When Is Open Enrollment for 2017 Health Plans?

Open enrollment schedule won't change again until fall 2018

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If you buy your own individual/family health insurance (i.e., you don't have a plan sponsored by an employer or a government plan like Medicaid or Medicare), you're probably getting used to the idea that health insurance can only be purchased at certain times of the year.

Prior to 2014, individual health insurance could be purchased at any time, but in most states, eligibility was limited to relatively healthy applicants.

Since 2014 (specifically, starting with open enrollment that began in October 2013, for coverage effective January 2014), medical history is no longer a factor in determining eligibility or the premium that an applicant will pay.

But the trade-off is that most people are now required to have health insurance, and enrollment is limited to an annual open enrollment period and special enrollment periods triggered by qualifying events

Open Enrollment Varies for Employer-Sponsored Plans

Annual open enrollment periods have long been the norm for people who get their health insurance from an employer. Employers can purchase a health plan for their employees at any point during the year, but employees are limited to an annual open enrollment period during which they can enroll or make changes to their coverage.

Special enrollment periods apply for employer-sponsored coverage as well — things like getting married or losing access to other health insurance allow for enrollment in an employer's plan outside of the annual open enrollment period.

Most employers opt for annual open enrollment periods in the fall (and large employers are required to offer annual open enrollment in order to comply with the ACA), but it's up to the employer or the health insurance carrier to set the dates — they can vary from one employer to another.

Individual Market Open Enrollment Set by HHS

In the individual market, however, the open enrollment dates are set by the federal government, under Department of Health and Human Services regulations.

Each year, HHS releases Benefit and Payment Parameters (BPP) for the coming year. The 2017 BPP was published in late February 2016 and includes details for future open enrollment periods.

Open enrollment periods in the individual market apply both on and off the exchanges (with the exception of off-exchange enrollment in Nevada, which continues year-round, albeit with a 90-day waiting period for coverage to take effect).

And thus far, the open enrollment periods have fluctuated annually. To recap, open enrollment dates have been:

  • October 1, 2013 to March 31, 2014 - for coverage effective in 2014.
  • November 15, 2014 to February 15, 2015 - for coverage effective in 2015.
  • November 1, 2015 to January 31, 2016 - for coverage effective in 2016.

In the BPP for 2017, HHS clarified that open enrollment for 2017 and 2018 will follow the same schedule that was used for 2016. But the schedule will be permanently adjusted starting with 2019 coverage. Here's what to expect as far as open enrollment dates going forward:

  • November 1, 2016 to January 31, 2017 - for coverage effective in 2017.
  • November 1, 2017 to January 31, 2018 - for coverage effective in 2018.
  • November 1, 2018 to December 15, 2018 - for coverage effective in 2019
  • For all years going forward, that last open enrollment schedule will be the norm. That is, open enrollment will always be November 1 to December 15, for coverage effective the first of the following year.

The Impact of an Eventual Switch to Ending Open Enrollment in December

An eventual transition to having open enrollment end in December will help to prevent adverse selection, since the current enrollment dates (continuing until the end of January) allow a person to initially enroll in a very comprehensive gold or platinum plan, receive high-cost treatment, such as a surgery during January or February, and switch to a lower-cost bronze plan by the end of January, with the new plan taking effect in March. 

The downside to having open enrollment end in December is that people will not have a chance to change their minds after the fact if they're in a health plan that's auto-renewed for the new year. It will be particularly important to pay attention to the notices sent out by health insurance carriers and the exchanges, detailing premium changes for the coming year, since there will no longer be an opportunity to switch to a different plan after the plan has been auto-renewed and the new year has begun.

But that transition won't happen until the fall of 2018, for coverage effective in January 2019. For coverage effective in 2017 and 2018, enrollment will follow the same schedule that was used for 2016, with open enrollment beginning on November 1 and continuing through the end of January.

Enrollment Deadlines for 2017

Here are the important dates you'll need to know about for coverage effective in 2017:

  • November 1, 2016 - open enrollment begins. You can sign up for a plan or initiate a switch to a different plan, with coverage effective January 1, 2017.
  • December 15, 2016 - last day to enroll in a plan with a January 1, 2017 effective date. This is the case in almost every state, but there are three exceptions: In Washington, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, enrollees have until the 23rd of the month to enroll in a plan and have coverage effective the first of the following month, so December 23rd will be the deadline to enroll in a plan in those states and have coverage effective January 1, 2017.
  • January 15, 2017 - last day to enroll in a plan with a February 1, 2017 effective date (WA, MA, and RI residents have until January 23).
  • January 31, 2017 - last day to enroll in a plan for 2017 (coverage will be effective March 1 if you enroll after the deadline to get a plan effective in February). 

You'll receive notifications about 2017 rate changes and — if applicable — plan changes from your health insurance carrier and/or the exchange in the weeks leading up to open enrollment. If you have questions, a navigator or broker in your community will be able to assist you, or you can call the exchange or your carrier.

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