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Mellody is President of Ariel investments, a Chicago-based money management firm that serves individual investors and retirement plans through its no-load mutual funds and separate accounts. Additionally, she is a regular financial contributor and analyst for CBS News.

TOM: Good morning, Mellody. 

MELLODY: Good morning, Tom!

TOM: What do you have on tap for us today?

MELLODY: Today, we are talking about the affordable care act’s open enrollment period. As i am sure you know, this is the second open enrollment under the Act, and it began on Saturday, November 15. This past year, eight million people signed up for insurance in the health insurance marketplace, but it is still estimated that there are 30 million people in the United States without insurance, so i want to make sure that people know about the enrollment period so they can get access to health care coverage under the ACA. After all, health insurance is one of the most important components of financial health, as it protects you from financial disaster in the event of an accident or illness. 

TOM: This is very important. First of all, what do we need to know about the period itself?

MELLODY: The open enrollment period for 2015 coverage is November 15, 2014 to February 15, 2015, so it is a pretty large period of time. This allows you to take your time and really learn about what coverage is right for you. If you haven’t enrolled in coverage by then, you generally can’t buy marketplace health coverage for 2015 until the next open enrollment period for coverage the following year, unless you have major life changes, such as having a child or losing your job. If you signed up for coverage for 2014, your coverage will conclude on December 31, 2014. In order to continue to have health coverage in 2015, you will simply renew your current health plan or choose a new health plan during the 2015 open enrollment period. And again, the open enrollment period started on Saturday, and will run until February 15, 2015!

TOM: Have there been any changes this year?

MELLODY: There are a few changes, but they likely will not impact individuals negatively. The most significant change this year is the introduction of the small business health options program, which opened on Saturday, in conjunction with the small business tax credits. This means that small businesses with fewer than 50 employees will get tax incentives to cover their workers, which will hopefully expand the number of Americans with access to employer coverage. In terms of individuals, perhaps the most noticeable change will be the improvement of the state and federal websites.

As you may remember, there were numerous hiccups last year, but these have been corrected and you should experience smooth sailing this year. Additionally, the federal exchange website will offer more options to sort through and compare plans. Finally, ‘passive enrollment’ will allow people who enrolled through last year’s open enrollment to do nothing if they want their coverage to roll-over to 2015. On this last item though, it is always a good idea to make sure!

TOM: OK. What areas would encourage our listeners to keep in mind when signing up?

MELLODY: There are really three pieces of advice i have for people who are getting ready to sign up. First, make sure you take time and shop around. Get to know your option. Even if you have your coverage from last year, there might be newer plans that are better for you, or ones that are more affordable. So take a little time and compare what is out there this year, as you might discover that you have choices that weren’t there are year ago. Second, check to see if you qualify for financial assistance or subsidies. If you go to your exchange site, you can enter your income information on see if you are entitled to receive a tax credit toward the cost of your health insurance.

Even if you received support last year, you need to enter your current information to make sure you get the correct amount next year. This is important because if you get too much of a subsidy, you’ll have to repay it when you file your taxes the following year. Finally, make sure you understand your plan, and all of the costs associated with it. Many people only pay attention to the monthly premium they will pay, and skim over the other costs. Specifically, you want to understand a policy’s out-of-pocket costs – including copays, co-insurance and deductibles – before you enroll.

TOM: Great advice! But this seems like a lot of information. Where do we go for help?

MELLODY: Great question! Thankfully, they have this covered too! If you need help, you can work with a local insurance agent or broker, or you can go to to find one of the law’s trained navigators or assistors. If you still need help, call the federal consumer assistance center at 800-318-2596. One of these routes will get you through to people who can help you enroll in a health plan.

TOM: Fantastic! Thanks for walking us through this, Mellody!

MELLODY: You are always welcome, Tom! Everyone need to make sure they get covered to stay healthy, protect you financially, and avoid the fee that you will get hit with if you aren’t covered! Have a great day, Tom!

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