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To avoid Obamacare surprises, reenrollment deadline fast approaching

If you want to have health insurance coverage in place for Jan. 1, the Obamacare deadline to reenroll is Dec. 15. The final deadline is Feb. 15.

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People wait to enter an Affordable Care Act enrollment event sponsored by Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West and Community Coalition in Los Angeles Saturday.

Michael Chavez/SEIU/AP

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The enrollment period for health insurance under Obamacare is officially three months long, but don’t assume you can wait until after the holiday season to think about it. For many people, Dec. 15 is a key deadline – one that’s barely four weeks away.

It’s not that Feb. 15 is a false deadline. Plenty of people can and will choose health plans in the new year.

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But if you want to have coverage in place on Jan. 1, with the plan of your choosing, the middle of December is a deadline to pay attention to.

That’s because any enrollment after Dec. 15 won’t go into effect until February or later. If you bought a plan for 2014 on an Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace, the coverage for this year ends on Dec. 31.

A twist to be aware of: Most current enrollees will be automatically reenrolled if they make no new decision by mid-December. So many people will have coverage in January even by “doing nothing,” as long as they pay their premiums.

But many health insurance experts are recommending that consumers take a fresh look at their options and consider actively enrolling or reenrolling by Dec. 15. The reason is that plans change. Everything from the price to your tax subsidy to the care providers in a given network may be different from last year.

Bottom line: Whether you’re brand new to the Obamacare exchanges or a returning customer, making a choice by Dec. 15 means you can be covered from the very start of the new year – and with the plan that best suits your needs.

“Don't hesitate to reach out for help,” says Bryan Fisher of Families USA, an advocacy group on health care policy.

He says the choice of insurance isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. One consumer may especially want access to a doctor or specialists who are geographically close, while another may care most about finding the lowest prices. And on price, there’s the need to compare both premiums and deductibles.

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The official Obamacare website, Healthcare.gov, has a useful overview, and Families USA offers a short guide with questions to consider about the enrollment process.

Some other places where people can turn for information include a national ACA hotline (800-318-2596) and state exchange “navigators” who can assist by phone or in person. Nonprofit groups including Enroll America also offer guidance. Some people shop through an insurance broker or directly from a provider like Blue Cross, but you must buy on the Obamacare marketplace to qualify for federal tax subsidies.

Mr. Fisher says that, although the Dec. 15 date will be important for many people, shoppers can make use of the full enrollment period through February. For instance, after starting the new year with one plan, you can always shift into a different one if you decide by Feb. 15.

If you think automatic reenrollment is all you need, make sure you have a letter from your insurance provider confirming that they plan to reenroll you automatically. (Some insurers may not, because they are no longer offering the plan you had or something similar.) And again, you’ll probably want to confirm the plan’s network, pricing, and the tax subsidy you’ll be eligible for, so nothing catches you by surprise.