare-bones short-term plan.

A short-term plan will likely have fewer out-of-pocket protections. If you go with a short-term plan, you have to hope for a healthy year or you might wind up with large health bills.

Short-term plans aren't technically considered health insurance, but they are an alternative if you find other coverage is too expensive.

One last piece about short-term plans: you can now keep a short-term plan for a year and renew them twice. In effect, that means short-term plans can now last three years. These extensions from previous regulations gives short-term plans a more even playing with regular health insurance. However, beware of short-term plan limitations before deciding on one of those plans.

Make sure to read the fine print before you sign up for a short-term plan so you know exactly what it covers and what it doesn't.

open Enrollment 2019

Additional reporting by Beth Orenstein