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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
In case you didn't know, there are just seven shopping days left until Christmas. But there's only five days until another important deadline: the last day to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, that's if you want coverage to start January 1st. After a slow start, activity on the federal website, HealthCare.gov, has been busy all month. With the deadline approaching, some people are worried that they've left it until too late.
Never fear, NPR's Julie Rovner joins us now with some tips for you last-minute insurance shoppers, which doesn't sound all that exciting, Julie. But welcome.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Sorry about that.
CORNISH: So Julie, remind us again, what are the deadlines we're talking about?
ROVNER: Well, of course, this being the health law, there are more than one. And there is actually some news to report on this front. The deadline for people in the 36 states where the federal government is running the program is December 23rd. That's the date by which you have to select a plan.
Now, you're not actually enrolled in a plan until you pay your first month's premium. That's very important. That deadline was December 31st. But just today, the insurance industry voluntarily agreed to give people until January 10th to pay that first month's premium. And remember, you pay it directly to your new insurance plan, not to the exchange where you signed up.
A few states running their own exchanges have extended that date even longer. Maryland, for example, which has had all kinds of problems with its website, is giving people until December 27th to sign up, and until January 15th to pay that first month's premium.
CORNISH: OK. And so we're clear, most people have until December 23rd, right?
CORNISH: But meantime, the Obama administration says the federal website, HealthCare.gov, is working better. But some people still say they've been stuck for weeks and can't finish signing up. What can they do?
ROVNER: Well, one of the fixes that got made to the website that seems to be helping a lot of people who got stuck early on in the process is basically a do-over button. If you've started an application but got bogged down somewhere along the line, you can now go in and click on a button marked remove. Then you just literally start the process all over.
CORNISH: All right, what about those who have waited until the last minute and still can't figure things out? Is it too late for them to get help?
ROVNER: No, in most cases it's not. Both the federal website and most of the states operating their own health exchanges have easily identifiable ways to get help. You can, of course, always call toll-free help lines, either the federal government's call center or one run by your state. Those are pretty busy right now with people who've waited till the last minute.
Probably a better bet is to click on links that will help find live people who can help you in your community. These people are called various things, sometimes navigators or assistors or counselors. You can also go to an insurance broker. On the federal website's homepage, there's a button that says find local help, where you just plug in your zip code and a list will pop up. Most state websites have something similar. They can direct you to organizations that are helping people sign up for coverage.
CORNISH: But there are those states where things just aren't working very well?
ROVNER: That's right, there are a couple, Oregon, for example, where the deadline to sign up was actually December 4th. One easy shortcut if you're not eligible for a subsidy to help you pay your premiums, you can actually shop and buy coverage directly from an insurance company or one of many online Web brokers, like eHealthInsurance.com or GoHealth.com. The federal government is still working on helping those outside groups process enrollments for people who are eligible for help paying their premiums. But right now, that's pretty spotty.
CORNISH: And for those of us who do not have a computer, is this all online?
ROVNER: Mostly, but not all. You can pretty much to go any local community health center and get help. Even some pharmacies - CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens - are helping direct people to places they can get help signing up, or they're helping host actual sign-up events. So you can find actual live help in your community.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Julie Rovner. Julie, thank you.
ROVNER: Thank you.
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