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Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 11:38:25 AM CST

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By Christina Cala/ MEDILL

Counselors offer helpful information among the resources to help people navigate the exchange website and sign up for health insurance. But the face-to-face advice is a key reason why people seek out navigators.

Here’s a guide to appraise the six extra weeks to buy health insurance

by I. Christina Cala
Oct 24, 2013

Uninsured individuals shopping for health care now have more time to shop through the 65 Illinois health insurance plans on the exchange site to find the right plan for them. 

With the extended grace period, you can sign up by March 31 without incurring a penalty. The start of actual coverage if you sign up by that deadline is May 1.

“If you sign up for insurance by the end of March, you will not face a penalty,” according to a spokesperson for the U.S Department of Health and Human Services. “The guidance that the Administration will issue soon will reinforce this.”
Failing to sign up by March 31, however, still means people would face a fine of $95, or one percent of their income, whichever costs more. They would also be locked out of purchasing coverage through the exchanges that would take effect before 2015. 

The Affordable Care Act, adopted by Congress 2010, offers many individuals the first real opportunity for health insurance because of expanded Medicaid options and the provision that makes insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions more affordable. This is the first time many will be able to sign up for insurance coverage.

There is a penalty starting in 2014 under the ACA however, for uninsured individuals who choose to remain uninsured for three consecutive months in one year.

“In other words, you need to have insurance by the end of March to avoid a penalty in 2014,” an official said. “In the Marketplaces, you have to sign up by the 15th of a given month in order for health insurance to start on the first day of the next month.“

There is still a push however, for people to sign up.  

“We are trying to enroll as many people as we possibly can,” said Bill Green, grant manager for United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, one of 44 state grant recipients for in-person counselors aiding people in the health insurance enrollment process.

United Way has roughly 55 state-funded counselors in community organizations and at health fairs helping people find the right plan for them.

“We hope that they enroll sooner rather than later so they have coverage sooner rather than later,” Green said.

The state reinforces this sentiment, with a push for people to enroll by Dec. 15 to receive coverage starting Jan. 1, according to Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Even so, enrollment helpers such as Kate Miller from the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago said the extension is a relief.

“It’s good news for us because it gives us more time to work with people and it gives people more time to review the plans and decide what’s right for them,” Miller said. “All of that takes time. It’s just crazy the complexity that people are needing to understand.”

This is especially important because there have been issues with the federal site, Miller said. Nonetheless the state website has been doing well, according to Claffey.

Since the Illinois exchanges opened earlier this month, more than 125,000 people have used the search tool on the state’s website,, to find the right plan for them. Some 25,000 applications for insurance under the expanded Medicaid program for low-income applicants are also being processed.

“We hope the issues on the federal site will be ironed out before Dec. 15 but Get Covered Illinois is up and running and functioning smoothly,” Claffey said.