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Today is your last chance to choose a health plan under Obamacare if you want your coverage to begin on January 1. And in 2016, the penalties for skipping insurance will nearly double. One question is whether the shock from high fines will bring more people into the market. Here's NPR's Allison Kodjak.
ALLISON KODJAK, BYLINE: The new penalties are big. An individual who doesn't buy insurance will owe at least $695 and could end up paying as much as $2,500. The top fine for a family without insurance is nearly $10,000. Last year, lots of people were surprised when they were hit with penalties at tax time, so the Department of Health and Human Services opened a special enrollment period midyear. Kevin Counihan, the CEO of healthcare.gov, says that won't happen again.
KEVIN COUNIHAN: We're not offering that this year so the deadline for enrollment is January 31. That's a solid deadline.
KODJAK: But if you want insurance that kicks in at the beginning of January, you have to enroll today. So insurance navigators, the people who help consumers choose a plan, are busy explaining the fines.
KATIE NICHOL: My name is Katie Nichol. I'm the senior manager of public benefits and insurance navigation at Whitman Walker Health.
KODJAK: Nichol oversees 11 full-time navigators in Washington, D.C. She says many of her clients have no idea just how big the penalties will be next year.
NICHOL: There was a bit of a shock of realizing, wow, if I don't do this, I will likely be responsible for over $600 in penalties.
KODJAK: The penalties are usually still lower than insurance premiums, so Nichol says that she spends time explaining the cost of healthcare.
NICHOL: What is the cost associated to being uninsured? And not just about the penalty, but it's also if you need medical care, if you need prescriptions.
KODJAK: Counihan says that in Massachusetts, which mandated health coverage 10 years ago, penalties had to get pretty high to convince holdouts to buy insurance.
COUNIHAN: We found that when the penalty hit $1,000 that it made a difference.
KODJAK: And research bears this out. A study published in the American Economic Review in March showed that as fines reached a certain level, more people bought insurance. And eventually, that drove premiums down. Now as penalties on the federal market approach that level, Counihan expect to see the same thing happen nationwide.
COUNIHAN: When people get on healthcare.gov or they call the call center, they're going to now look at the equation and start thinking about the penalty and the benefits of having health insurance differently.
KODJAK: He's hoping, at least, because the success of any insurance depends on people who don't think they need it buying it anyway. Allison Kojak, NPR News, Washington.
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