There are seven shopping days left until Christmas. But there are just five days until another important deadline — the last day to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act if you want coverage to start January 1.
After a slow start, activity on the federal website HealthCare.gov has been heavy all month. And with the deadline approaching, some people are getting worried that they won't get signed up in time.
And this being the health care law, it's complicated. There is more than one deadline.
The first, 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.
But you're not actually enrolled in the plan until you pay the first month's premium. The original payment deadline was December 31st. But just today, the insurance industry voluntarily agreed to give people until January 10 to pay that first month's premium. 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, which has had all kinds of problems with its website, is giving people until December 27 to sign up, and until January 15 to pay that first month's premium.
Despite the improvements to HealthCare.gov, some people still say they're having problems signing up. One of the fixes that seem to be helping people who got stuck is 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 start the process over.
And if that doesn't work, both the federal website and most of the states operating their own health exchanges have easily identifiable ways to get help. The toll-free help lines run by the states and the federal exchange are pretty busy right now.
A better bet is to click on links that will help you find live people who can help you in your community. These people are called navigators or assisters or counselors. You can also go to an insurance broker.
On the federal website's home page there's a button that says "find local help"; plug in your zip code and a list will come up. Most state websites have something similar. They can direct you to organizations that are helping people sign up for coverage.
But even with help, there are still some states where things just aren't working very well. Oregon, for example, where the deadline to sign up was actually December 4. The state continues to pay hundreds of temporary workers to process paper applications because its website isn't working.
There's one easy shortcut if you are not eligible for a subsidy to help pay your premiums. You can shop and buy coverage directly from an insurance company or one of many online web brokers, like eHealthInsurance.com or GoHealth.com.
If you don't have a computer, you can go to a local community health center and get help enrolling. Some CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens pharmacies are helping direct people to places they can get help signing up, or they're hosting sign-up events.
And if you've got still more questions, check out NPR's new searchable guide to the Affordable Care Act.