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The 5 most important things to know about Obamacare’s sign-up period

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Obamacare's sign-up period starts today.

The 9 million Americans who purchase coverage through the health law's marketplaces have from now until December 15 to pick their 2018 coverage. For those buying coverage — or just interested observers — here are the five things you need to know about this open enrollment period.

1) Open enrollment is short this year — 45 days instead of 90. Over the past few years, the Obamacare open enrollment period typically ran from November 1 through January 31. That gave enrollees about three months to pick a plan. Many would wait up until that late January deadline to sign up. That will not work this year. The enrollment period now ends on December 15, which means that shoppers will have to move quicker to sign up for coverage this time around. One small caveat here: a handful of states are extending their enrollment periods a bit longer — here’s a list of those places.

2) Premiums for some Obamacare plans are spiking by double digits. The cost of mid-level silver plans is rising a lot this year, on average 37 percent, according to Health and Human Services estimates. Most of that rate hike is due to the Trump administration's decision not to pay cost-sharing reduction subsidies. I wrote more about this in yesterday's VoxCare, but essentially insurers jacked up premiums to offset the loss of this other funding source. This means that the sticker price of silver plans often looks a lot higher this year. But...

3) There are some great deals to be had on bronze and gold plans. In many states, health plans made their biggest premium increases in their silver plans. This is important because (again, this builds on yesterday's newsletter) the size of the premium tax credit is tethered to the price of the silver plans. More expensive silver plans mean bigger premium tax credits. And Obamacare enrollees can take those credits to buy a less generous plan (called a bronze plan) for a really cheap price, maybe even free.

Many Maine residents, for example, qualify to buy these bronze plans with a zero-dollar premium, the Portland Press-Herald reports.

Shoppers can also go in the opposite direction: use their new big tax credit to buy a more generous gold plan at a lower out-of-pocket price.

4) It is really, really, really important to shop for coverage this year! The prices for Obamacare insurance this year are, well, just weird. Sometimes plans with low deductibles cost more than plans high deductibles. There are a decent number of free health insurance plans out there for people who receive financial assistance paying their premiums. And there are some really expensive plans out there, too.

All of this makes it so important for Obamacare enrollees to shop for coverage. There are a lot of cases out across the country where enrollees could save hundreds or thousands of dollars by switching health insurance. There is the opportunity, in many cases, for enrollees to get a better plan for a cheaper price. This year more than ever, it is crucial that enrollees compare their options.

If you need a bit of help, the New York Times has put together a great guide to how different Obamacare enrollees in different situations can best shop for coverage. Check it out here.

5) There is enrollment help out there — just less of it. The Trump administration made steep cuts to Obamacare outreach. Funding for in-person assistance fell 72 percent this year, and some groups closed up shop entirely.

Still, there is help out there. Get America Covered offers a tool that lets Obamacare enrollees search by zip code to see the closest Obamacare navigators and even make online appointments.

Those groups are scrambling to provide assistance in this shorter enrollment period, so it's better to get an appointment early rather than wait till the last minute.

Are you an Obamacare enrollee who has questions about this year's sign-up period? Covered Florida will be dropping into our Facebook group to help provide guidance. If you're an Obamacare enrollee, you can join the group here

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