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The sage advice you hear this time of year — beat the holiday rush — could also apply to shopping for coverage on the health insurance exchange.

If you’re looking for coverage through the Affordable Care Act, you have until Dec. 15 to sign up for a plan that takes effect Jan. 1, 2015. And if you want coverage at all during 2015 through the exchange, the deadline is Feb. 15. That’s half the time the federal government allotted for the Annual Enrollment Period during the exchange’s first year.

With more choices¬†and less time, North Carolinians shouldn’t put off ACA health plan shopping until the last minute, says Gary Bolt, vice president of individual and small group sales at BCBSNC.

“The enrollment period is only three months long, so it’s key for North Carolinians to know the deadlines for coverage, understand their personal health care needs and research the plan that is best for them and their family,” he says.

Three in N.C.

This year three insurers are on the North Carolina exchange, up from two last year. And BCBSNC again is offering plans in all 100 North Carolina counties. The company has as many as 35 plan options available, although not all plans are available in all counties.

According to filings with the N.C. Department of Insurance, BCBSNC is offering more plans than the other participating insurers.

To get a taste of your choices, the federal website allows you to look at all plan options in your Zip code before you log in to apply.

For example, a 35-year-old person living in Cabarrus County, earning $40,000 per year and interested only in individual coverage, not family, will find 46 different plans to choose from. Premiums range from $238 a month to $551, not taking into account any federal subsidies. Deductibles have a much broader range — from $100 to $6,300.

Making Choices

It takes time and effort to choose wisely. One thing to consider is whether you or a family member have ongoing or anticipated medical needs for 2015. If so, you’ll want to be sure the doctors and hospitals you already visit are in the network for the plans you’re considering.

ACA plans are required to tell consumers which providers are in the plan’s networks. Be sure to look for the provider directory when shopping. For more information, our recent blog post on in-network and out-of-network choices covers the topic.

When shopping, you might also opt for lower out-of-pocket costs if you plan on using more medical services next year. Which of course means paying higher monthly premiums in most cases.

And it’s important to understand your benefits because they could vary from plan to plan. All ACA plans are required to cover the list of essential health benefits described in the law, but beyond that, there are many choices about covered benefits.

Many health plans are offering resources to help consumers make sense of these types of trade-offs. At BCBSNC, there are multiple ways to learn more:

[Image: Shutterstock]

About Kyle Marshall

Kyle Marshall, a senior communications specialist at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, writes about the health care industry and provides communications counsel and support to the company's executive team.

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