The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, has survived repeated attempts at repeal and is likely to remain in effect through 2018 .  Unfortunately, uncertainty over the future of the law as well as cuts to programs that provide education and outreach have left many confused about exactly how Obamacare works to provide them with insurance coverage. 

If you don't currently have a policy through Obamacare and you want one, there are two key times when you could sign up for coverage: during open enrollment and if you have a qualifying life event. Here's what you need to know about each of these possible options for getting covered. 

Patient and doctor

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Signing up for Obamacare during open enrollment

Anyone can sign up for Obamacare during open enrollment, even if they currently have no insurance coverage. Open enrollment is over for those who wish to obtain coverage in 2017, but will begin again starting on November 1 of this year for 2018.

Open enrollment for 2018 runs from November 1 through December 15, 2017. You can apply online at Healthcare.gov during this period or can apply on your state's exchange if you live in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Washington State or Washington D.C . Your coverage will begin on January 1, 2018 if you sign up during open enrollment. 

You can also apply via phone by calling 800-318-2596, or can get help applying from any local insurance agent or from "assisters" located in different communities who are trained in helping applicants to obtain coverage. 

When you apply, you will need to provide information on your income to determine if you can qualify for tax subsidies to help you afford coverage. You cannot be denied coverage on the basis of having a pre-existing condition. You should carefully shop for policies, comparing premiums, deductibles and coverage limitations to find a policy that best meets your needs. Silver policies are the benchmark plans on which subsidies are based, while bronze plans provide more limited coverage for lower premiums and gold or platinum plans offer the most comprehensive coverage with the highest premium costs. 

Signing up for Obamacare if you have a qualifying life event

If you miss the open enrollment period, it is still possible to get covered through Obamacare during a "special enrollment period. " A special enrollment period is triggered by experiencing a qualifying life event. Some examples of qualifying life events that make you eligible to sign up for coverage outside of open enrollment include:

  • Losing qualifying health coverage -- coverage that meets minimum Obamacare requirements -- within the past 60 days.  This could occur if your COBRA coverage ends, if you lose job-based coverage, if you lose coverage on a policy you purchased on the exchange, or if you lose family based coverage.
  • Losing government-provided health coverage, such as coverage you were receiving through Medicaid, Medicare, or CHIP.
  • Getting married or getting divorced and losing health coverage. 
  • Having a baby, adopting a child, or having a foster child placed with you. Coverage may begin the day this event happens, as long as you sign up for a policy within 60 days of the triggering event occurring. 
  • The death of anyone on your marketplace plan, if that death causes you to lose eligibility for your current qualifying health coverage. 
  • Making a move if you change your residence to a different zip code, relocate to the U.S. from a foreign country or territory, move to attend school, move to or from a location where you were performing seasonal work, or move to or from transitional housing or a shelter. 
  • Becoming a U.S. citizen, if you were previously ineligible for marketplace coverage because of your lack of citizenship. 
  • Becoming a member of a federally recognized tribe or obtaining status as a shareholder in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Corporation. 
  • Starting or ending your service with AmeriCorps as a VISTA member. 

You can apply for coverage online or via phone in the event you experience any of these qualifying life events. You may be asked to provide documentation to prove you actually qualify due to a change in your life circumstances. If you are have not experienced one of these qualifying life events and it is outside of open enrollment, you will not be eligible for a special enrollment period and will need to wait until the next open enrollment period comes along to get a policy on the Obamacare marketplace. 

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